Elenor Glee and TNL (the nice lady) are characters I have created to tell the story of process. They are imaginary. The process is real.
Episode One: January Rocky Mountain National Park
Elenor Glee worked from 11 to three. And sometimes she worked from 3 to we’ll see. Elenor Glee had just been hired by the nice lady who lived in the big house. Today was her first shift and somehow, she knew she was in for an adventure.
Elenor Glee looked in the mirror as she began the day and decided that being a personal assistant was like being a muse. “I am going to keep that nice lady organized” she said to herself as she looked at her hair “but more importantly, I am going to be optimistic.”
Elenor Glee had ordinary brown curls that frizzed in the rain and seemed to need constant attention. Today, she would keep her hair long. At least that’s what she told herself while she studied the possibilities in the mirror. If her hair did not behave she would put it up with twists and swirls then clip off the stray ends too dry to inspire. Elenor Glee liked the challenge. What would her hair do today? She began carefully combing her hair despite the knarlies left behind in the night. She spritzed conditioner over her lock mess and carefully untangled and wondered what people with straight hair did with all their extra time.
Her hair was the reason for her good sense of humor. After all, it was a stand up routine every morning and it played out differently every day. She would make every reasonable attempt but if frustration wrinkled her brow, she put on a hat. She had a lot of hats. With her arms cramping, she twisted the last lock into place and commenced to the closet. A walk just short of a strut, Elenor Glee was comfortable, even in her underwear, proof that super-modeling was between the ears. Elenor Glee stood in front of her closet and contemplated her choice for her first day.
“What does a muse wear?” she thought. Elenor Glee was about as relaxed in snow gear as a hula dancer at a dinner party. Layers were part of the routine in Colorado, in January.
TNL (the nice lady) said they would be outdoors for part of the day.
Elenor Glee dressed and checked her hair in the 3 way mirror. If the back of her head looked good she was ready to meet the day.
Elenor Glee arrived and waited in the kitchen. What would the day, the job bring?
TNL entered the kitchen with a smile on her face and looked up from the map she was carrying. “Come with me!” She folded the map. "We are going to Rocky Mountain National Park!” Elenor Glee collected her warm layers.
The road to Rocky Mountain National Park rolled over gentle foothills and open meadows, now the color of caramel under a clear blue January sky. Silent ranches, regal and stubborn stood with companions of ancient gnarled cottonwoods and weathered wood horse corals. An occasional solitude-loving retirement home reflected the sun in their south facing windows, revealing their hiding spots among the curves of dry grass and ponderosa pines. TNL and Elenor Glee chatted about polite bits and pieces of their lives as they made their way to Estes Park, now a sleepy town, resting through the winter.
At the Estes Park entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, TNL swiped her pass at the gate and the arm of the guardrail lifted. Once inside the park, everything took on a magical quality. No cottages. No gift shops. Just trees older than a lifetime. When a tree fell here, it rested for as long as it took to return it to earth. Pinecones, over beds of fallen needles lined up like a current in the river, showing the way of the wind. Some trees grew branches only on one side, indicating prevailing winds. Snow, bright white remained in waves across the dried grass and silhouetted the shapes of trees, shadows in the cold. The quiet two lane road curved and turned and passed great groves of aspen until they arrived at an open valley, flat as a golf course with a view of granite mountains covered in snow that blew off the tops. Ponderosa covered hills, as massive as a fleet of cruise ships, bordered the mountains before it flattened out into a meadow of caramel colored grass and red stemmed willows that lined a river of ice.
TNL pulled over on the side of the road and turned off the ignition. She looked quietly and intently at the view. A crow caught her eye from beyond the front window. “I want you to document this year in the park.”
Elenor Glee secretly imploded. Her mind raced. How? Why me? Elenor Glee secretly took the job so she could practice typing, but this was more than she imagined. Stalling for composure, Elenor Glee said “Wow! What an interesting idea!”
TNL said nothing but proceeded to layer on warm clothes from the pile of gear in the back seat. Tourists wandered about on the far side of the road taking photos of mule deer in the distance. Another car stopped in the middle of the road and someone held their camera out the side window. Elenor Glee found a pair of gloves and a ridiculous looking hat she imagined was meant for Elmer Fudd. TNL held out her hand with her keys jangling as if to indicate that Elenor Glee was absolutely in charge of not loosing the keys. “Keys.” TNL handed them to Elenor Glee.
Elenor Glee was the kind of person to focus on the upside. TNL knew this. TNL also knew this idea needed to settle in, so she opened the door to the cold wind and Moraine Park as if it was a place of worship.
Elenor Glee focused on moving beyond panic. She knew, if she agreed to do this that it would be up to her to tell the tale of how a paintbrush made time stand still. She put on her Elmer Fudd hat and walked into the cold.
They both stood silently in the wind and the view. TNL moved from spot to spot, looked at the direction of the sun and moved again, then fumbled a dog-eared 5x7 matt frame from a pocket of her coat. She closed one eye, squinted and looked at several spots through the little rectangle.
The wind, filled with the air of ancient glaciers, blew through the valley. TNL walked down a gentle slope, deliberately giving Elenor Glee more space and time to ponder. In that space, Elenor Glee acknowledged her intuition. An intuition that told her that TNL would only follow through with this idea if it was fun. With this optimistic possibility in mind, Elenor Glee relaxed into that place where she could hear solutions. It arrived as quick as a flash. She knew what to do.
Elenor Glee and TNL stood in the cold with a view of Moraine Park and talked as the wind blew. Optimism seemed to grow from the view and they agreed to become partners. They would give this idea until January 1, 2022. TNL would share her process and together they would figure out how to work on the project and trust the inspiration as if struck by lightening.
Elenor would have this year to ponder, take notes, make observations and let this idea linger like so many months of the year as if the idea needed to greet each and every day and make it’s acquaintance. As if this idea needed to explain itself to the spring and summer and again in fall. To politely ask each day for permission to move forward, to cavalier around with an artist, documenting the process, finding the words to describe what it feels like to mix color, to tint, to shade. What does it feel like to dance with doubt? What does it feel like to ruminate about why horizon line matters or how to see blue and purple in the shadows?
"So," TNL looked intently. “Are you ready? This is how I will share my process, from the beginning."
“How do I pick a location?” TNL tucked the dog-eared 5x7 matt frame into her coat. "I am 57 and I have, well, a health condition so I like to be close to amenities, like my car." She shrugged her shoulders. "It's not something I dwell on, it's just a fact. Safety. Logistics."
TNL looked at the expanse before them and moved her arms up and out, like an absurd game show host. “Let’s look at the contestants for a masterful image." She pointed "Do you see that group of cottonwoods in the middle of the park?” Elenor Glee learned on the drive over that a park was a specific land formation. "Moraine Park is iconic for it's mysterious remnants of the Ice Age and that group of cottonwoods is an interesting focal point, a boxy element in contrast to the long horizontal parts of the landscape.” She went on to describe the possible compositional charms for several views and then stopped and pulled up the collar of her coat. "Will you warm up the car? I will be just a moment."
On the drive home TNL continued. "I began research for this project last fall. I researched locations online and then spoke with a Ranger." She nodded towards the map of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was folded up and tucked beside the seat. TNL instructed Elenor Glee to open the map. Hand written notes in black marker covered parts of it. "I spent some time talking with a Ranger about possible spots that would be good for the view."
Elenor Glee studied the map as TNL spoke. "When I paint on location, I carry quite a bit of stuff and I need to stay for at least 3 hours, so hiking in a long ways is not realistic. Not that I am against it, but this works for me."
The late January sun was beginning to warm the colors of the foothills and the eastern sky was more purple than blue. "I want find a painting location from Trail Ridge Road but that wont be open until late May so for now, I am picking spots I can get to easily and paint from my car if I need to."
Elenor Glee put the map away. TNL watched the road as much as she watched the sky turn the color of jewels and the shadows lengthen then disappear. Was she always painting in her head? How many locations could she have picked along the way?
Episode Two: January In the Studio
Elenor Glee worked from 11 to three and sometimes she worked from 3 to we'll see. It was a new day. Once again, she pondered her hair in the mirror and reminded herself that she was a muse. She checked the back of her head in the 3 way mirror and was ready for the day.
Elenor Glee arrived at TNL's home.
“I am in the studio” TNL's voice was barely audible over loud and familiar classical music. Elenor Glee silently followed it beyond the front door to the studio.
Both music and light filled the studio and a cat slept by the fireplace, seemingly deaf. TNL waved her hand for Elenor Glee to come in and then quickly put a shhh finger to her mouth to indicate silence. TNL pointed to a seat at a long table in the middle of the room. Elenor Glee quietly sat and opened her laptop, besieged by the proclamations of heaven itself.
The studio, lined with windows, looked like a museum of oddities and artifacts. The window sills were topped with cactus of every kind, fossils, shells, geodes, figurines. A long counter topped with marble encrusted the studio walls on all sides, with shelves below, some opened, some closed, some with glass, tempered and lit from within. Bouquets of fresh flowers and pine branches filled the air. Elenor Glee was not the first muse. The studio was a deliberate sanctuary.
“That’s Bach. Toccata and Fugue in D minor.” The last note echoed from the pipe organ it was played on. TNL looked at Elenor Glee as the cat looked at her. “Have you heard it?” The cat licked her calico paw. “My grandfather played it. I listen to it occasionally. It was one of about 300 pieces he knew by memory. I think he must have been amazing.”
TNL picked the cat up from the floor. “When I was a little girl....actually, when I was a secretly awkward, painfully secretly awkward teenager, I used to long for a mentor. My grandfather died when I was 10, but I imagined him a thousand times, encouraging me as I learned to draw and paint" TNL made a funny face "and dream about being a great artist."
TNL let the cat jump down from her extended arms and looked at Elenor Glee intently. “Are you ready Elenor Glee?"
TNL began rhetorically "How do I pick a location?" She repeated. “Safety first." She shrugged at Elenor Glee and with a smile said. "I am a 57 year old woman with a health condition so I like to be close to amenities, like my car. Then of course, drive time. It takes, well you know how long it takes."
Elenor Glee remembered the drive and the cold January wind at Rocky Mountain National Park.
"Logistics - weather, time of day. Road conditions - I need to be realistic. And I like to be comfortable." TNL stood and carried a stack of 8x10" photos to the long table where Elenor Glee had begun typing.
"Next, I take lots of photos. The eye needs a little time to adjust to the charms of a location. I begin to see, you know, really see, about 5 shots in." These are the shots I took, in order. The last one is the keeper."
Elenor Glee looked at the photos, each better than the last. TNL walked back to her drawing table and rifled through drawers and vintage boxes for supplies.
TNL continued. "It was the best spot of the day - picked it because of its natural view. It needs almost no compositional change and I liked the lighting in the middle of the day. Realistically it's when I will be at the park, the warmest part of the day."
TNL moved about the studio, distracted by a plant that needed watering "Ultimately, I picked this spot" she nodded at the photo "because we can park close to get out of the weather, it is far enough away from other people but still close to the road with a restroom a few minutes drive and above all, I can be outside, paint outside, in the sun but blocked by the wind.
Elenor Glee slowed her typing down to a place where she could relax into less misspelled words, then gave up the perfection and just tried to keep up.
TNL picked up the photograph and placed it on her drawing table. She studied it for several minutes, looking for focal points, leading lines and awkward objects that could be shifted without changing the authenticity of the landscape. She got out a sheet of tracing paper and in about a minute she traced what she thought would ultimately be the foundation of the composition. The top of the mountain range and one just behind it with almost the same edge, looking like twin heartbeats. The edge of the valley, flattening out as if to sigh in relief. A clump of trees. Rocks in the foreground.
“Look Elenor Glee." TNL pointed to the traced image "This is the basic idea of the landscape. Drawing it will come later. For now, I need to consider how to make the most of atmospheric perspective.”
She went on to describe what the term meant. Elenor Glee typed as quickly as she could. 'Atmospheric perspective is the way that things vanish into the distance...overlap, become smaller, duller, have less detail, less saturation, less contrast, even the outlines become fuzzy and everything becomes more the color of the sky.'
"Artists have been using atmospheric perspective since the Renaissance" TNL concluded.
Elenor Glee wanted to know more but moved on.
TNL looked at the traced drawing. “There are a few key objects that can help me and if I shift them a bit left or right or slightly change scale, I can make space cues convincing.”
TNL put a new piece of tracing paper on the drawing and began making small changes. Then again. TNL stopped and held her hand around her chin, thinking.
“…if I shift these lines….I wonder….”
TNL got out another sheet of tracing paper. She drew out the first line at the top of the mountain range. She drew out the second line, the top of the valley. Then she did something unexpected. She shifted the paper diagonally about a half inch and drew the next horizontal line at an angle. And the next. Elenor Glee watched as she ever-so-slightly shifted the horizontal lines of the snow ribbons and grassy plains in a way that skewed them more dramatically into a vanishing point. In doing so, the space between foreground, mid-ground and background became more dramatic.
TNL repeated the process again and again as the cat fell asleep by the fire and Elenor Glee reviewed for typos. After many quiet minutes the cat stretched and moved away from the heat, to the view from a window.
"Too much and the illusion is given away.” TNL didn’t explain why it worked. Elenor Glee could see that it did.
TNL took the final sheet of tracing paper and placed key objects on the page: A small tree in the front. A few large rocks. 3, 4 clusters of unidentified bare shrubs and a group of ancient cottonwood trees separating the mid-ground from the background. It was about an hour of tracing, moving, tracing, moving and placing her hand on her chin.
"Lunch?" TNL clipped the group of tracing papers together and with a clothes pin she hung them on a jute rope that hung across the back of the studio as if she was drying a fresh laundry load of ideas, literally up in the air.
"I will be there in a minute." Elenor Glee pretended to scroll up to find and fix typos, but she really need a bit of time to...
Elenor Glee could see how composition mattered more than mountains that looked snow capped and clouds that held the color of the sunset. She studied the sketches and felt the precipice.
“Dare to be the muse.” Elenor Glee took a deep breath and picked up a drawing. She swallowed and felt her heart bubble. “This is why I am here.”
Determined to see the xray, the magic of the composition, Elenor Glee squinted at the drawing. Then, on impulse, she turned the drawing upside-down. Clarity sparked within her and instantly she could see past the delightful details of the landscape. It simplified like a cartoon scene, like the one with the Roadrunner and the Coyote. The mountains became simple wavy horizontals. The ancient ponderosa pines became raggedy triangles, decreasing in size as they disappeared into the distance. Other significant elements, like boulders and bushes became irregular circles and ovals, disappearing into dots. The cluster of cottonwoods stood as simplified rectangle close to the middle.
Carefully and with a sense of trembling Elenor Glee placed another sheet of tracing paper on top of TNL’s drawing. She drew in the simplified shapes. It felt good to see the structure of the composition, like finding firm footing on a boat. Elenor Glee wondered again. She got out another piece of tracing paper. She simplified more. The jagged horizontal lines simplified into one straight line at the top of the mountain range and another for the top of the moraine, a third horizontal line, the edge of the valley. The grove of cottonwoods became a simple rectangle. The pine trees became triangles. The bushes and rocks were now insignificant. She left them out. Now it was clear: the xray of the composition revealed one long, steady horizon.
“Be the muse.” Elenor Glee made a choice. This landscape story was about the long horizon. She redrew the composition last time. Three horizontal stripes from edge to edge and one small rectangle, just off center.
“That’s it.” She said out loud.
Elenor Glee put her hand over her chin. “This is what the composition is about. Loose this and the magic is gone.”
The composition was one long line from edge to edge. A line so steady you could feel the eternity of it.
It was time for lunch. Elenor Glee took her wise little drawings, folded them up and stuffed them her pocket. The cat looked at her from perch in the sun.
Episode Three: February Rocky Mountain National Park
Elenor Glee worked from 11 to three. And sometimes she worked from 3 to we’ll see. Elenor Glee trucked her hair in a hat and made her way to TNL’s house.
“We are going to Rocky Mountain National Park!” TNL spoke with vigilant optimism.
Elenor Glee and TNL drove, gently hypnotized by rolling hills. Ranchland dotted with black cows jumped off caramel colored winter grass like targets. Fluffy beige sheep, almost invisible, filled another. An occasional die-hard winter cyclist in bright clothes filled them with the awareness of speed and asphalt. The silent ranches marked time.
Inside Rocky Mountain National Park, TNL got out of the car, the same spot as before. She turned off the ignition. “I will be right back. I need to check to see if this is really the best spot.” She got out of the car and began carefully walking over and around the piles of pinecones and patches of snow that had gathered around boulders taller than a bus. She stopped and looked at the view, walked to another vantage point and looked again. She moved down the slope of the hill and looked through her hands, held up like a viewfinder. Elenor Glee found her gloves and began wresting with her coat. TNL returned to the car. The wind howled through the car as she slid in. She quickly closed the door and said “I am going to draw today…from inside the car.” She awkwardly fussed for her drawing supplies, stacked in a large basket on the back seat.
TNL looked out the side window. “The spot I picked last time has a fatal flaw.” She pointed at a singular group of old narrow-leafed cottonwoods in the middle of Moraine Park. “See those tall trees?” TNL raised a brow as she began to sharpen a pencil. “… a great focal point within this amazing view, right?” she shrugged “…but they screw with the scale. I drew them out, again and again but they continued to look like tall bushes. It’s because there are no cottonwoods in the distance or close up. There are no opportunities for perspective cues.”
TNL opened her sketchbook and turned to a page with a simple black and white drawing.
“See this drawing? If it doesn’t work small and in black and white, it most likely will not work large and in color. Not every idea works. The impulse I had to pick this spot did not work in the drawing.” She turned the page, and then again. “I tried it several times, slightly changing scale and placement. But it always ended up looking like tall, I don’t know, grass? Bushes?”
She turned the page again and grimaced “If I put in more clusters of cottonwoods, I could adapt and show the small, medium and large of background to foreground but it would not be a representation of Moraine Park. I’ve decided it’s not worth the challenge.” She passed the sketchbook for Elenor Glee to examine as she finished sharpening her pencil. She opened the car door long enough to knock the shavings onto the side of the road.
“It takes a long time to make a masterpiece.” her fingers in air quotes “I am not going to be taken down by a stubborn desire to paint a tree. Sometimes an idea turns out to be an ideal. I have, plenty of times, designed myself into a corner. You get over it.”
Then TNL pointed out the front window. Her voice filled with tentative optimism “This view does the same thing. Better. You can see the way the glacier moved through and carved out the park. It left these boulders, apparently called roches mutonnees.” TNL attempted a French accent. “French for sheep rocks.” She pointed to the curious mounds scattered on the valley floor, rounded by the weather of a thousand years. One of the mounds looked like a mastodon sleeping under a carpet of earth deep enough to support a family of ponderosa pine. Elenor Glee imagined how the weight of ice moved rocks as big as busses and couches and left them. TNL opened her hand and Elenor Glee returned the sketchbook. “Today, I draw – a new spot with less contrariness.” TNL turned to a new white page of her sketchbook. “I draw to understand the subtle charms of the place.” She looked again into the valley and up to the top of the mountains. “To set into memory key foundations. I hope to be able to tell the story of how this place came to be.”
TNL studied the view, pointed to a place on the paper with her pencil and looked again. Elenor Glee thought about her tiny tracing paper drawings. She had been right. The story of this place was about the longs lines of the valley, not the bits that popped up afterwards. She felt a gleam of confidence. She was learning the ways of the muse.
“Would you like some more coffee?” She asked TNL.
“No thank you. How about something else to drink.”
“Soda and juice?”
Elenor Glee with a determination of grace managed the awkwardness of the cooler in the backseat and filled the travel mugs with juice and soda water. She poured 2 glasses as the winter sun soaked the car. Elenor Glee then wrangled her laptop and turned it on. It chimed a few high notes as TNL began to draw.
Episode Four: March In the Studio
Elenor Glee worked from 11 to three. And sometimes she worked from 3 to we’ll see. She made her way to TNL’s house and rang the doorbell.
Elenor Glee carried her basket of warm clothes to the studio. “Are we going to Rocky Mountain National Park today?”
“No. There is a snowstorm coming in. It will be here this afternoon.” TNL sat at her easel in front of a floor lamp of white studio lights making up for the grey conditions of the weather. “I am going to show you how to prep panels today.”
“Okay.” Elenor Glee set her basket of warm clothes at the door. A cat lounged on a blanket draped over an old chair and watched as Racine removed her coat and stuffed it in her basket.
TNL stood and walked towards a table, already set up. Cardboard on top and a sheet underneath. A small fan too. TNL clicked on another set of overhead lights, a bright contrast to the low light of incoming snow.
Elenor Glee was ready. TNL tugged open a jug. "This is gesso. It is an acrylic product, a primer. It keeps the oils in the oil paint from sinking into the wood." TNL opened the jug and demonstrated on a small wood panel, stopping to pick out a small flake of something with the tip of a palette knife, then smoothing out the spot with a light stroke of the brush. She explained how to gesso the panels with straight brushstrokes, top and side, alternating directions for each coat. She explained that if oil paint sinks into the wood, it eventually rots it. She called the wood panel a support. Canvas was another type of support.
TNL handed the brush to Elenor Glee. "It's pretty easy. 3 coats, dried and sanded in between. She smiled and turned back to her painting on the other side of the studio. “I’ll leave you to it.”
“What shall I do while it is drying?” Elenor Glee dipped the brush into the jug of gesso.
“Those.” TNL chuckled and nodded to the corner of the room.
There was a stack of wood panels against the wall. 10? 20? More? “Oh. Wow. Okay.” Elenor Glee lifted an eyebrow and pretended composure as TNL smiled and turned to her easel.
Elenor Glee sat under overhead lights as grey skies carried snow into the afternoon. She reminded herself that she had every intention of being TNL's optimistic muse, even in the face of this dull task. The trick was to simply find an enjoyable way to pass the time.
Elenor Glee tucked her earbuds in under her curls and clicked and swiped to her favorite playlist. Her favorite song. Attitude was the beginning of everything so she allowed her heart to move with the music and began the task of painting 20 plus wood panels with gesso. She dipped the brush into the jug and slathered it on the top of the panel in several places.
The cat came to visit as she dipped again. What she thought was going to be a boring task was longer. She dipped and spread the gesso evenly with smooth straight strokes. The white paint glossed over the wood like melted ice cream and she stopped to pick out a few bits with the small palette knife. A bit of gesso slid down the side. The cat, now bored retreated to the window to watch a crow in the aspen tree outside.
Elenor Glee carefully lifted the wood panel and balanced from underneath with her spread fingers. With the side of the brush she patted more than painted the short wood sides and dipped again and patted the next side and the next.
The song finished before she did. She smoothed out the top and sides and when she was done she placed the brush handle across the top of the jug lid and moved the wet panel to the sheet under the table tp be dried by the fan, making sure the fan was not directly blowing across the wet gesso to keep dust and cat hair from landing.
Ah-ha. Elenor Glee had a plan. She spoke inside her head. “Okay. Small panels need songs longer than, she looked at her phone “4:35 seconds.” Now it was a game. The afternoon would slip into bliss this way. She reached for another panel. Another small one. She found a song that lasted “5:53 seconds! Donna Summers!” Let the games begin! Hilarious.
20 plus songs later TNL returned. “Hi. I thought I would see how you were doing. Thanks for helping out. I know it is tedious.”
Elenor Glee decided that this would be a good time to amuse herself further with a lesson about supplies. “Why don’t you use canvas? That is, I always think of painting as 'oil on canvas' .” She used air quotes and hoped she didn’t sound impertinent.
“Well, turns out, canvas is not as archival as you think." TNL attempted to weave her fingers together to demonstrate. "You see, canvas fibers expand and contract with differences in humidity so, in theory, the paint that is on them will crack and flake. They say in as little as 20 years.” TNL lifted her eyebrows. “I am not a restoration or antiquities expert." She looked at the wet white panels under the table. "These look good."
TNL picked up the cat who was sitting at the window ledge. "Archival means it will last 500 years." Then she laughed. "I don’t know who is going to be around in 500 years to see if this is true, but I do try to keep up with best practices.”
"Huh, interesting, another myth busted." Elenor Glee felt enlightened.
TNL looked at the snow, beginning to fall then continued. “Archival is really about museum quality. A college professor I had many years ago used the phrase ‘500 years’ and it stuck with me. I am not sure if archival really means 500 years, but still, I think it’s important to understand and choose materials well.”
TNL returned to her painting.
Episode Five: April at Rocky Mountain National Park
The road from Lyons to Rocky Mountain National Park was a canyon so curved you understood the suspension of your vehicle. Ponderosa pine towered on both sides, thriving on red rock cliffs, now weathered smooth like marshmallows or chiseled out by CDOT to prevent rockslides. Sometimes the road twisted so much that you would never know how long the curve would last or if it would change directions or who you might face on the other side. Snow drifts from the last storm lingered crusted and looking blue in dark places. Below the road, down crevasses were boulders the size of kitchen appliances worn smooth by rushing spring melt that filled the river beyond its edges. Today the river trickled, only as wide as a bathtub.
The sky was pale, a billowy softness of clouds for the storm on its way. Ribbons of pinecones appeared along the side of the road. They had made their way from the trees, down the cliffs and settled into the edges of the earth where it met asphalt.
As Elenor Glee and TNL drove past Muggins Gluch the canyon opened to a high meadow sprinkled with huts and family owned hotels and mountain houses. A timid cushion of green was attempting to make its way through the tall shag of caramel colored dry grass. Willows, still leafless were showing their red stems along the marshy meandering streambeds. The road had traveled up from Lyons unnoticeably until they met this highpoint where tourists stopped at the side of the road for photos of the little town below, nestled and crowded with cabins, homes and hotels at the base of a mountain range towering high above, still covered in snow and clouds. It would be a cold day in the park. Elenor Glee was glad TNL had the wisdom to pick a spot where she could paint from the car.
A steep 2 lane road was the final descent into Estes Park. It was still covered in crusted over snow in its dark edges and deepest corners. The traffic slowed to accommodate a line of cars, mostly local. This was not tourist season.
Elenor Glee could feel her heart quicken as they approached town at 25 miles an hour. These few blocks through the heart of Estes were filled with pubs and t-shirt shops. They would be obnoxiously packed in weeks to come. For now, quiet. A few heavily bundled families walked the sidewalks, looking into windows, closed for the season. Thank goodness, Salt Water Taffy still twisted and turned at the shop with the bell over the door. It chimed and children raced in from the cold. On the corner, the Indian Village, a curio relic from another generation, whispered come hither in bright but faded yellow. Elenor Glee and TNL waited for the light to turn green then turned the corner to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Fun City and the Rock Shop enticed the adventurer but were closed along the last road towards the Beaver Meadows entrance. It would only be a few minutes now. Elenor Glee took in the view in front of them. As if by magic, the snow covered ancient peaks were shining brighter than the sun. The clouds were beginning to lift and blue patches of sky welcomed the painter and the muse. Elenor Glee knew the sun turn the car into a warm sauna after all. They passed Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and went straight to the gate. Moraine Park was just inside, a short drive past groves of gnarled aspen, empty of leaves to their tips. Suddenly, there it was, a magnificent snow covered combination of mountains upon mountains rising above what was once millions of eons of ice. TNL pulled the car off the road. The same place. An eagle flew above the river that would overflow its banks from melted snow.
TNL took the keys out of the ignition and placed them on the dash. "Keys."
She pointed out the window to a car making its way down the 2-lane road in the distance. “See that car?”
Elenor Glee nodded. “Yeah?”
TNL pointed again. “Compare the size of that car to the rock it is just ...about to pass….right ….now. Okay? Now compare the size of that rock to the Ponderosa pine right next to it.”
TNL pondered out loud. “I think I must have a car in each of these images, otherwise, you will never understand the grand...” TNL searched for words. “…vast...unimaginable scale of this place.”
The rock was twice the size of the car. The pine was twice the size of the rock.
And with that TNL unceremoniously set up, transcending the awkwardness of the steering wheel and converting the front seat into a studio. In the distanced, Elenor Glee noticed another car. She had to watch. It was hard to believe her eyes. The SUV drove past the rock twice as large. The pine towered above.
TNL secured a small wood panel to the steering wheel. The view was painted in one color and white. A monochromatic study. She found the large tube of white. “Okay. Where to begin? I always like to have a plan. For me, on location painting sessions tend to be about 2 hours. Longer than that, the light changes.” TNL looked at Elenor Glee and smiled. “Besides, my brain needs a break about that time.” She put a dollop of white on her palette balanced on the center console. “I am going to focus on the chroma and value of the sky. Chroma means the temperature of blue. Does the blue have red in it? Or is the blue dulled with brown? And value means the lightness of that blue, a degree of white. This chroma and value will key the painting.” She placed a bit of blue and a dot of red. “By key I mean it will influence rest of the colors. The goal is to balance the painting with the sky.”
Elenor Glee grabbed her laptop as TNL began to mix. The curved notch of the wood palette tucked around the gear shift and rested on the console. “Once I get the sky in I will key in some elements of the landscape, snow, granite, forest. That way I can use the color and value information back in the studio.” TNL blended blue and white together with a small tipped palette knife. “I’m not going to address much of the foreground today because I think this painting will be more successful using the colors of ….May.” She looked at Elenor Glee. “You know, spring green?”
TNL held the paint covered palette knife into the air and compared it to what she saw out the window. “It needs to be warmer. A bit more red. Anyway, I can add the foreground later...” her voice was replaced by a careful observation of color. She added red and mixed and compared again. And again. Elenor Glee quietly read the colors of the tubes. Titanium white. Prussian Blue. The red tube was crinkled. Elenor Glee picked it up and found the label. Alizarin Crimson.
TNL compared the palette knife blue to several sections of blue sky. “There.” Content with chroma and value, TNL started painting the top side of the wood panel.
“Why do you paint the sides?” Elenor Glee asked.
“So I can show the finished work without a frame.” TNL laughed. “I never try to guess what kind of frame a person might like. It’s a pretty expensive guess. I have learned to leave the framing choice to the patron.”
“Oh, that’s fair.” Elenor Glee noticed the clouds drifting above and across the mountain range. “Are you going to paint the clouds?”
“No. Not now. The clouds are going to change throughout the day. At some point I will. But they will assist the composition and not define it.”
Elenor Glee typed.
“When you hold out painting a part of the landscape it is called painting into an effect. Keying the sky first and then the rest is called painting out of an effect. Either way, it just makes sense to get the parts of the landscape that are permanent and important to time of day, then add the bits that change, like clouds.”
It took TNL a few minutes to cover the panel in sky. Elenor Glee typed and watched as TNL mixed a color for granite, again holding the palette knife up to the window for comparison.
“Next, the structural parts of the mountain...” TNL peered into the distance “…not all of them, just key landmarks.” A cloud moved across the mountain and covered it. TNL laughed. “I’m going to have to work around the clouds. This is going to take a while.”
She put a mark on the panel, looked up through the window, placed another mark and looked again. “You might want to take a walk.”
Elenor Glee took the hint and closed her laptop. “Good idea.”
Bundled, Elenor Glee walked towards what she called mastodon hill in the middle of Moraine Park. The marshy ground crunched under foot, a frozen bed of grass. Spots of blackened ash appeared as well, remnants of the fire that ended in this valley, spitting sparks downwind in the fall of 2020. The East Troublesome Fire devoured 100,000 acres in one day, closing Rocky Mountain National Park for a month.
Elenor Glee stopped at the river. She looked for a place to cross but even now, with the river little more than a dwindle, it washed fast on the outside curve and deep on the inside. The sound of the stream and the April sun on her back would have to be enough for today. Elenor Glee lingered. This place without buildings, void of culture was without words. A place to simply be aware of one’s body and the weather. Elenor Glee walked back to the car, forever changed by an ordinary moment.
Episode Five: April in the studio.
Elenor Glee worked from 11 to three. And sometimes she worked from 3 to we’ll see.
Elenor Glee made her way again through the crisp white snow. Her Elmer Fudd hat muffled the sound of her boots stomping through the ankle deep powder. She stopped for a moment to watch the fresh flakes. They landed on her coat sleeve, crystalline perfection in 6 points. Elenor Glee took a breath of frigid air and made her way down the street laced white with a late winter snow. The cold seemed to freeze in her nose but she stayed warm under layers. So began another day as the secret muse to TNL in the big house in Colorado.
Elenor Glee rang the doorbell.
TNL called from just beyond. “Coming!” She hurriedly opened the door and waved Elenor Glee in out of the cold. “Oh m'gosh, it’s a powder day for someone!” She humorously commented and closed the door behind her. She took Elenor Glee’s basket and set it on the floor by an old oak chair in the front entry.
“But not for us. Another day in the studio for us. I have the perfect job for you today.”
“Sure. Okay.” Elenor Glee unbundled and tossed her snowflake covered coat and hat over the basket to dry.
The studio seemed to shine from down the hall. Elenor Glee followed TNL into the studio, a warm room of art supplies and windows with a view of white. The cat sat in a chair by the fireplace crackling sparks of dry pine. TNL sat on the arm of the chair and put a soft hand across the cats tiger-striped head. “I have a show this fall. November. It’s my last one.” TNL spoke softly to Elenor Glee but faced at the cat who winked back at her adoringly.
Elenor Glee wrinkled her brow then quickly composed her face. She was stunned. Why hire a studio assistant for a swan song year? Elenor Glee faced her first conundrum as a muse. TNL gently scratched the cat’s chin who offered the opportunity to reach each spot from ear to ear. Elenor Glee had to think fast and take a stand. What did this mean? Should she inspire and encourage TNL to keep painting? To never give up? Or should she, in earnest, help her quit? Instantly she went with option number 2. She would take TNL at face value and muse forward optimistically.
“Wow! Good for you?” Elenor Glee spoke as if she understood the news. She was still confused but at least she knew which card to play. “You have painted for years…right?" She paused and looked around the studio, filled with paintings of every size. “If there was anyone who had the right to quit, it would certainly be you.”
“Well thank you. It is refreshing to hear you say it.” TNL stood and turned to an empire of finished and unfinished canvases parading in the corners of the bright studio. “The lighting today is perfect for photographing work.”
TNL did not explain why she was quitting, why she was preparing for her last art show. Not a word. Instead, she explained how the mid-day diffused light coming in from the windows would illuminate the artwork without shadows, glare or the need for umbrella reflectors. Elenor Glee put her drama, curiosity and questions on hold and listened.
TNL walked to one corner of the room where several small paintings leaned against the wall and continued. “I have purposely painted the walls of my studio bright white so there is no color distortion.” She brought a small painting to the table and placed it on a rectangle of pale brown cork set inside a large vintage frame. “If I ever need additional light, I use these.” She pointed to a tall floor lamp sitting next to the table. It had 5 bare lights, each in a white cone. Each spotlight was on a flexible shaft, able to move into any position. “And I use a specific watt bulb. These are balanced for daylight. Some light bulbs give off a warm glow, you know?” TNL exaggerated the words warm and glow and then shrugged. “The warm glow gives off a slightly yellow light which affects chroma, that is, color. It throws off the color of the painting. These bulbs are full spectrum, 5500k, or Kelvin, CFL, compact florescent lamp. 5500k is the purest white temperature available. It has no yellow or blue tint. It is the same as mid-day light.”
Elenor Glee pivoted into fascination as TNL demonstrated how to set up the shot. “The edges of the canvas or panel need to line up with the edges of the photo frame. No angle. At all. Even a tiny angle of the camera will distort the image.” Then she showed Elenor Glee how to take a detail shot and how to check for glare and blur. “It’s pretty straightforward, as long as you are aware of these checkpoints.”
TNL smiled at Elenor Glee. “Do check each shot immediately. It will be easier and faster than taking all the shots and then having to go back and reshoot. When you are done, load the images on the computer.”
TNL handed the camera to Elenor Glee. “Please let me know if you have questions.”
She walked back to her easel. It stood like a gallant tower close to the window on the far side of the studio. Elenor Glee moved the small painting into place as TNL disappeared behind the large canvas. Elenor Glee set up the shot and wondered about TNL’s words. Her last show. Why quit? Elenor Glee wondered in silence. Why would someone who had mastered a skill give it up? Elenor Glee worked in silence. Snow flurried beyond the window, its soft light illuminating the room. The cat napped on the chair by the fire.
Episode Five: April in the studio
The Nice Lady, TNL, knew what is was to climb up from the darkest, quietest place within. Death. Literally. She was a living, breathing example of someone who made it back from life support. She had known and since recovered from the experience. But she would always remember the slow, comfortable sleepless dream that life support was. And she would always remember the conversation she had with herself. In that quiet space, fully aware, knew she had a choice. And she heard this advise. "Quit and enjoy life."
It was something she almost never spoke of and the experience was still a puzzle 3 years later, but she was at peace with the mystery and moving forward with the advise. She was quitting. She was quitting the commercialism of art, the marketing, the gathering of awards.
"Quit and enjoy life." But she was not quitting art.
TNL quietly set up a small wood panel, a study from her latest trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with her studio assistant Elenor Glee.
Elenor Glee was getting used to helping in the studio. She had checked the weather for Estes Park and she knew it would be another day in the studio. She and TNL had fallen into some good habits for communication and she texted as she walked up to the house, then let herself in, leaving her wet things by the old suede chair in the entry way. The cat greeted her and Elenor Glee made her way to the kitchen for a cup of hot tea, the cat shadowing her footsteps. She gifted the cat with a treat and made her way to the studio.
“Good morning.” Elenor Glee found the TNL already in front of the easel.
“Good morning.” TNL smiled as big as a hug. “I am going to show you how I paint a small study today.”