R. Tom Gilleon: Cas­cad­ing Sea­sons

A new dig­i­tal work by R. Tom Gilleon looks at the pass­ing sea­sons on a Mon­tana moun­tain painted by Charles M. Rus­sell.

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS - By Michael Claw­son

In 1922, Charles M. Rus­sell painted Charles M. Rus­sell and His Friends, a self­por­trait that showed the artist cheer­fully nod­ding at the viewer and ges­tur­ing with his out­stretched hand at the ex­panse around him: a sprawl­ing land­scape scene with river val­ley and green hills, cow­boy and Na­tive Amer­i­can fig­ures rid­ing amid swirls of dust, and a buf­falo skele­ton be­ing swal­lowed by the prairie grasses in the fore­ground.

Af­ter tak­ing in Rus­sell’s jovial in­vi­ta­tion to visit the Old West, sharp-eyed view­ers might have their eye drawn to the cen­ter of the paint­ing where, in the deep back­ground, a butte juts out from the hori­zon. It does not play a sig­nif­i­cant role in the work—it is dis­tant and small com­pared to the hu­man fig­ures—yet it an­chors the other el­e­ments of the paint­ing, from the horse and rid­ers and the hills on which they’re gal­lop­ing, to the river’s curly pro­ces­sion in the val­ley and a smat­ter­ing of wispy clouds in the sky. The butte holds such a place of promi­nence in the Mon­tana land­scape that even Meri­wether Lewis noted it in his jour­nal in his 1806 jour­ney through the re­gion.

Like Lewis be­fore him, Mon­tana painter R. Tom Gilleon also took no­tice of the mag­nif­i­cent ge­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tion, both in Rus­sell’s paint­ings—he’s painted it nu­mer­ous times, in­clud­ing in sev­eral ma­jor works—and in his own back­yard in Cas­cade, Mon­tana, not far from the land fea­ture, known both as Square Butte and Fort Moun­tain.

“It’s just amaz­ing. So much of the coun­try can be seen, in­clud­ing nearby Crown Butte and the Mis­souri River,” he says. “There’s a vista from ev­ery an­gle. It’s some­thing spe­cial up there.” In­spired by the rich his­tory re­lated to Square Butte, as well as his own ob­ser­va­tions of the area, Gilleon made the flat-topped moun­tain the sub­ject of an am­bi­tious new dig­i­tal project; the largest of its kind he’s ever un­der­taken. The work is an an­i­mated se­ries of paint­ings shown on a loop on a 4K res­o­lu­tion screen. Gilleon has done sev­eral of these projects be­fore, but for Fort Moun­tain he supersized the re­sults with 32 unique paint­ings that play on a 19-minute

loop. The work shows the fa­mous Mon­tana land­mark from one van­tage point dur­ing all four sea­sons: it be­gins in spring with green grasses sur­round­ing the rocky fea­tures of the moun­tain, lead­ing into a dry sum­mer be­fore show­ing the rainy sea­son in the fall that brings much-needed nour­ish­ment to the soil and wildlife, and then clos­ing on a lengthy win­ter, dur­ing which snow blan­kets the butte amid crys­tal-clear light. As the snow later melts away, the grasses re­turn and Square Butte is once again deep in spring, ready for the loop to start anew.

Time plays an im­por­tant role in these dig­i­tal works, not only be­cause they re­quire sus­tained and ac­tive view­ing from par­tic­i­pants—19 min­utes if they want to see ev­ery­thing—but be­cause they use the pas­sage of time as a fram­ing de­vice, both from sea­son to sea­son as well as day to night. Fort Moun­tain shows one sub­ject from all the sea­sons, with all kinds of weather and in all kinds of light. As a re­sult, time is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of na­ture’s re­silience as the land is vis­ited by hu­mans, wildlife and Mother Na­ture, yet re­fuses to bend to the pas­sage of time.

Not only does the dig­i­tal work show a 32-im­age se­quence of paint­ings, with each paint­ing seam­lessly fad­ing into the one that fol­lows, but it also tells small sto­ries us­ing vis­i­tors to the moun­tain. In spring a buf­falo ap­pears in the fore­ground, which is fol­lowed by a herd of buf­falo in the next paint­ing, and then sev­eral paint­ings later with Na­tive Amer­i­can hun­ters fol­low­ing the herd. The story com­pletes when the rest of the tribe ar­rives, sets up camp—it glows with fire­light in a spec­tac­u­lar se­ries of noc­turne paint­ings—and then moves on be­fore sum­mer sets in. Else­where in Fort Moun­tain, wolves, a rat­tlesnake, pronghorn and a wide va­ri­ety of birds make ap­pear­ances. To­ward the end of the loop, an owl stalks an er­mine in the snow, dives to­ward it, misses and then stands amid the snow. In some paint­ings, the im­age it­self is the story: stand­outs in­clude a rain­bow formed in the pass­ing of an af­ter­noon shower, light­ning that il­lu­mi­nates the butte’s rocky edges, the white­out of a bliz­zard

and a night­time scene with the Milky Way spread out in the moon­less sky.

“I never tire of watch­ing the cloud shad­ows race across the front, the way the sun first tinges it pink or the very last light of the evening form­ing a rim around it,” Gilleon says of his sub­ject mat­ter. “I feel I could pretty well paint any time of year or day from mem­ory.”

The project be­gan with lots of ob­ser­va­tion. “There are two paths to the top of this hill. I had to go up by horse­back on one trail, with an­other trail to the right of the paint­ing that is an old Jeep trail they’re do­ing their best to re­pair,” he says, adding that he couldn’t bring an easel or sketch­pad with him. “Once you’re on top up there your hands are full with the horses and watch­ing for snakes.”

Re­peated vis­its and lots of pho­tog­ra­phy would help in­form his “an­i­ma­tion” of the scene from sea­son to sea­son. Pho­tog­ra­phy, and later small draw­ings in a sketch­book, even­tu­ally led to sto­ry­boards. “I knew I wanted to do the four sea­sons—spring, sum­mer, fall and win­ter— but I also felt like I had to do things to make each one spe­cial. I im­me­di­ately started treat­ing it like a movie, and ev­ery­thing I was paint­ing was part of my movie script: the grasses com­ing up in the fore­ground, the buf­falo mov­ing through, the mead­owlarks you can hear, the cro­cus com­ing through the snow­field as the snow melts,” he says. “Think­ing of it as a movie al­lowed me to think of lit­tle scenes with the buf­falo and Na­tive Amer­i­can fig­ures, and the snow owl and the er­mine. With the snow owl, af­ter he misses his prey, the whole world turns pink, al­most out of em­bar­rass­ment. These were the scenes that were shaping my movie.”

For Gilleon, this idea of a movie as a blueprint was not for­eign to him. Be­fore he was a fine artist, he was an il­lus­tra­tor with NASA for the Apollo pro­gram, and then later worked as a Dis­ney Imag­i­neer, where he did con­cept and other art­work for Dis­ney projects around the globe. Later he would also work in Hol­ly­wood as an artist—one no­table project was the large

matte paint­ings for War­ren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy movie.

With the ref­er­ence ma­te­rial ready, Gilleon painted a sin­gle oil paint­ing that would serve as the su­per­struc­ture for the whole project. The paint­ing was scanned at a very high res­o­lu­tion and then im­ported into the artist’s dig­i­tal workspace in his Mon­tana stu­dio. From there, he used Pho­to­shop to ma­nip­u­late the ba­sic com­po­si­tion of the 32 paint­ings, and then he would use Corel Painter to dig­i­tally paint the fi­nal works. Later “post-pro­duc­tion” would cre­ate the sub­tle tran­si­tions from one scene to an­other, a mu­si­cal score, sound ef­fects fea­tur­ing lo­cal wildlife, drift­ing snow dur­ing the win­ter scenes and sub­tle vis­ual ef­fects, such as the ris­ing smoke from il­lu­mi­nated teepees and twin­kling stars.

“I use Pho­to­shop to get the col­ors, val­ues, hues…get all that cor­rect in Pho­to­shop, and once I’m happy with all the el­e­ments I take it to Painter, where I can use brushes that mimic oils, pas­tels, wa­ter­col­ors, acrylics and it all looks very much like the real thing. I use a sty­lus on a tablet, and it al­lows me to paint ev­ery brush­stroke,” he says. “There are lots of pros to this method: There is no cleanup, which is nice be­cause my hands don’t get all messy. I can also undo brush­strokes if I don’t like them. I can even go back 30 or so brush­strokes so I have to­tal con­trol over how things look. The cons are that I don’t get the tac­tile sur­face of the can­vas, the feel of the brush, the smell of the paint. It’s all very ster­ile.”

The com­pleted 19-minute work is then in­stalled on a high-end 78-inch 4K TV—“IT’S not ex­actly off the rack be­cause it’s set up for an in­te­grated sys­tem,” Gilleon says, adding that he works with col­lec­tors to make sure the project is pre­sented in its most ideal way. Fort Moun­tain, of which there will be 10 edi­tions, has been com­pleted for sev­eral months and the first edi­tion has al­ready been placed in one of the most prom­i­nent Western col­lec­tions in the coun­try.

Col­lec­tors and artists can get fussy when it comes to dig­i­tal works, pre­fer­ring in­stead to ad­here to the time­less tra­di­tion of oil paint. But for Gilleon, who has rou­tinely de­vi­ated from tra­di­tional meth­ods to ex­plore other medi­ums, dig­i­tal is just an­other tool in the tool­box. “I’ve en­joyed ad­vo­cat­ing the use of dig­i­tal meth­ods, and I keep go­ing back to this idea that popped into my mind: do you think if Char­lie Rus­sell had been given this abil­ity he wouldn’t have used it?” Gilleon asks. “There will al­ways be peo­ple who pre­fer oil paint­ings on stretch can­vas. Painters will never get away from it, nor will I. I can’t go a week with­out paint­ing. It’s part of who I am.”

While paint­ing meth­ods may come and go, into and out of fash­ion, there is one con­stant in this story about Western art: the time­less ap­peal of Square Butte, a bea­con in Mon­tana that has called to Rus­sell, Gilleon and count­less more artists to come.

Charles M. Rus­sell (1864-1926), Charles M. Rus­sell and His Friends, 1922, oil on can­vas. Mon­tana His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, Mackay Col­lec­tion, X1952.01.10.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.