Nicholas Oberling

contemporary american landscape painter

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The Glacier Backcountry Project

Please see my latest paintings and demonstrations for the Glacier Backcountry Project at my blog Critnick.com.

Everyone is familiar with Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald, and Logan Pass. Artists and photographers have justifiably made them iconic images of Glacier National Park. But as any park enthusiast will tell you, this is only a small part of the 1.4 million acre park. Far fewer visitors travel into the park’s vast backcountry, let alone depict it in paintings. In July of 2014, the Hockaday Museum of Art will feature a solo show of paintings that focus on principle backcountry regions that most people do not get to see. This exhibit, tentatively called “Hidden Treasures,” was inspired by a recent backcountry trip I took with a friend into the remote Belly River area. There I spent three days and hiked over 30 miles with my painting gear, visiting Cosley and Elizabeth Lakes. I completed seven plein air oil paintings over three days in the field on that trip. Over the next two years, I am organizing several more backcountry painting expeditions. A team of dedicated community members have volunteered to assist with this historic project, including a retired park ranger, a friend with trained pack mules, and experienced backcountry outdoorsmen. A photographer will accompany us to document the project. I intend to update this page regularly as our plans progress.


click to see larger version of The Big Meadow
This series of plein air oil paintings was done in the inaccessable wilderness of back-country Glacier Park. Accompanied by a friend riding a pack mule with camping supplies, I hiked thirty miles to capture some views that can't be seen any other way. This is my first day... After three hours of walking, a large meadow opened up ahead like a straw-colored lake, fringed by dense groves of aspens.
click to see larger version of Mt. Merritt
As with many mountains in Glacier park, Mt. Merritt is an optical illusion. It is a collection of glacially carved ridgelines that unspool off the continental divide. From my spot in the valley, several views of the same ridge form the mountain’s multiple peaks. On either side of the mountain were two drainages. One was our destination and it looked impossibly far away.
click to see larger version of Cosley Lake Afternoon
I faced Pyramid Peak and a glacial circque in quasi-silhouette. Haze from distant wildfire accentuated the distance of the sheer wall of rock several miles away while large horizontal bands of snow broke up the monotony. I framed the right side of the composition with a dense tangle of spruce to create contrast and depth. Many years of outdoor painting experience have taught me about the limitations of paint. Just rendering what one sees is often not enough to make a good painting. Scale and light effect are complicated illusions that require pre-meditation. The painting had to stand on its own two legs.
click to see larger version of Cosley Lake Sunrise
Sleep came easily that night, though it was more of a coma than normal sleep. I awoke at first light with my friend looming over me. “ Aren’t you going to get up and paint the sunrise?” “What sunrise?” Our tent was in the trees and I looked east. A splash of brilliant orange peeked through the boughs. I bolted up and scrambled over to a clearing. High thin clouds were illuminated from within by the as yet unrisen sun, as orange as a jack-o-lantern on a Halloween night. A few lower clouds, still in earth’s shadow, were a violet fringed with deep crimson.
click to see larger version of Elizabeth Lake
After a three hour hike, Elizabeth Lake appeared out of the dense foliage. The jagged peaks I had tantalizingly glimpsed above the treetops turned out to be just little ornaments on an otherwise vast and featureless wall that formed the head of the lake. Luckily a beautiful rocky spit jutted out into the glassy water. Several boulders artfully piled by glacial forces were clad in elfin trees, the whole effect suggesting the handiwork of an Oriental master. I seized upon this foreground element as the subject of my composition, using the great wall in the distance as a backdrop. When it was finished, I felt like I’d succeeded in capturing the tranquil mood.
click to see larger version of Dawn Mist Falls
Although I was tired from my early rise and already had two paintings behind me, Dawn Mist Falls was so spectacular that I forgot all my aches and pains. From the vantage of the path, the Belly River plunges off a cliff into a seemingly bottomless and shadowy void. I loved the drama of all the trees hanging on for dear life on the cliff edge, many at crazy angles. This is what plein air painting is all about. No photograph could capture the drama or convey the feeling of the struggle between life and death and the forces of light and dark. I easily spent three hours on the piece before I felt it was ready to sign.
click to see larger version of The Ranger's Cabin
That night after dinner, I quietly considered that I had three empty panels left and one remaining day of my trip. Though I more than deserved to curl up somewhere and sleep, I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t brought an empty panel in vain. Since I knew the best material lay where we were, I decided to make one last effort for the day. Behind the campground, about a quarter mile up a hill, there was a fairly unobstructed view of the valley. I had to really hoof it up that hill in order to catch a magnificent effect that had been developing. I was so tired that I fumbled with my supplies. Fierce gusts of wind toppled my easel. The prize was worth fighting for. The last rays of the sun cloaked the peaks of the mountains in gold and scarlet. Though I couldn’t really get much detail in my painting, I captured some of the color drama moments before it faded.

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