The nexus between field sport and art.
[by Brooke Chilvers]
Long before shaking hands with artist C.D. Clarke, I saw his photo on the Internet: a strong-jawed fisherman in waders soaking in the riverside scenery, his paintbrush poised above his portable easel, the cool box beside him as bright blue as he would have painted it into a picture. You just knew he’d been in and out of the water a dozen times to get his mental vision of the setting just right.
When we met at his bucolic New Jersey home and studio, the intense look of his pepper-colored eyes and his shy manners confirmed the impression that Clarke, born in 1959, is as comfortable being an old-fashioned all-around sportsman as he is an artist of watercolors and oils.
Piecing together the components that create meaningful sporting art, Clarke is the harmonious outcome of an outdoorsy youth in Upstate New York combined with some darned good DNA. Both his grandfather and father were serious smallmouth bass fishermen, and his mother’s family has a cottage on Canandaigua Lake, the fourth largest of the Finger Lakes.
When barely out of diapers, C.D. nabbed his first fish, then seriously sought creek chubs and trout on worms with the schoolmate with whom he later hunted pheasants, rabbits, and ducks. By 12, he’d become fascinated with fly fishing and taught himself the rudiments from books. He convinced his dad to take him to the local Trout Unlimited meetings and to let him purchase a shotgun.
Simultaneously, he discovered sporting art in the pages of magazines such as Field & Stream, but especially through Lynn Bogue Hunt’s illustrations of sporting literature, including Burton L. Spillers’s Grouse Feathers and Firelight, and Van Campen Hielner’s 1939 A Book of Duck Shooting. “I read them because I loved the outdoors, shooting, and fishing so much, but the art helped bring the sport to life.” By 17, he had his own subscription to Gray’s Sporting Journal, with its artwork by Aiden Lassell Ripley, Ogden Pleissner, and Chet Reneson.
Not to be overlooked is the influence of Clarke’s famous “uncle” (actually his grandfather’s first cousin, or C.D.’s cousin twice removed), navy combat and portrait artist Albert K. Murray (1906–1992), who’d pull out his easel during battles on South Pacific seas or during the sun-drenched landings at Salerno, grabbing the reality of action amid the impartial play of light on sky and water. Murray’s official portraits of prominent Americans hang in the Pentagon and multiple corporate headquarters.
“We visited him fairly often in his Manhattan studio, which was in the same building as Pleissner’s and Dean Cornwell’s, with whom he was friends. Can you imagine those three titans having drinks together a couple of times a week!” says Clarke. Cornwell, (1892–1960), nicknamed “the Dean of Illustrators,” used a loose brushstroke and stylishlight effects, which Clarke studied in ads for Seagram’s Gin and Aunt Jemima, and murals in New York’s Rockefeller Center and General Motors Building. “Uncle Al was a mentor, both in encouragement and as an example that being an artist was a viable career.”
Like Murray, Clarke attended the University of Syracuse, where he studied Fine Arts during the last days of abstract expressionism then dominating the entire art scene. Although art school “doesn’t teach you how to earn a living from your work,” says C.D., he did learn artistic stamina from his primary illustration professor, the highly awarded science fiction and fantasy illustrator, Murray Tinkleman. “After you thought you’d painted the equivalent of theMona Lisa, he’d say, ‘That’s great. Now, do another thousand.’” Eventually, this added up to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours Rule” of hard practice as the path to success. “Although I’m a born painter,” observes the self-critical Clarke, “I’ve had to work hard at draftsmanship. Composition, color relationships, and applying paint to paper or canvas have always come naturally to me, but I’ve had to drill myself on getting the animal or human figure just right.”
Most valuable for the budding sporting artist—a term, unlike Pleissner, he values rather than disdains—was acquiring the technique of working on location en plein air. This practice, so fundamental to impressionism, of which Clarke is an offspring, came about with the development of premixed tubes of paint in the 1870s, which eliminated the constraints of the obligatory grinding of pigments and mixing them with linseed oil.
Clarke’s magically colored outdoor world is expressed in his watercolor palette of ciridian, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, rose madder genuine, cadmium red, cadmium yellow pale, raw sienna, burnt sienna, Indian red, lemon yellow, cobalt turquoise, and sparingly employed titanium white. For his oils, the spread is similar.
Plein air painting gives him inklings and images that can’t be captured with a camera, although he uses one as a tool to reference figures, equipment, boats, or dogs. He readily exchanges his rod or shotgun for a pencil or paint box to capture the fleeting moment of a pastel sky. Those enchanting instances occur a quarter of the time during earliest morning, but are most dramatic at sunset. “Timing is everything, and you just have to be there when the light strikes.”
Having already visualized the whole scene unfolding, C.D.’s timeless method starts with thumbnail field sketches that he works up back in the studio. The next step is gridded and scaled to full-size freehand pencil sketches of the overall composition, to which he adds the sportsman and other defining elements.
Clarke aims to achieve the feeling of nature. He paints his trees with loose brushwork rather than leaf by leaf. He doesn’t “starve” his paintbrush of pigments and confidently allows “the paint to do what it does.”
Fieldwork helps him establish the relative color values that shape the composition and make the eye travel from the foreground into the depths of the canvas. This arrangement generally means a light sky and medium-dark rocks and ground vegetation. The darkest areas are the trees and their mirrored reflections, which serve to frame and bring focus to the fairly mid-canvas activity.
Tapering roads, the river bending out of sight, triangular rock formations, jailbar stands of trees on the edge of grouse cover, the wake of a boat moving across still waters toward the plane of the horizon crowned with the strong vertical lines of a flats guide and angler poling for tarpon—all magnetically draw in the viewer.
“C.D. lives his life inside a painting, fishing and hunting around the world with a ferocity and frequency practically no one gets to do anymore,” says Gray’s previous editor James R. Babb, whose trilogy of fly fishing stories and essays (Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishin’ Fool) have marvelously inviting covers by Clarke. “He paints himself deeper into the scene than most artists seem to get. You look not so much into the painting as out of it.”
Babb and Clarke have fished together in Patagonia, Scotland, and on Gaspé salmon rivers. Clarke’s work evokes “the crippling heat or shattering cold . . . the taste of gorse in Scotland, last night’s haggis and neaps, the scent of trout on my hands and peat in my drinking water,” writes Babb.
Discussing with C.D. the difference between painting a turkey versus a grouse setup, and how he creates visual impact in a featureless bonefishing seascape, I found it clear that the mind and hands of the sportsman and artist are inseparably fused . The conversation dances from the difference between spring and fall colors and North Atlantic and Caribbean skies to the required patience for calling in a tom turkey versus “running and gunning” him, and the mandatory-for-success knowledge of grouse habitat, as well as “burning boot leather” in the walking game for
flushing the most birds. Clarke’s art is inextricably tied to the field. The sportsman is in the artist and the artist is within the sport.
Today, the man who once dreamed of the places he hoped to fish and shoot one day always has his bags packed, ready to accompany his clients to near or faraway gamefields, and he has contributed to Fly Rod & Reel, Sporting Classics, Field & Stream, and Gray’s Sporting Journal.
But the boy is still in there: “I never got into athletics much—I don’t think I went to one football or basketball game at SU—because all I wanted to do was be on the water or in the woods,” Clarke wrote recently. “By the way, I’m driving five hours each way to hunt ducks in Maryland tomorrow morning. Nothing has changed!”
Brooke Chilvers has been lucky enough to experience C. D. Clarke’s artwork in the comfort of his home, and in various exhibitions nationwide.