Eye and Hand
Practical Art for Paddlers —
By Tamia Nelson
March 2, 2010
Eye and hand came first. Years before I acquired a camera — and decades before I became a digital girl — I had already begun to draw. My first sketches were crude representations of horses, cows, and cowboys. I drew the cows and horses from life, but my knowledge of cowboys came only from television. As time passed and my interest in TV westerns waned, I started to look for other models, drawing the hands and faces of any classmate I could persuade to pose. I even sketched the road‑killed animals I encountered on my walks, smuggling some of the fresher specimens into my bedroom so I could make detailed anatomical drawings. And while my efforts didn't bear comparison with Vesalius or Leonardo or even Beatrix Potter, the unfortunate subjects made much better sitters than my classmates. The dead animals didn't fidget, for one thing, and they never asked for a share of my lunchtime candy bar. My mother was not amused by her eldest daughter's amateur necropsies, however. When she discovered my bedroom studio‑cum‑mortuary, she insisted I move it to the unheated back porch without delay. I did.
Later, when I entered high school, everything changed. I came under the spell of film, and years passed before I again put pen or pencil to paper for any purpose but writing. This long photographic idyll came to an abrupt end, however. I lost my camera, my lenses, and all of my slides (save only a couple of rolls of film at the lab) in a Christmas Eve fire, along with nearly everything else I owned. I recovered my bike and a scorched Sierra Club cup, but that was all. What savings I had were quickly exhausted in replacing my clothes. There was nothing left over for a new camera. So I was back where I'd started. Reluctantly, I picked up a pencil again. It was hard going. Or at least it was until I discovered watercolor painting. The local library contained an unexpected treasure: a collection of facsimile editions of early explorers' published journals, illustrated with engravings made from sketches and watercolors done in the field, many of them exhibiting surpassing detail and delicacy. I was captivated. I no longer saw pencil, pen, and paint as second‑best alternatives to film. They became tools for discovery.
Happily, the time arrived when I could replace the Nikon SLR I'd lost in the fire, and its successor — an Olympus OM‑1n with three wonderfully sharp Zuiko lenses — proved every bit as good. Still, my rapture was somewhat modified. Despite having an excellent camera, I now found photography both costly and frustrating. More often than not, the slides that came back from the lab failed to capture the scene lodged in my mind's eye. I'd been spoiled by the freedom and control I enjoyed while drawing and painting. The result was predictable. Though I used a camera regularly in my work as a geologist and archaeologist, pen and paint were now my tools of choice outside of working hours. The coming of age of digital technology muddied the waters somewhat, of course, simultaneously reducing the cost of taking photos and freeing me from my dependence on anonymous technicians in distant labs. And make no mistake, this was welcome news, indeed. Unlike many photographers, I shed few tears at the prospect of the end of the Age of Film. In embracing the new technology I figured I'd finally realized photography's full potential. But did I then abandon paint and pen forever? I did not. Even now…
Eye and Hand Come First
How can this be? How can drawing or painting challenge photography as a documentary tool in our digital age? The answer lies in an incontrovertible fact: No medium is unbiased, for the simple reason that the observer, whether photographer or sketchbook artist or casual kibitzer, is an essential link in the business of communicating any image that has been fixed in tangible form. That image must be seen before it can be understood, and the process of seeing is necessarily subjective. If you wish to make a truthful record of a scene, therefore, whether it's a picnic on a beach or a single critical instant in a downriver race, you must also accept that there are as many truths as there are observers. The upshot? Your truth is only one among a multitude. And then there's a further item of unwelcome news: All cameras lie. It's not just a matter of image quality. It's the inescapable consequence of physical law, the inherent limitations of optics and electronics. The most important part of a picture is often the part that's out of the frame. Moreover, the very same digital technology that liberated photographers from the tyranny of the lab has a downside. Darkroom tools for image manipulation, tools that only a handful of pros could once afford (and even fewer understood), are now available to everyone at a price that almost anybody can pay. Altering images — to entertain, to persuade, or to deceive — has never been easier or cheaper. In fact, it's become a popular art form.
Then again, cameras are very convenient. Of that, at least, there's no doubt. Digital point‑and‑shoot cameras live up to their name. They do nearly everything for you but aim and press the shutter release. This is both good and bad. Good, because you miss fewer once‑in‑a‑lifetime shots. Bad, because it's now easier than ever to shoot without first seeing — or more accurately, without first observing — your subject. Do you see the point I'm trying to make here? No? OK. I've written about this before, and rather than retell the story I told then in different words, I'll just repeat it:
When Colin Fletcher smashed his only camera, far down a trail in the depths of the Grand Canyon, he cursed his luck. After all, he was walking through country he'd probably never visit again. Before long, however, his mood had changed. He discovered that he'd escaped from the "tyranny" of photography. "Instead of stopping briefly to photograph and forget," he later wrote, "I stood and stared, fixing truer images on the emulsion of memory."
The "emulsion of memory"… What a delightful turn of phrase that is! And it's accurate, too. Whatever tool you use to capture a scene, the definitive image is fixed only in the emulsion of memory. And that's where…
Drawing and Painting Enter the Picture
Canoeists and kayakers are observers, first and last. Seeing just isn't enough. You don't have to be a bird‑watcher or landscape artist as well as a paddler for this to be true, and you certainly don't have to be a middle‑aged plodder. The hotshot twenty‑something creeker bets his life on his powers of observation. He can't afford to lose the silver thread of safety in the chaos of conflicting currents. Of course, you needn't be the riparian equivalent of a free climber to appreciate the need for careful observation. Just ask any day‑tripper who's tangled with a toppled tree after she misjudged the sweep of the water round a bend on a placid river. If you paddle anywhere, no matter how temperate and forgiving the waterway, observation is key. But no paddler is a born observer. We all have to learn the art.
And there are no better tools for this than pencil, pen, and paint. You can't point and shoot with a pen in your hand, after all. You have to study your subject closely and immerse yourself in its complexity. Only then can you hope to tease out the essential elements, let alone capture the whole truth of what you see. It's a skill akin to the art of dissection, though the observer‑artist has no need of a sharp knife. A sharp mind is the most important instrument.
Sketching and painting offer other rewards, too. As any woodworker or fly‑tyer will tell you, there's something enormously refreshing in giving yourself up wholly to a demanding manual task — at least there is when the task is undertaken voluntarily and doesn't leave you exhausted. (I've yet to hear of anyone who's gone into raptures over doing the weekly laundry, I admit, though in the years when Farwell washed all our clothes out‑of‑doors with a plunger and a bucket, he claimed he enjoyed the exercise. The chipmunks and jays certainly found the spectacle entertaining.) That said, the learning curve can be steep. But the same thing is true of woodworking and fly‑tying, isn't it? It took me several years to master the art of tying classic salmon flies. Furthermore, the learning curve is just that — a chance to learn. Your early missteps and blunders aren't failures. They're opportunities. That isn't mere rhetoric. It's fact. You can learn more from a single botched sketch than you can from ten drawings in which everything fell effortlessly into place.
This much is clear, then: Drawing and painting need never take a back seat to photography. There are even areas of unquestioned advantage. For example, you can sketch a scene retrospectively. That is, you can draw on the emulsion of memory to produce a sketch or painting after the fact. Try doing that with your camera. Not convinced? Fair enough. Let's look at a few examples. Say that you're approaching the end of a long portage, with a hundred pounds of canoe weighing you down, spiritually as well as physically. Then you round the final bend in the trail and spot a river otter, sleek and satisfied, poised on a rock at the water's edge. You roll the canoe off your shoulders as quietly as you can, but when you straighten up all you can see of the otter is a fast‑expanding ring of ripples. And by the time you've fished your camera out of your pocket, even the ripples are gone… Or say you're paddling in a pounding, soaking downpour when you catch sight of a moose and her calf in a weedy bay. The moose doesn't seem in any hurry to leave, but this is small comfort. Your camera is locked away in an ammo can, protected from the deluge but hardly at your fingertips. Still, you do your best. You carefully ease open the latch on the can. Despite your efforts, however, there's a muffled snap, and when you look up, both mother and child have vanished into the forest.
Or maybe you've just wakened. The sun's red globe rests on the eastern horizon, and from a low branch not ten feet from the open door of your tent a great horned owl is peering down at you. Moving as quickly and as noiselessly as possible, you snatch up your knapsack and extract your camera. But it's all for nought. In the seconds it's taken you to rummage through the knapsack, the great bird has glided away on silent wings.
There you have it: three once‑in‑a‑lifetime photos. Three lost opportunities. Does this sound familiar? I'll bet it does. Every paddler has known at least one such disappointment. But the story doesn't have to end there. You've missed the shot, but the image is fixed in the emulsion of your memory. All you have to do in order to capture it forever is to put pen or paintbrush to paper. Your journal can be as true a record of what you experienced as any digital file.
Nor is this the only instance when the old tools trump the new. Colors are notoriously difficult to get right. The digital image never seems to equal the imagined glory of a scene. How many times have you been disappointed at the failure of your camera to capture the delicate spectral hues of a rainbow, the smoldering intensity of an autumn hillside, or the brooding chiaroscuro of a winter sky? Of course, you can tweak brightness, balance, and intensity in the digital darkroom, but even then the result is often less than satisfactory. What's the remedy? Once again, let the emulsion of memory be your guide. Try mixing colors on paper instead of toggling bits on your computer. It's not cutting‑edge technology, but you'd be surprised at how close you can come. Rembrandt, Titian, and Turner knew a thing or two about light and color, and there's no reason why you can't learn from their example.
This brings me to my final point: It needn't be a case of either‑or. Camera and sketchbook are complements, not substitutes. Painters and illustrators have worked from photographs since before the time of Frederic Remington, and photographers have often gone to school on the work of the old masters. Why shouldn't you follow in their wake? Why not, indeed. What's that? You say you're not "artistic"? Really? How do you know? And are you sure? A few bad days in art class in junior high doesn't necessarily mean that you can't learn to handle a pen or paintbrush. In fact, the rudiments of sketching and painting are surprisingly easy to acquire, and in subsequent articles in this series, I'll show you how. The bottom line? It's no harder to wield a pencil than a paddle. So what's stopping you now?
Nothing, I hope.
Long before cameras found their way into every paddler's duffle, explorers and scientists were making records of what they saw, using only pencils, pens, and paint. Of course, that was then. This is now. But is it inevitable that these practical arts, once the common competencies of backcountry travelers, are destined to be lost forever in the digital age? I don't think so. After all, the necessary tools are light in weight, easy to carry, and cheap to purchase — and you won't have to buy any batteries. Ever. That's reassuring, of course, but will you need anything else? Yes. A reasonably steady hand and an unclouded eye. And what's the reward? This is the best news of all. Once you've mastered the arts of sketching and painting, you'll never lack the means to give permanent form to any image fixed in the emulsion of memory. Cameras are wonderful things, to be sure, but they can't promise that, can they? Even today, eye and hand come first.
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