He blows on the painting as if imbuing it with life


In his studio, I get to watch him scrape down and then sand lightly a painting he’s been waiting to finish: sitting with it for days, the way a good writer will sit with an ending, even when he or she is certain. Waiting to be sure—waiting for the delightful vapors, the adrenaline fumes, of completion to wear off—and then waiting a little longer.

The painting—maybe 6 inches by 9 inches— has taken him a month.

“No one spends a month on a small painting like this anymore,” he says. Later he’ll take it to an auction in Great Falls, like a rancher with a prize bull, but carrying it onto the plane like a magazine under his arm.

The blade is rasping, the paint is falling to the bottom of the easel, rasp, rasp, rasp. He blows on the painting as if imbuing it with life, shakes it, puffs on it again, then sands it lightly, holds it out at arm’s length, and is satisfied. And it is beautiful.

~ Rick Bass, on Russell Chatham, 74, who he describes as the greatest living landscape painter in America.


  • Thank you Rob Firchau at The Hammock Papers for pointing me to his work and the article.
  • Paintings shown above by Russell Chatham: The Seasons, April and Chatham Hayfields, 1995


  1. When you said, “he blew on the painting” – I thought you were referring to God. It is wonderful – and indeed reminds me of W. O. Mitchell’s, “Who has seen the wind?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The detail is amazing. Not sure a photographer’s lens could capture his images so perfectly. Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great painting and writing. Painting is very subtle and tonal, so much distance and space. Looks so simple, but I know it’s not!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agree. I can only admire Jill. A poor sketch of a stick-man is may outer boundary.

      Liked by 1 person

    • And especially appreciate this passage:

      He married young, had children—he has four children from three mothers—and kept painting, kept fishing. Time slid past. He moved to Montana in 1972, at the age of 32, back before it was the New West, but when an explosion of literary and other artists were converging on the freedom of those open spaces; and he remained there for nearly four decades before returning home in dire financial straits, despite the waiting list for his paintings, and the fact that even a small single piece sells for tens of thousands of dollars. He simply will not get in a hurry on a painting, is painstaking, a perfectionist, insistent upon getting lost—or found—in the work.

      Chatham is a man of consistent, insistent, unrelenting passions, wreathed with paradoxes. He painted all throughout his youth—put in the requisite time of 10,000 hours—yet he says that when he moved to Montana he knew nothing about painting; had not yet learned how to paint. As with the casting, he had been painting relentlessly, following intensely in his grandfather’s magnificent steps. Even to a layperson, the similarities are visible: in the composition’s arrangement of curves, not necessarily voluptuous but graceful; in the brushstrokes, rich and dreamy, yet powerful; and in the most basic essence of a painting, the palette. It would be easy to consider that the penciled sketch underneath, and the wash below, are the dream, blueprint, and path of a painting, but that is like saying a dry riverbed is a river. The water is the real river. The color is the painting. The palette is the real dream.

      “You can’t just do it for an hour a day, or on Saturday,” he says. “It’s not going to work.”

      ~ Rick Bass, on Russell Chatham, 74, who he describes as the greatest living landscape painter in America in Field & Stream: Russell Chatham: A Landscape Artist with a Hunter’s Eye

      Liked by 3 people

  4. There is nothing like the thrill, nay privilege, of seeing an artist at work. Gaining entry to an artist’s studio now and again for a story I’m working on is one of the things I most love about my work. Thanks for this delightful share, DK!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. the detail is mind-boggling.

    Liked by 1 person

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