Although it took me almost 40 years of avid genealogy research to trace my roots into the highlands of northern Scotland I always knew there had to be some Scots blood in me. I love the swish of a kilt, the skirl of bagpipes and most of all, the trace of high hills along the skyline. I even like my daily ‘parridge’.
Lucky for me my parents settled in a small farming community in the Rocky Mountain trench, the valley with the mighty Fraser River at its low point.
The Rocky Mountain range runs roughly in a northwesterly direction from near Jasper, Alberta. The Cariboo range flanks the other side of the valley for most of the same distance. I saw a lot of mountains in my childhood, and to this day am easily calmed by distant peaks or undulating high hills.
Last month I set out to paint bridges and departed from conventional footbridges and stone arched humpbacks to take on a wooden truss bridge that once crossed the Fraser River near my home. I figured out the intricacies of portraying the bridge, but was stymied when it came to filling in the background. The overlapping slopes of the mostly treed mountains behind my bridge scenario simply got the better of me.
Now it’s true that one need not be a slave to realism when painting with Chinese ink on rice paper. And it’s also true that few onlookers to my art would even recognize the setting, let alone know what should be in the background.
I could have gone with a nondescript forest or a rough-hewn cliff more in keeping with conventional Chinese landscapes. But I wanted the scene to look right to me. So I dug out the landscape painting books and scoured my CBP library for ideas.
What is a mountain and when is it just a hill?
Unlike with many other landforms, there is no universally accepted definition of a mountain. It is generally agreed that mountains are higher than hills, and that they have a recognizable summit. Many geographers define a mountain in terms of height—it is a landform that stretches above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak, and is greater than 300 m above sea level. Russians apparently define ‘hill’ as an upland with a relative height up to 200 m, whereas the UK restricts the term ‘mountain’ to landforms over 600 meters, but even then, not always. If the higher landform is a sudden change from the nearby ground, then 300 m (1,000 feet) is the bar.
Other definitions make distinctions about the degree of slope (including two degrees or five degrees). In Scotland, however, where one of my great-great-grandmothers was born, landforms with distinct summits are called ‘hills’ no matter what their height!
It seems that the designation of hill or mountain is all in the eyes of the original beholder. And the distinction can be hugely important, as evidenced in this movie aptly titled The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain.
The assignment of ‘hill’ or ‘mountain’ to a landform is thus purely subjective. Whatever the person bestowing a name on the said rise of ground originally decided, is what remains.
That explains why my current hometown has both a Mount Tolmie (120 m) and a Mount Douglas (225 m) that are smaller than some of North Dakota’s famed Black Hills (highest being 2280 m). The Black Hills are so named from a Lakota phrase describing the dark appearance of the hills from a distance, as they are covered by forest.
The two ‘mountains’ in my hometown were named for historical figures, Doctor Tolmie and Governor Sir James Douglas. The latter was earlier known to native Songhees as Pkols, meaning ‘sacred place’.
To someone who grew up at the foot of BC’s tallest peak (Mount Robson), all of these landforms seem more hilly than mountainous, but all are distinctive and make worthy CBP subjects.
While I was trying to sort out hills and mountains I discovered a site in the Philippines with distinctive land forms dubbed the Chocolate Hills. Just how the hills came to be is a matter of conjecture, and of course local legend includes several wonderful folktales about their origin. Now if only it were true they were made of chocolate, dark Belgian chocolate….
Bonnie AND brazen to me
As children sometimes do, I apparently ‘mis-heard’ some of the lyrics to common Scots folk tunes sung in grade school. When I reflect on familiar mountain forms from my childhood I often get sound bytes floating through my inner ear. In addition to ‘oh, the heiland hills’ other lines from Loch Lomand come bouncing back.
“By yon bonnie banks…” was right, but I recall it was followed by “..and yon brazen breaks”. A Google search to find the full song lyrics reveals I got it wrong. And moreover, ‘breaks or brakes’ as in brackish would likely have something to do with the ocean or maybe a marsh. Silly me, the next phrase should have been ‘…and by yon bonnie braes’. Now there’s a lovely word for hill!
And I’ve also got more lyrics to play through my inner ear as I paint:
By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes,
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond,
Where in purple hue, the hieland hills we view,
And the moon coming out in the gloaming
My search also brought to mind a host of other hill/mountain terms to think about as I studied ways to convey the mountain backdrop to my Fraser River bridge. Among them: summit, shoulder, brow, brink, precipice, and pass. Here’s a site with a whole lot more.
And then a look at my favorite ‘heilan hills of home’.
My mountain slope studies:
Hunting through my CBP library for insights into painting the sides of mountains was not greatly productive. The most insightful was Landscape Painting with a Chinese Brush by Jane Evans.
Trial # 1
I decided to try and modify Evans’ method in portraying the treed mountain slope behind my Fraser River bridge. In her book she illustrated two variations on portraying a hill. Both start with using clear water to place a hill shape on the paper. Next you load a soft brush with light ink tipped in dark, and ink in the hill.
Variation One involves a side stroke with the tip creating a dry edge just outside of your original wet hill. Variation Two requires the same load and stroke, but you keep the brush tip inside the wet hill shape, resulting in a furry edge.
Evans also described another method for hills or mountain slopes. First step was to evenly damp the entire paper; I spritzed my paper and blotted the excess with paper towels.
Next I loaded a soft brush with medium ink. I held the brush so that the tip pointed towards the top of the page and rolled it to the right. I tried creating overlapping hills. My brush got twisty and it was tricky keeping the ink depositing so that the “trees” pointed upwards on the hills. I liked the edges to that upper left hill.
I did another one, this time dabbing in some extra dark ink on the closer range of hills.
And because my Bif brush was handy, I tried that to see how the ink dabs would look.
Trial # 3
Wanting to get on with painting mountain slopes in color, I tried the above ‘damp-roll-dab’ technique using blues.
I then moved on to painting two overlapping mountain slopes in roughly the positions I had planned for my bridge scene. I started with light shades of green and gradually built up darker shades for the lower part to the slopes.
With this last mountain slope trial completed I thought maybe, just maybe, I was ready to tackle the bridge scene one more time. I put the mountain slope study down next to my bridge trial to assess the overall plan.
Thoughts of those Chocolate Hills on an island in the Philippines still lingered, so I put the paints away to break for tea and something chocolatey. I noticed that Jane Evans had included some Scottish scenes in her landscape painting book and wondered if perhaps I could find images of the hills my Mackie ancestors had frequented, those yon bonnie braes. And a moon coming up in the gloaming would be kind of nice as well.