Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Summer Squall

oil on linen panel
12x9 in (30x23 cm)

I've been oil painting for at least several hours almost every day recently, experimenting with color mixing on and off the canvas, brushwork, and learning learning learning. A lot of what I paint gets wiped off, and then I try something else. Others get set aside, perhaps to work on later. I'm not sure I've painted anything I feel like framing yet: a lot feels like exercises. But some appeal to me.

A lot of the time I just choose a color scheme and then think in terms of how to compose those colors, and how to use my brushes for different effects. That's how basic I am right now. I like to paint real things as abstraction shapes, with just enough to suggest what they are, so when the design triggers a memory, I let it happen.

That is what happened here. As I merged the yellow and blues, I began to re-experience a remarkable afternoon I once spent on Puget Sound in my kayak. When I dropped my kayak in the water, the day was calm and sunny with a light breeze. I paddled out to the end of the inlet, and began crossing the channel toward Squaxin Island. Abruptly the breeze turned into a sharp wind from my back, the sky turned black, and the water turned into a heavy chop. Water was sheeting off my paddles-- never a good sign.

And suddenly I found myself caught in 12 foot swells. I needed to turn so that I was headed into the wind-- otherwise I was in danger of being swamped by the wind and the deepening swells, which were just starting to break at the crests. There was another danger too: as the swells lifted me, I could see the rocky shore of the island not far ahead, and could see the water breaking over them. I needed to turn NOW!

As the next swell rose behind me, I had my paddle up and ready, hoping to time a deep starboard thrust so that my kayak would turn at the crest, and I would slide down the back of the swell bow first. If I failed, I could be caught sideways as the swell went down, which would almost certainly swamp me. Though I wore a drysuit and flotation device, there would be no way to upright my boat in that water, and I would have to do an underwater exit. If I lost the kayak, I'd be at the water's mercy.

Geez, that sounds melodramatic now, but the fact is that people die every year on Puget Sound in less extreme conditions. Let it be known that this squall came out of the blue: no one expected it. I would not normally have ever gone out if there were even the suggestion of something like this.

Somehow I managed to make that turn, a perfect 180 degree swivel as the crest lifted my boat so that only the midsection was on the water. If I'd been an onlooker, it would have been a thing of beauty. As I was not an onlooker, it was simply a big release of fear.

With the boat facing into the wind, all I could think was "Keep paddling. Paddle as hard as you can." I was so focused I have only dim memories of the sound of the wind. I was barely holding position: as I rose to each crest, I could see a small point on the island just in my peripheral vision, in the same place on my right. There was a fishing boat tossing at anchor in the lee of the tiny cove it formed. The sight of that boat somehow reassured me: I just hoped the pilot was aware of me, too, in case I capsized.

Then suddenly I was making headway. The wind abated, the swells turned first into a heavy chop, and then back into a light chop. I kept paddling until I reached the middle of the channel, where the water was beginning to return to the smoothness it had had, and the grey of the sky lightened. Then I turned to see what in the world I had just been through.

Over the island there was a squall cloud, black below, highlighted gold above by the mid-afternoon sun. It was headed north, with an edge of wind-pushed drenching rain that obscured all but the shore I'd just left. Lightening bolts darted from point to point around the edge of the cloud. It was beautiful, but intimidating. I sat, my paddle at ease across my bow, feeling stunned and awed, realizing that I'd just passed through that. And knew how lucky I was, both to have made it, and to have witnessed it.

Then I got a gift. As I turned again and headed toward my inlet, a patch of sunlight broke through just to one side of me. A pod of dahl's porpoises broke through the surface of the water, and danced through it, leaping almost as if they'd choreographed the whole event. I laughed with delight. They circled my kayak, gave another leap in the sun, and went on their way.

By the time I reached the opening to my inlet, the sun lit up everything again. I turned to look at the island one more time, but the squall had passed on, and the water was flat and calm all across the channel. I waved at the fishing boat as it chugged up the channel, but I doubt he could see me.

So that is where this painting took me, or I took this painting as it evoked the memory of that day. The moment that emerged is just when the wind had begun to pick up, with the edge of rain approaching, the chop beginning to form into swells, and that strange yellow light that precedes these kinds of storms.

No comments: