After our first trip in June 2001 to try to locate the painting location of Alexander Helwig Wyant’s “Flume of the Opalescent,” Catherine Minnery and I returned in July with more success.
We had the help of Steve Langdon, who at the time was the caretaker of the Interior Outpost at nearby Lake Colden, and who had been to the flume before.
We were also better prepared with rope to aid the descent into the flume and with fuller sets of art supplies for an entire day of drawing and painting.
While boulders and tree trunks have shifted, many of the geological details are remarkably similar to those depicted by Wyant, particularly the shapes of the rock faces on the cliffs to the left of the falls and the linear cracks that pass through them. By standing where he may have stood, I understood better how his choices for the edges of the composition affected the strong feeling of enclosure. A broader scene, with more vegetation on the left or more space on the right, would have diminished the dominance of the tilting gray cliffs.
In my photograph of the motif, a large pile of debris blocks the view of the stream bed that Wyant depicted. Spring flooding may have shifted some of the boulders and he may have been perched up higher for his sketches and he may have also cleaned it up visually as he worked in his studio on the large painting.
From my research at historic painting locations over the past 13 years I have discovered that nineteenth-century painters took much greater liberties with the foregrounds as they set up a gradual entrance into the spaces of the artwork. Here Wyant gives the viewer a gentle ground to stand on in the lower right corner next to a very quiet pool, with only a few indications that the light of the barely visible sky has made it into the darkened gorge.
Standing on top of the debris that appears in the photo of his motif, I used Wyant’s angle of vision and chose a similar field of view, but was inspired to take a different approach. In a mid-sized work started on site with acrylic on paper that had been rolled up in a tube for the journey, I opened up the space with more light and intensified the colors. At the edges of the painting I suggested only a few details of the forms with energetic brush strokes so that the darker area of the waterfall would separate more from the foreground. The viewer has no place to stand and the space is deliberately much more difficult to enter than in Wyant’s version. I used artistic license to remove some of the tree trunks so that the focus would remain on the falls.
Part of my motivation for visiting the flume had been to make sketches for a commissioned mural in a three-story stairwell at the Adirondack Trust Company in Saratoga Springs. By moving closer to the falls I was able to sketch and paint the dramatic vertical patterns of rock, water and vegetation that would fill the space of the stairwell. I had brought along stiff paper for a painting surface and a large piece of matboard creased in half that, when unfolded, gave me the proportions of the wall for a large sketch. I eventually used those studies and many photographs as sources for the twenty-two foot mural.
Photos, from above: Anne Diggory and Catherine Minnery on their return to the Opalescent Flume in 2001; Wyant’s “The Flume of the Opalescent”; the Flume in 2001 showing the angle of view of Wyant; Anne Diggory’s Wyant’s Flume; and Diggory at work on the Flume mural at Saratoga Convention Center.