image: Alpine Lake Chop, Kathleen Frank
SEVERAL TIMES A year I travel throughout the American Southwest, hiking and photographing vistas for future paintings. I later cull through and edit the images. I liken this part of my process to that of figuring out a puzzle. Life itself is a mystery and maybe we cannot unravel it, but we navigate our way through and find our own meaning through experience. I approach the work of choosing images to paint in that spirit. I scrutinize every photo because any one may be a gem in disguise. What resonates, whether it is a tranquil panorama or an energetic spectacle, is the sense of magnificent unguarded feeling asserting itself. The language I use to convey that aura is shepherded with paint and brush.
I have described land as ‘so far, so deep, so vast’ that it did not seem real. If you look at Grand Canyon From Ooh Aah Point you can see what I mean. I have tried to express it in paint, that soul-stirring or epiphanous experience, but you have to stand on the rim to feel the other-worldliness of the scene. You are an insignificant guest whose footsteps will be soon forgotten. In a Gordon Lightfoot song, part of ‘The Canadian Railroad Trilogy’, he wrote, ‘There was a time in this fair land when the railroads did not run / When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun / Long before the white man and long before the wheel / When the green dark forest was too silent to be real…’ He was describing the world the Hudson River School artists painted, the awe and infinity of the sublime. Lightfoot made it sound like that time had passed by, but much of the west is still as it was hundreds of years ago. In those places – and there are many – we are visitors, and we don’t belong. In paintings like Dead Horse Point and Savage Basin I am trying to express that freedom of the wild land. I am not romanticizing nature. I hope I am revealing it.
In my art practice, every part of the process is a joy, but when I am out exploring and taking photographs there is always a big smile on my face. That is when I get the biggest spiritual connection to nature. The natural world is my church. In this respect I identify with the Transcendentalists. If I am able to share that reverence for our natural world with anyone, that too is wonderful. I am in fact in love with nature and I love her best when she puts on a show. It is the temperament of nature to dress up and have a great blowout time, and then have to shut down and rest for a while. The brilliance and gaiety of the natural world around us is what makes my heart sing. Isn’t that what we are all searching for, each in our own way? This is what I seek to depict in my paintings.
I find it a delightfully daunting adventure to capture this. I do try to catch the light and design in all its strangeness and beauty, to draw out the shadows and highlights – deciding what matters in a scene, which peripheral details are not relevant to the overall essence and atmosphere. It is like blurring your eyes to get a softened view of the whole, rather than urging your eyes to flit from one detail to the next. Each painting creates its own interpretation. I am painting at home in the studio and not at the scene of hikes or long road trips, and the feelings that I may have had at the time are often forgotten, so the details that I choose to emphasize are purely aesthetic. I will boost different colors, crop, reshape, add extra sky or take things out of balance, if that fits the tone of the painting.
Color and pattern are everywhere, but the seeing and interpretation of them are different for each of us. Pattern in nature is primal to me – which fuels my desire to find a glimmer of logic in vastly complicated, confusing and tumbled landscapes. As I said, solving the puzzle, unraveling the mystery. I am enchanted when I identify patterns; it feels as though I am perceiving the intelligence of nature.
One aspect that I love in nature is repetition and multiples. Some of that derives from being a printmaker for years. And I believe it is instinctual in me to favor orderliness among the randomness of our landscape. So my gut reaction when seeing an echoing pattern makes me put on the brakes. I am not seeking this out when scouring vistas on a photo shoot, but will certainly jump at the chance to capture it if I see it. When painting from a selected photograph, I will usually choose to make repeat patterns rather than show every unique bit of landscape.
For each painting, I select what to trim and what to emphasize so the sense of pattern flows through the work. Canyon Watcher has several sections, each with its own pattern. The painting has a circular flow from the lower right orange on around to the top, and down to the watcher on the edge of the canyon. It is so dense that you never get to see the canyon floor. A great deal of detail is left out so that the emphasis is on the patterns, with the help of the color. Splendid La Cienega practically painted itself with its fall cottonwood trees and aspens. The mountains were certainly blueish with the trees, mountains and clouds each creating patterns of their own.
Color is what brings exhilaration to an image. While the colors in a photograph will guide my color choices to a degree, the active process of choosing hues, highlights and vibrancies, or whether to exaggerate or mute a color, is determined by what I want to accentuate.
That is why my oil paintings begin with a saturated red/orange background. The ground will show through, and what could be more joyful than red? It is the color of Swedish Dala horses, Chinese luck and the tropical setting sun. At the very least that brilliance is poking out around the edges. After applying the red, I grid my canvas and draw in the landscape with chalk. This is overlaid with the main imagery, applied with distinct brushstrokes of brilliant color. Hints of the red background peek through like a woodcut, creating subtle impact without drawing attention away from the primary subjects.
I think a lot about contrast and opposites. The fall season is the most striking time of year in nature colorwise; that is why it is so much fun for me as a painter. Nature automatically pits reds and oranges against greens and purples. Here in the Southwest, the rock and soil contrast well with the deep-green cedars and blue-green pinon, as seen in Trail To The Fishing Hole and Wild West Summer. It takes an odd combination of Indian yellow, rose and brown pink added to white to capture our rocks and soil. In California, the Sierra Nevada Mountains have a palette of grey to blue-grey rock with a totally different character, as seen in Mt. Whitney Long View.
Perspective in a painting is another consideration for me. I enjoy painting scenes that are from a towering viewpoint. I think the comfort of the high vantage point is hardwired into our brains. It brings a feeling of safety. It is a protective position of observation where you can see all below you. It gives you a feeling of ownership. You are the voyeur. I appreciate the swooping blanket of land below, especially if I am on one hilltop looking across to another. I am sensitive to the scene laid out beneath me, imagining what someone’s home is like way below in a meadow or trying to be fair to the residents of a village in a valley when scrutinizing for details to highlight, details to remove. Some good examples of this are Ouray From Above, The Pass and Down From the Edge of Kitchen Mesa.
For many of my paintings, I can recall the setting, the weather, the time of year when I took the photo from which a painting is derived. The sensory aspects in my paintings – the smell, the heat, the wind, the sound – occur naturally. The natural material qualities that permeate my work are not conscious. The intangible becomes tangible, organically becoming integral to my paintings. In Hogan’s Storm I can smell the ozone of the storm and the fresh rain on the parched grasses. With After The Harvest I can recall the smell of the dried falling leaves and the pungent soil full of dusty, decomposing plant material.
Weather always plays a part in my work. Wild weather is my favorite kind. My husband’s profession was in tropical meteorology, and weather was always a topic in our home. When he was working on his PhD in Fort Collins, Colorado, he told me that when big weather systems appeared both students and professors would run up and down the halls, checking on satellite data and doing whatever else scientists get up to when they are excited. I loved the image, enthusiasm and the thrill they took in it.
I have a large collection of dramatic cloud photos and they are a frequent feature in my work. In Alpine Lake Chop we had been out in our canoe trying to fight our way back to shore in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. In From The Loneliest Road we were watching an afternoon monsoon building on our way back to New Mexico. Mt. Nittany Afternoon shows the glowering clouds forming over our home on the mountain in Pennsylvania. I caught the bad weather/good cloud bug in Colorado and am always on the lookout to get reinfected.
When I am asked about artistic influences, I acknowledge that I had the good fortune to be raised in Northern California by parents who were art lovers and adventurous teachers with summers free to travel. The family went on journeys that spanned the globe, exposing me to a diversity of cultures and artistic styles. My formal art education, as well as my teaching and lecturing in art, were invaluable steps along the way to my ultimate painting career.
If it is true that in loving artists you become influenced by them, then several come to mind. Van Gogh, of course, and Matisse and Bonnard, especially their interiors. I also fell in love with the work of Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup, who was influenced by a visiting show of paintings by the Canadian Seven. They are all favorites, especially Tom Thomson and the honorary eighth, Emily Carr. Closer to home are the early Taos Society of Artists and the Santa Fe Art Colony, with painters like Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings, and the beloved printmaker Gustave Baumann. How I wish I had been around here a hundred years ago when it was all getting started…
When I think of influences what also comes to mind are the books my mother collected. She was constantly buying art books and biographies of artists. She was a voracious reader. I had access to it all and took advantage of it. I do not remember many titles, but one was Lust for Life about Van Gogh. Most of the books I read were about artists in Montmartre, like Toulouse-Lautrec and Utrillo and his mother Suzanne Valadon. I remember that I thought the life of an artist was not an easy one, but it was the one I dreamed of living.
And here I am, living the dream. Even now, staying close to home instead of traveling and taking photographs, I hike in full view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains while finding beauty in the small crevices in the arroyos, the meandering water trails, the undercut banks exposing the roots of trees, and the thriving chamisa trying to hold its grip on the soil. It feeds me spiritually and adds bliss to my paintings.
MARCH 2021 Kathleen Frank MONK