Some Canadian Sketching Grounds -
[Lake of the Woods]
On the prairies the entire professional class summers at "The Lake", which is one of the most beautiful of God's creations. It is no lake in particular. Every man is prepared to assert the superior beauty of his own. They build houses of sufficient comfort close to the water's edge, with wide verandahs to diminish the effect of the heat, and open fireplaces within to augment it. A boat-house is the complement of each dwelling - an imposing structure, may be, with bed-room and a balcony above, or the term may be largely rhetorical, applied only to a crazy contraption of planks that serves as a landing, a diving platform, or a refuge for the lone canoe.
Paul Kane, the artist, traversed the prairies, climbed the Rocky Mountains, and roved around Vancouver Island, sketching all the way. In the interesting record of his travels, "Wanderings of an Artist", he noted the beauty spots, and gave terse descriptions of the incidental lay of the land. Entering the Red River, he worte, "The country here is not very beautiful, a dead-level plain with very little timber." But leaving Winnipeg, after an exciting buffalo hunt, he cam to "a beautiful plain convered with innumerable small roses." He liked grandeur in scenery, and so was not moved to proclaim the shy charm of the Lake of the Woods, beyond stating that he and his party camped for the night on one of the "beautiful rocky islands", with which this lake is littered.
Our cottage at Lake of the Woods is built upon a rock, a rounded mass of granite jutting out into the lake, and bare of vegetation save for a grove of young jack-pines and a wild cherry tree or two. The verandah faces the sunrise, the sunset, and the northern sky, and the back-door open on the forest. There is a miniature cove with a sandy bottom, and a ramshackle boat-house beside it. We spent the summer months here, and each night were lulled to sleep by the soothing night cadences of the waters and the woods.
The village is tow miles away over the water, but there are other cottages within call, and numerous islands in the bay. Every day brings new adventures, whether we set out in the canoe on a short excursion, or in the launch for a long one. the map pinned on the wall is a tantalizing document, as most maps are, and if there is any sense in nomenclature, the adjacent lakes and the streams spread out upon it are alluring to the last degree. One canoe route leads from Clearwater Bay through Granite Lake, the Lake of Two Mountains, Moss, Bear Mountain, Crow, Duck and Rush Lakes, back to the starting point. Desirable places: who would not wish to see them?
More than one landscape painter has confessed that the lake is uninteresting. It is true that the country around is distressingly flat, almost as flat as the water, though on a higher plane. Yet beauty is everywhere apparent. The lake does possess a wealth of interesting detail that appeals with an intimacy which makes every object a possible shrine of beauty. There are trees -
The jack-pine, though a shapeless thing, disposing its drooping branches in grotesque but graceful curves.
The birch, whose opalescent bole reflects the colours of surrounding things.
The poplar, with twisted branching, delightfully capricious, and dancing leaves - a medley of dark green discs, spinning golden guineas, oval mirrors the colour of the sky, and, when the light shines though, instead of upon or athwart them, golden green.
The pines with wheel-shaped branches of dark-green needles making a splendid foil for the rest.
There is the water-rivers and rapids, modest falls, gently rippling water whose elusive forms are difficult to follow. I know a dream river, created for canoes and landscape painters. Trees overshadow it, and water-lilies bloom below its banks. It is clear and deep and narrow. Now wind disturbs its serenity. All the way up one hears the rising music of its falls, and eventually one's eyes are blessed by the sight of them.
There are the islands, and there is the open sky, which is more beautiful than the dweller in the mountains imagines.
Many people have remarked that my paintings display a fondness for tangled foregrounds, screens of foliage, and particularly for pendulous branches. They say, it looks Japanese. Experience at the lake, however, might teach them that such are typical of the wild Canadian woods; that vegetation obscured the view nearly everywhere, and that the tangle of growth is so thick that often an axe is needed to cut a way through. If they have kept to the beaten path, then they probably respect convention in art as well as in life.
It does not follow, of course, that because this interwoven growth is there it must be painted, but it is often of great beauty in pattern. Who has seen and has not admired Tom Thomson's Northern River? There are occasional open views, but more often than not the beholder sits under an umbrageous tree to see and digest them. From that position the same thing occurs all over again - a branch cutting obtrusively across the field of vision.
It is justly stated that God abhorred exact reproduction in His scheme of creation. It is true that no tow leaves are alike. The element of deviation from absolute perfection endows every object and every living thing with an individuality that claims attention. If the deviation is slight, we have beauty, if considerable, deformity. "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" said Bacon.
The monotony of outlook at the lake where every island seems the same deceives only the casual observer. It falls on the painter of unusual, dramatic or cataclysmic effects; it even wearies the average sketcher, until he has adjusted his perception to its restrictions. He grows tired of portraying trees, rocks, and rippling water, in perpetual sunshine; hi is limited sadly in the possible variations of his themes. Moreover, he is mostly forced to remain at the water-lever. In spite of their variety in detail, his pictures bear a family resemblance. He hesitates to bring too numerous a progeny. It has been done, of course. Many a painter has repeated one profitable theme for a lifetime, like a bird with one note, but in the Hades they will inhabit finally, they will paint interminable haystacks, or whatever they affected in life, while Sisyphus rolls his rock, and Tantalus continues his abortive efforts to appease his hunger and assuage his thirst.
On first acquaintance with the lake the artist starts with a conventional landscape, with his horizon a third of the way up or down the panel, a tree in full stature about a third of the way across, reflected in the water, and a foreground of rock and vegetation. His next sketch differs to the extent of two trees instead of one. By and bye he moves his horizon, later he leaves it out altogether. He learns to amputate his trees, showing perhaps only their crowns, with flying clouds behind, or only the roots sprawling grotesquely in a litter of brown pine-needles.
Diaz first had the courage to paint truncated trees. His first effort was regarded as quite a joke. He would ask visitors if they had seen his latest stem.
Going one better than Diaz in the matter of trees, the artist in desperation, inverts them, that is he paints their reflections in the lake, with only a strip of the shore showing in the composition. meanwhile he has done them from above and below.
Then he yearns for something new. The water attracts him, not as a vehicle for suicide, but as a spectacle with decided pictorial possibilities, never still, never the same, reflecting something in every state, and moving rhythmically.
On open water the reflections of the sky on
the nearer ripples are a fascinating study. Sometimes clouds appear
upon it, as a multitude of small ovals, enveloping others of different
colour or tone, in form much resembling the concentricities of
a cut agate. They appear and vanish in a flash, and dance with
an abandon that inspires all beholders. There is the sheen of
the sun on the ripples - countless images of the sun that dazzle
and glitter - with a blinding brilliance impossible to reproduce
with pigments. There is a valorous attempt in the Chicago gallery.
the artist managed very nicely by painting each dazzle in the
three primary colours, which, in theory, produce white light when
mixed. They do in a laboratory but not on canvas or paper. He
obtained a little glitter, but not much.
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