Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Free Trapper, 30X30 oil/stretched linen

Hi Everybody,
I've been wanting to do this painting for some time now. This is a simple portrait of a free trapper. During the fur trade era, the western mountains were over run with a rare breed of men who were looking to make their fortunes by trapping animals which were in great demand back east. By far, the fur that was most in demand was beaver. Most of these men were content to leave their civilized world behind to live by their wits in a decidedly hostile environment. Many started their training by working for the fur companies like the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but a few moved on to be their own boss and master.

Keith Walters in his wonderful, information filled book, The Book of the Free Trapper, wrote this in his introduction:

'When John Colter left the enlistment of Lewis and Clark and began an amazing wilderness odyssey, a breed of men unsurpassed in bravery and skill was born. It was the breed of man who would roam the Rocky Mountains in search of beaver for the next 40 years. It was the breed of men known as the Free Trappers; the Mountain Men.
While the land was still virgin and unpeopled, the free trapper, bound by none, lived, loved, and ended a very misunderstood life. Labeled as crazy, outlaw, and forsaken for their wayward lives, the mountain men were the freest men ever t0 walk this land.
An attempt to explain the reasoning for any man exchanging a secure life for a life filled with constant danger, extreme loneliness, and no financial gain is an exercise in futility. Perhaps this was the reason for the misunderstanding of the mountain men. The reason a man would choose a life that would probably be his death can only be understood as a feeling, a sort of enchantment cast by the Rocky Mountains upon a handful of men predestined to roam as mountain men.'

Now, why Mr Walters chose to completely ignore the fact that the Native American roamed these mountains, and described the mountains as "unpeopled" is beyond me. But moving beyond that, he was right that these men lived by their wits and usually in a solitary existence. Once a year they would gather together to restock their supplies and make trades for their plews. These rendezvous, as they were known, were often the only time they would be with other human beings. It was a time for playing hard, as well as drinking hard.

I like to paint people who live by their wits and grit. The attitude is all important. His glance is wise and slightly defiant. With one hand on his rifle, and the other holding a willow hoop upon which is stretched a beaver pelt. He wears a capote (french for cape), a coat which is made from the wool trade blankets which were so prevalently available to the trappers. You can tell the quality and the cost of a trade blanket by looking at the number of stripes it has on it. Each stripe represents one beaver pelt required for the trade. The more stripes it has, the thicker and warmer it is. If you look at this trappers capote, you'll see three stripes, so this blanket cost him three beaver pelts.

I first became interested in mountain men after watching the great Sidney Pollack movie, Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford and Will Geer. Since then I've read just about every book on the history of the mountain man, and attended yearly rendezvous, which are gatherings of reenactors who try to reproduce, as accurately as possible, the ways, clothing and accoutrement of these hardy souls (although, I'm not one of the reenactors, and never dress up). It's where I met the model for this painting, a gregarious man known to everyone as Grampa Jim. Jim not only posed for me, but took a ridiculous amount of time answering my questions and tutoring me to correct my misconceptions. I am always grateful to anyone who is willing to share their hard earned knowledge.

Detail 1

Detail 2

On the technical side of this painting, these two close ups are just for the purpose of showing the broken colors and technique. Notice the reflected light in the close up of the shaded parts of his face. There are reds and greens and blues there. They are subtle and placed in the proper place and are not random. The greens reflect the pine tree, the reds reflect the light bouncing up from his coat and the blues are reflected from the sky. I've found that reflected light of those colors that surround an item is the single best way to paint believable light and turn a form to make it read as three dimensional. Reflected light is present almost everywhere. It bounces colors and influences all things around it. Be careful to not over do it, reflected light must never be as bright as the lit side of an object.

Detail 3

In this detail photo of the hand, if you look at the dark head wrap in the upper right corner, you'll see that the bright red of his coat is reflected up onto it. The red of his coat is also glowing a bit into the dark area of the head wrap. Do this strategically to reinforce the idea of strong sunlight.

If you take a little time to look at how light works, and consistently add it to your paintings, you will go a long way to improving your paintings.

Thanks for visiting! Steve


hbedrosian said...

Steve, this is such a beautiful, powerful painting, with an interesting background story. I appreciate the discussion on reflected light, also.

Ann Rogers said...

I am so in awe of this painting! And seeing the close up even enhances it's beauty, and thanks for sharing the reflected light so clearly.

Vicky said...

Jeremiah Johnson has always been one of my favorite movies. I am in awe of this painting and your talent. It is so beautiful to look at! Thanks for the explanation and the close ups. I'm beginning to understand more about the reflected light! As always, it's a pleasure to stop by!

Tim Fitzgerald said...

That's my dear old grandfather or someone who looks very much like him. He's passed away now I learned a lot from him and think about him all the time. Thanks for bringing him back.
Tim Fitz