After painting subway stations, urban buildings, still-lifes and models at my alma mater, Philadelphia College of Art I returned to Wyoming’s vast and epic landscapes. A certain prejudice and suspicion had crept in regarding beautiful landscapes as too trite and inconsequential. This was partly due to the academic climate of the era, and partly due to my grandmother warning me, “Don’t ever start painting like Conrad Schwiering!” She was a collector of some very good abstract expressionist originals, a resident of a community close to NYC, and an arbiter of fine taste and good breeding. She was also a life-long and perennial “dude” to Jackson Hole and the Tetons, having first come over Teton Pass when she was 11 years old with her mother in 1916.Why the snobbishness toward Schwiering? I understood it then, but I reject it now, having tried to master the same Tetons Schwiering gazed at so lovingly. Schwiering did master the subject in paint, with great joy and delicious brushwork. I wish she had picked up a Schwiering when they were selling for $300!
Since returning to Laramie, (where the Arnolds first landed circa 1870 ) the beautiful landscape won out. The condescending voices of my painting instructors and my grandmother, God love her, diminished. But what could I contribute that was new and untried? The classic Teton views from every turnout were already covered by hundreds of first rate artists. The wide expanse of prairie around Laramie was a challenging and worthy subject and I tried my hand at that with some promising results. But it dawned on me that my frequent forays into the mountains of Wyoming presented an artistic challenge that was not being addressed, particularly the view looking from the summits down, across lower peaks and out onto the plains.
Here was great beauty, vast and epic spaces and narrative all rolled into one. It was an idyllic landscape with few signs of man’s presence and that is something increasingly rare in this world. It is so far removed from the modern angst that was necessary to portray in college in order to be considered real and relevant. But it wasn’t quite the thing that Matisse hoped for in his work, “… to make something as relaxing as a comfortable chair.” The view from the summit is unnerving with its plunging vertigo. It doesn’t have the relaxing, bucolic feel of a winding stream through the trees. Put the mountains in as a backdrop, but let’s not be ‘in’ them, threatened with death by any false move.
So I took on the challenge. The first challenge is to get there… with art supplies. Some of these views require technical climbing gear and climbing partners. To get in position for the dawn and evening light sometimes required bivouacking in marginal spots with little shelter. Carrying everything on your back, including climbing gear, camping gear and food and art supplies required a very light and efficient system. The system and the methods were refined and improved over the years. The skills had to improve as well: the ability to capture fugitive effects in a vast and at times overwhelming landscape in a short amount of time. But these challenges added to the sense of adventure. There was the sense of a pilgrimage, of earning the right to interact with such glorious splendor.
The second challenge was artistic: to capture on a flat surface these vast landscapes with their vast spaces plunging down below and then zooming out across the valley to distant mountains on the horizon. On location on the mountain I might have done as many as a dozen pastels, all pressed between boards and stuffed in my backpack for the trip home. Most of these were 9 x 12 studies of ½ hour or more. Some might be complete and ready to fame. Others were references for larger paintings in the studio, paintings that required photo references as well to have all the information I needed.
Since I was often dealing with rock and snow for a subject it seemed that the morning and evening alpenglow provided the sort of color I need. Lots of oranges where the light hit and dramatic shadows could make up for any lack of color in trees and streams that you would find below. The goal was to make you feel as though you were really there in the landscape. Other climbers and artists I know, (a very small group) use the outlines of the mountains they portray and fill them with lines and colors in an abstract design- oriented style that is very colorful and charming. But it ends up being flat. This is perfect for climbing publications. But I was interested in the actual space being recreated. To do this I used atmospheric perspective, scale of objects like trees, and other devices available to the painter. The design element had to be there in terms of composition, but I was creating the illusion of space.
I found the Tetons to be very good in terms of composition because there are other mountains nearby that provide a larger shape. Otherwise you are simply looking down on little details with no organizing structure. The artist Edward Whymper, the first to climb the Matterhorn, complained of the view from a summit as being too boring for this very reason. In the Tetons I have found exciting compositions from summits because of other nearby summits. Sometimes these summits appear below the horizon line, a reversal of most mountain paintings. But they do break up the space before you, and provide intermediate steps into the valley below.
Working on location provided some of the stylistic element I wanted as well. Working quickly under pressure brings your style out. You can’t afford to be fussy and uptight. This kind of working is what gave the Impressionists their style, their freshness and verve. The very things that brought them criticism as unfinished and ‘impressionistic’ by their contemporaries is what we value most today.