The first time I drove to the Bighorn River I wanted to see the land that was the background for the infamous battle; I was not prepared for the wide expanse and beauty of the landscape. I made a few drawings in my sketchbook and took notes about that sacred area and the unexpected sadness I felt.
I made that drive regularly in the early 2000s as a mentor for a youth fly-fishing program based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Having started my own program in western New York, I was aware of the challenges of working with a large group of high school students and their parents. The Bighorn was one of our stops on our 10-day tour of Montana rivers. The Bighorn was popular with the mentors and students. They were mesmerized by the large brown and rainbow trout that were easily seen within casting distance. But varied stream currents made a drag-free presentation difficult, and identifying correct flies for that moment also complicated the situation. After several discussions with local guides and on-the-water experiments, we found ways to solve those issues while discovering that a fluorescent pink sow bug was the most consistent fly. It was not unusual to find mentors and students tying these brightly colored gems amid adolescent chatter and laughter, under the pale fluorescent lights of Cottonwood Camp.
One of the Bighorn’s most interesting aspects were the pods of fish that would congregate at our feet as we crossed long stretches of the river. The long, slender shapes seemed to be feasting on the insects released when we stepped on the bottom. I would reach down with my waterproof film camera and photograph the compositions I envisioned in my mind. This practice occurred before waterproof digital cameras were widely available. I couldn’t even review the imagery immediately after the snapshot. Consequently, I took dozens of photos and pasted them together, in hopes of composing one good image to use as reference for a painting. The prints were always disappointing, but between the mental and written notes, I had enough reference points to create the foundation for a painting—the shadows, shapes, colors, and the streambed.
When envisioning the finished painting, I knew I wanted to capture the color as it appeared underwater, the light of that bright day falling on the fish and grass at my feet. I wanted the composition to bring the viewer down to the fish. I looked through all of the photographs, created my composition and formulated the shadows so that the fish seemed as though they were in the same column of water with varied tail movements. Some would be right next to the viewer, while others would be scattered in the middle ground and in the distance. Controlling the color and light is critical to all of my paintings. The brightest part of the painting—the focal point—falls on the head of the trout in the middle. Everything else gets slightly darker and duller as it moves away from that point. By doing so, there is less distraction caused by similar highlights in the composition.
The painting is telling a story and creating a mood. I wanted one voice from one light source. If more than one bright highlight appeared in the composition, more than one voice would be telling the story. I believe, subconsciously, that this would distract from and diminish the connection between the viewer and the fish. I want the experience to feel as though the painting is whispering to the viewer. I want the work to reflect the calmness that I feel when I’m in this environment. There is a sense of silence in the spirituality of the moment.
That calm is also reflected in the position of the bodies. The tails seem to be working just enough to keep the fish steady in the current. If their bodies were contorted, an entirely different mood would appear. The brushwork, although gestural and distinct, is also applied in a calm manner to support this feeling. The blades of grass are painted in a patient and informed manner. While there is a lot of information in the painting, it was also important to depict that information with intricate brushwork to create an interesting surface, so the painting continues to be compelling even when seen up-close.