You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Whatever you think of Mary Oliver – popular poets are often criticised simply because they are popular – there are lines in this poem that can’t be dismissed as mere sentiment. I didn’t see any wild geese this holiday as they have all migrated, but there are still moments in this landscape that conjure the lines ‘the world offers itself to your imagination…. harsh and exciting — /over and over announcing your place/in the family of things’.
We walk around with our cameras, snapping picturesque views and thinking we have captured the spirit of the places we visit; then we get home and the photos just look like pale imitations of the pictures we see in tourist glossy brochures, failing to reflect what we really felt when we stood in those landscapes. It’s also hard to paint pictures from these photos, as there’s too much information, we are seeing irrelevant details in the photos that we never saw when we were there: we can’t smell, feel or hear the atmosphere, and the colours seem all wrong, the light is too bright or the shadows too dark.
I have been using a camera with two high quality lenses, but I’ve been making many of my watercolour sketches using fuzzy iPhone pictures, working from memory, or from pencil sketches. The picture above the poem – Revelstoke viewed from Mt Begbie Brewery – was painted with the aid of a very poor iPhone photo taken as the light was fading. The bald eagle below was painted using two photos that we took ourselves, one with a top of the range zoom lens and the other a slightly out of focus one taken with a shorter zoom lens. The second photo was more useful than the first, as it stopped me fussing over the detail.
We spent a few days last week in Banff and Lake Louise, and I took dozens of photos of sublime and glorious mountains, during the journey and at different locations. But the most significant moments of this trip were the encounters with wildlife, often fleeting, and sometimes purely imaginative: we spotted the tracks of a jack rabbit, tracked a lone coyote crossing a frozen lake with the long lens, and stalked squirrels and deer in the woods. I managed a couple of pencil sketches looking through hotel and restaurant windows, but I resolved to turn my experience into something more substantial after we returned to Revelstoke. Here are some of the results:
We saw a mule deer rush past us just below the Juniper hotel and restaurant, where we’d just had the most spectacular Canadian breakfast. I only caught its rear end with my camera, so felt compelled to go to Google to get more detailed reference for its head and antlers. But I didn’t want my painting to be too realistic, so I created a semi abstract forest, using sepia and indigo with a pale wash of cadmium yellow and orange to signify the sunshine filtering through the trees.
I think perhaps a deer caught leaping in mid air by the camera is a bit strange when transferred to a painting, and the composition isn’t quite right – the deer is too central – but I like what the trees are doing.
I think I did a bit better with this concept: I began with a drawing from my hotel window. The magpies were flitting past, too fast for me to see in detail so I just scribbled shapes in the sky to give me an idea of their scale against the mountains. Then I consulted Google to get a better understanding of their wings and tails in flight. I’d taken numerous shots of the view but the only information I used from the photos was the colour of the right hand peak, as it caught the last light of the sinking sun. I also gave the trees more snow than they had that night when I drew them.
All my sketches are very small, less than A4 or in some cases smaller than A5, but I want to do much bigger pictures when I get home, to do justice to the landscapes; however, that doesn’t mean I want to cram them with details.
My final picture was done entirely from memory, and I wrote a little haiku to go with it. It complements the first picture, which is a view back towards Revelstoke from the road that leads to Rogers Pass; this time we were returning via the same pass, and the lights of Revelstoke were illuminating a cloud that was rising from the valley.
pale orange cloud
between black mountains
home town lights