The summer between my seventh and eighth grade years my father taught a landscape painting workshop as part of Appalachian Summer. I am sure there was a classroom part of the class but my memories are of the time we spent painting outside. I have incredibly clear recollections of a day by the duck pond, an afternoon sitting on the rocks at Howard’s Knob and another at an old farm out in the county somewhere. After a hot water heater leak a few years ago I went through and piles of old art work and found several examples of the paintings I did that summer. Most of them were obviously done by a child. The lines and shapes seem a bit choppy, but some the compositions were actually quite good. This I think is due to the fact that one of the first things Dad had us all do was take a piece of mat board and cut a rectangular window in it. These were our viewfinders and we took them with us on each excursion. Before we ever sketched a single line on our paper we would slowly move our rectangles around the landscape trying to find the perfect slice of the scene from among the limitless possibilities. It made a huge difference. It helped find the right image to start with, but also made sketching the initial lines simpler, and as the painting progressed it could be held up again and again to verify details of the scene.
I do not often think of the long ago course (could it really have been 30 years ago?) or the lessons I learned in it, but this past Saturday sitting drawing at Duke Creek Falls I realized I should still be trying to apply them. As I set on the steps leading down to observation decks I was overwhelmed by the view in front of me. Duke Creek Falls is not just one waterfall, it really is falls, plural. My eye did not know where to rest, and my first drawing reflects that. There is no focal point, no organization of the composition. It is confusing and lacks a sense of depth. If I had brought a viewfinder with me I think I would have done a much better job. My second drawing I tried to limit myself more, to focus in on one part of the falls. I even used my hands to make a little rectangle to try and plan what I would include. It is a more successful drawing compositionally. I am going to make myself a viewfinder this week and keep it in my hiking backpack. Hopefully next weekend’s drawings will be markedly improved.
But even though this past Saturday’s drawings were not among my best the walk itself was. Where Panther Creek and Raven Cliffs were true hikes, each several miles in with narrow and steep portions, Duke Creek has a wide and smooth walking path that is just a little over a mile long. There are stairs in the steep places and observation decks around the falls. There was only one other car in the parking lot when Max and I arrived. We made the whole walk down without seeing another soul. Until this week I had never heard of Forest Bathing, but I am in agreement with the adherents and researchers that “if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved.”
When we arrived at the falls there was a couple there with their little dog, who was not fond of Max, so we explored around the observation decks a while. A large portion is blocked off because of storm damage. The spot where the tree came through the deck would have been the perfect place to sit and draw the dramatic view of the water finding many ways to come down the side of the mountain. If I had not had Max with me I might have sat there anyway. But even though I may be brave enough to climb over barriers and check out the damage I would not want to risk Max getting too close to the edge and falling off, and I wasn’t eager to get fussed at by a ranger either. I do not know if they enforce the $500 fine for getting off the trail, but I do not wish to find out. We took some pictures and then went back to the “safe” areas. The benches on the lower observation decks did not offer the views I wanted to draw. We ended up sitting on the stairs leading down to them which was very comfortable until other folks started arriving. Then we may have been in their way, but I just held Max close to me as they passed and no one complained. There were far fewer people than at either Raven Cliff or Panther Creek. I do not know if it was because the site is not as popular or because it is after Labor Day. I drew for about an hour and twenty minutes then we walked back up at a nice relaxing pace.