Life Inside of a Snowy Mountain Painting
Sometimes a memory is too pure to be captured accurately by a camera, and it all comes down to what's going on in the background.
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“Watch the bar,” the liftie1 warns. He steadies the ancient two-seater chair as it swings around on its cable. I grab the center pole that supports the seat — a now-obsolete fixture, absent from modern chair lifts — as I’m hoisted off the loading platform and into the air.
There’s no safety bar, no place to rest my snowboard. The whole thing shakes from side to side, but somehow it all feels right.
The snow is coming down pretty hard, accumulating on my jacket and lap faster than I can brush it off.
From my perch, I smell freshly baked sugar waffles, drizzled with chocolate, wafting up from the tiny shack near the bottom of the slope.
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I take my next run with food on my mind, meandering through the deep powder piling up in the dell. As I emerge from the trees, I reach down to start unstrapping my bindings, still coasting to a stop by the waffle cabin.
I pay for the treat, brush the snow from a plastic Adirondack chair, plunk myself down, and take in the scene.
I always wanted to look back on that moment — but in a way the precision of a camera couldn’t capture. I set about trying to recreate that day on a canvas.
The next morning, I gathered my supplies, set up my easel, and started mixing paints. It was all soft blues and grays at first. I used an enormous brush to shape the vague outline of the hillside, fading into the distance across the canvas.
When the underpainting2 dried, I set to work painting in the pines. Like many art techniques, I learned this one from watching old tutorials from Bob Ross. I dotted the farthest reaches of the hillside with “happy little trees.”
I created with variety. Some were full of needles. Others stood crooked with sparse branches. I added in others that had been struck by lightning, stripped of all their boughs and killed where they stood; tall, thin lines standing stark on the hillside.
None were bigger than the nail of my pinkie.
I admired this distant hill with pride, before covering the entire canvas again in a coat of diluted, storm cloud paint.
Endless Coats of Gray
During that afternoon snowstorm, nothing stood out clearly. The air was thick with flakes and low clouds.
In my painting, I mimic that affect with layering. The closer you get to the foreground, the sharper the details become. The farther away, the more coats of thin gray paint the details hide beneath.
When I’m done with all the trees, I realize I’m left with a boring, wide-open hillside in the front left corner. In reality, the space was a wide-open trail, where riders raced down to the waffle hut where I’d been sitting when I took the picture.
But this wasn’t reality. It was a world of my own creation.
Using my pallet knife and a few flicks of the wrist, I built my dream home: a snow-covered A-frame cabin.
With a dollop of neon green, and two tiny brushstrokes, I materialize a brand-new pair of skis, sticking out of the snow.
Another few blots of white, and footsteps march their way up the stairs, tracking snow up the stairs and across the porch to the front door.
I weighed down the arms of the largest pines with clumps of snow, then spatted flecks of white across the scene to re-create the flakes that first captivated me on my trip.
The end result now hangs above my bed.
A Closer Look
The day I wrote this, I got out of bed and spent a few minutes gazing at the bespoke mountainside. This is the tiny detail that inspired me to share this story with you:
Can you even see it? Those tiny trees on the farthest hill? I remember the time I took, painstakingly giving each one its own distinct shape and character. Now they blend into the background, barely visible.
When looking back on the literal big picture in our lives: singular moments always fade into the cloudy background. Memories and experiences lose their sharp edges the more time passes. Our biggest struggles and proudest accomplishments become tiny flecks of paint in the larger, finished product that is our existence.
What an infuriating notion to grapple with.
Yet without these background details — be they on the canvas, or in our lives — we lack depth, richness, and the feeling of authenticity.
Now, when I look at those far off trees in the painting, I’m reminded that even these moments are still a defining part of my identity. The coats of gray that obscure those experiences don’t trivialize them.
They just help give our present selves a better background to stand out on.
I want to Hear from You
Do you have a background detail in your life you’d like to bring back to the forefront? Perhaps something you accomplished a long time ago, or an interesting place you visited that doesn’t come up in conversation anymore?
Tell us about it in the comments!
Slang for ski lift operator
Underpainting is an artistic technique, somewhat like laying a foundation. You can use it to paint a kind of silhouette of your final work. When you paint over it, the colors you used in the underpainting will change the appearance of the final product. Reds, for example, make an environment feel warmer. Blues, colder