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Happy Are the Painters

Capturing the Moment Without a Camera

By Tamia Nelson

More than twenty years ago, a Christmas Eve fire destroyed the apartment house in which Farwell and I made our first home. Happily, we were away visiting with family at the time, but we didn't escape unscathed. Except for our aging Volkswagen Beetle and the clothes on our backs, the fire consumed everything we owned.

This blow fell hard on us. We had no insurance, for one thing. Still, although we missed our tent and sleeping bags, our climbing gear, and our books, the two losses I felt most keenly were my treasured Nikon camera and my lifetime's accumulation of photographic slides and prints.

It had been a large collection. From the time I was given my first camera at the age of ten, I'd wanted to be a professional photographer. On that terrible Christmas Day, as Farwell and I raked through the still-smoldering rubble for hours, finding only a single, discolored Sierra Club cup for our trouble, I realized just how distant that dream had now become.

Nor was this my only regret. My photographs had become my memory. They were my only tangible remembrance of friends who had gone from my life, of wild birds seen only once, of mountain tarns and river valleys that I would probably never return to again. In time, I knew, I could replace my camera. But the recorded scenes from my past life were lost forever.

Yet, when I scraped together enough money to buy a new camera some years later, I found that much of my enthusiasm for photography had gone. In the long interval between cameras, I'd rediscovered something that I'd lost in childhood. I'd learned to draw again.

As a child, I was seldom without a pencil in my hand. From my earliest days onward, I'd felt a compulsion to try to capture the passing moment, to reduce it to my possession and to make it mine forever. So, armed only with pencil stubs and cast-off scraps of paper, I'd stalked my prey—that fleeting frontier of the present instant—with as much determination as any other hunter.

Once I had a camera, however, I put all this behind me. The camera was so easy to use, and the results were so ... well ... true to life. There was a sort of reassuring ritual about photography, too. After picking up my newly-developed prints at the local drug-store, I'd unwrap them from their protective envelope with all the ceremony I usually reserved for opening packages on Christmas morning. And the pictures themselves? Well, I was no Ansel Adams, to be sure, but my pictures were marvelous just the same—and nothing at all like my pencil sketches, with their awkward proportions and uncertain perspective.

Photography was easy. It was fun. And it captured each passing moment with absolute accuracy. In short, I was well and truly hooked. I'd finished with pencil and paper forever, I thought.

And so things remained, until one Christmas brought, not a happy surprise, but a package of ashes and tears.

The following months were hard. Slowly, one thing at a time, Farwell and I replaced the most important of our lost possessions. Long before I'd saved up enough money to replace my camera, however, the itch to capture the moment returned. Photography was out of the question. In desperation, I turned back to pencil and paper. At first, I did so grudgingly, even resentfully. I cursed my bad luck and damned my clumsy, unresponsive fingers. Images that I could have fixed in an instant with my camera now took me long minutes—sometimes long hours—to record. And the results never satisfied me. They looked nothing like photographs, in fact. This was a source of endless disappointment to me.

Still, I struggled on. The itch was just too strong to resist. I mastered proportion and perspective. I began to experiment, first with technical pens and then with watercolor paints, learning how to reproduce the textures of everything from sandstone to surf with nothing more than variable densities of dots and washes of pigment. And slowly, ever so slowly, I rediscovered one more thing that I'd lost when I got my first camera. I rediscovered the art of seeing.

A photographer's view of the world is necessarily constrained. At the critical instant, the final moment just before she presses the shutter, her world is limited to what she can see in her view-finder. And, while photographers share many of the concerns of other artists—composition, lighting and color, to name only three—their interest in these is perhaps more mechanical than personal. Even with my fifteen-year-old Olympus OM-1 the process is all but automatic. Choose the lens, frame the shot, set aperture and exposure. Then squeeze the shutter. The camera does the rest. Today's micro-processor-controlled cameras make even fewer demands on the photographer, of course.

Now look at another artist, trying to capture an image of something so commonplace as a chipmunk, with no tool but a pencil. The little animal is in constant motion. The artist has no fast shutter to freeze the action, no long lens to help her "frame the shot." She can only follow her subject with her eyes, trying to capture the essentials of form, movement and texture on her mind's emulsion. She sketches furiously, each sketch a fragment of the final composition. One thumbnail sketch shows the wonderfully adept paw, another the texture of hair on the chipmunk's flank, another an alert, erect stance seen only in silhouette. And, before the artist has time to make more than two or three such sketches, her subject vanishes from view, diving down a previously unseen and unsuspected hole under a mossy stone.

The artist now sets to work. She has no resources but a handful of tiny, rough sketches and her memory. From these she must reproduce the image of a vital and active animal—an image which somehow conveys not only the chipmunk's form, but also its character and personality.

More often than not, of course, the artist will fail—at least when I'm the artist, she will! But whether or not I succeed in capturing the moment on paper, I'm left with something more: an enduring memory. The scene I've sketched—chipmunk, mossy stone, fern, and forest fringe—is now part of me. No longer am I a passive observer, a "framer-of-shots." Instead, I'm a participant in a conversation with the landscape and its inhabitants. The moment I sought to capture is now mine for so long as there is a "me" to recall it.

No, I haven't sold my camera. In fact, I own three, not counting the disposable, waterproof cameras Farwell and I keep in our life jackets, "just in case." And I've taken literally thousands of shots in the course of my work as a geoarchaeologist.

When I'm paddling for pleasure, though, and when—as often happens—I feel the urge to capture the moment, I no longer reach for a camera. I simply pull out my sketchpad, take pencil in hand, and begin. And, as I draw what I see before me, trying to fix the scene firmly in my memory, I'm often reminded of the words of another amateur artist, a gentleman painter, who wrote more than fifty years ago about his own great awakening:

One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object in it, one never noticed before.... And I had lived for over forty years without ever noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, "What a lot of people!" I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint.... The whole world is open with all its treasures. The simplest objects have their beauty.

The gentleman painter who wrote this was Winston S. Churchill. I don't think he ever sat in a canoe in his life, but he sits beside me every time I pick up a pencil, pen or brush and look about me with an inquiring eye.

Perhaps you'll join us someday. I don't think you'll regret it. "Happy are the painters," Churchill also wrote, "for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day."

That's true, I find. There's a lot to be said for learning to see.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
















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