My younger sister was born on a bridge. Right in the middle of it, if family legend bears truth. It was a crisp night in early December 1951 and our parents were hurrying as best they could on snowy roads to get to the hospital in McBride BC.
Her bridge no longer crosses the Fraser River, as it was replaced by a newer, leaner version in a better location. But bridges have always held great fascination for me, especially old wooden ones or those installed in Asian-themed gardens. The more rickety, the more charm I say.
Monet’s marvelous bridge work
The other day I picked up a child’s book on Impressionist painters and was delighted to see four versions of a bridge by Claude Monet, all displayed on the same page:
Apparently in 1899 when his garden in Giverny had finally started to take shape, he embarked on not just four, but 18 such paintings. Some years earlier the passionate horticulturist had purchased land with a pond near his property, intending to build something “for the pleasure of the eye and also for motifs to paint.” Images of his famed water lily garden abound, and more often as not some part of the bridge is in them all.
This website entry detailing the Monet collection in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, elaborates on his garden and his art, beginning “It took me a long time to understand my water lilies…. I grew them without thinking of painting them…. And then, all of a sudden, I had the revelation of the enchantment of my pond. I took up my palette.”
The water lilies and bridge then became an obsessive focus for Monet’s art for several decades.
So do countless other art-lovers, gardeners and artists of every skill level, working in any and every medium. A simple, arched bridge can be endlessly fascinating.
(If you want to view more of Monet’s wonderful paintings, have a look here.)
The Mustard Seed Garden Manual weighs in, bridge symbolism
Bridges of any ilk—rustic wooden structures with or without handrails, strategically placed stepping-stones, and humpback stone structures constitute the simplest forms—can capture the artist’s fancy. Our modern river cities contain a huge variety of steel and concrete. Even the magnificent Fraser River that dominated the farmlands of my childhood, has a wide variety of bridges spanning its width at points all along its 855 miles. I can even warm to those concrete and steel behemoths that connect various parts of the sprawling Fraser delta in and around Vancouver.
The MSGM devotes several pages to outlines of various bridge structures. The brush painter who favors landscapes can literally ‘shop’ for a suitable specimen to insert into a painting. There doesn’t seem to be any major significance for bridges in Chinese culture, other than to show linkage between parts of the scenes.
The Japanese however, attach greater meaning—a bridge denotes a journey beginning or ending. In the same way that well-mannered westerners accompany a guest to the door (or garden gate) upon departure, an ancient Japanese custom dating back to at least old Edo was to accompany a departing guest or family member to the bridge at the edge of town. Most towns had them; the bridge became a recognized point of departure, or greeting for that matter. Hence the depiction of a figure walking or riding over a bridge is a common Japanese brush-painting element.
These bridges are often the smaller, more rustic structures indicated with just a few brush strokes. Some painters take the scenario further and fill a larger bridge—any of the hump-backed stone versions are popular in this role—with several human figures engaged in numerous activities—fishing, chatting, smoking, reflecting, and so on.
Whatever the role served by a bridge—place of meetings/departures, or just a natural stopping point for relaxing and reflecting—their shapes can contribute line work to the overall composition. Lines that span mountain chasms, lines that break up garden vistas, arches that contrast with smooth horizontal water or riverbank lines, or even the zigzag lines in boards across stones—all can be a point of interest.
In my garden dream list file I have this link to an assortment of Japanese bridges. Any one of them would be a suitable painting subject. Books of Japanese woodblock prints also hold numerous compositions with arched bridges, often in moonlight. My inspirations are endless.
My bridge studies:
First, I sketched several simple bridges from the MSGM.
and some more:
Then I rough-sketched a composition featuring an arched bridge:
I tried a composition showing a rider leaving town on a pony:
I tried to capture the bridge of family legend, working from a 1925 photograph. I found the trusses in the framework challenging to simplify and wasn’t certain how to convey the far bank on the left.
I looked up truss bridges to gain some insights, and tried a few ink and indigo paintings. I thought a horizontal view showing the full bridge would emphasize its existence as a linking of the two riverbanks, and that foreground trees would hint at its existence in a forested area. Lower bushes such as willow and tall grasses would line the closer bank.
And in keeping with the CBP principle of contrasts, I considered lines, textures and colors: have the truss line-work contrast with foliage shapes, have soft background mountain slopes contrast with more detailed foreground elements, and maybe bathe the bridge in warm tones surrounded by cooler elements such as evergreen trees. I had a plan.
I worked up two paintings based on that plan. I was not happy with the results. A day later I returned to the project, determined to improve on the plan.
After positioning a frame over the first two paintings in numerous ways I concluded a vertical composition might show my bridge in better contrast to its surroundings. Yes, it is longish and spans a wide part of the river, but it also is in the lowest part of the valley, and its environment makes what is a large human creation seem diminished in size. Now the Yin and Yang of it was speaking to me.
The vertical composition then allowed for more line and shapes for the mountain slopes in the distance. I adjusted the fore-shortening of the bridge to suggest more depth of field, made the foliage on the far bank shorter and thus farther away, and shortened the tallest of my foreground trees
My next effort, showing the lower half:
While the bridge, river and foreground were all emerging as planned, the background mountain slopes needed more work. I went hunting for photographs in my albums and landscape CBP compositions for guidance. I also kept tripping over images of stone arched bridges–Royal Roads, Beacon Hill Park, and the Pacific Horticulture Centre were just a few of the local examples.
Obviously I have more bridgework in my near future, as well as the challenge of the mountain slopes.