Heli-painting blends adrenaline with elegance
For Jasperite Wendy Wacko, painting has always been an excuse to be outside.
Throughout her life, her most cherished memories have included a paintbrush. Whether hiking in the Don Valley in Toronto as a young girl or paddling solo to the end of Maligne Lake, for Wacko, nature and art have always been inextricably linked.
“Painting’s always been an excuse to pack a lunch and take off for the day,” she said.
On August 19, Wacko, along with Brenda Tackaberry, a client from Calgary, were literally taking off for the day. The pair, along with 32-year-old helicopter pilot Nick Herbert and a lucky Jasper Local photographer, lifted off from the Yellowhead Helicopters base near Valemount, B.C. and flew over Mica Mountain, near the Premiere Ranges. With the wind flagging off of surrounding peaks, Herbert gently flew the Bell Jet Ranger into a hanging valley approximately 20 km northwest of the village. As the machine dropped down and banked left, their destination—the broken and bulging Kiwa Glacier—came into view. Surrounded by rust-coloured rock and rich stands of green timber, the ancient ice led to an impossibly teal tarn, replete with calving icebergs. With the helicopter hovering and Herbert searching for a place to land, Tackaberry snapped off multiple shots with her phone.
“It’s stunning,” Tackaberry said over the headset.
The remote Kiwa Glacier is the setting for Wacko’s Introduction to Wilderness Painting, an opulent and exciting program offered through Mountain Galleries, Wacko’s business of 25 years. Participating “heli-painters” are dropped into surreal Rocky Mountain environments, landscapes hand-picked by Wacko as having the perfect combination of colour, perspective and eye-popping visuals. Walled in by steep cliffs, the Kiwa Glacier area also has significant protection from rough weather, a pre-requisite for the pilots. As Wacko laid out her canvasses and dolloped a dozen or so rich colours on her palette, she explained what makes the Kiwa Glacier so special to paint is the area’s incredible fore, middle and background.
“It’s really got everything,” she said. “You’ve got so many choices of what story to tell.”
Painting, after all, is story telling. Wacko says when a painter is first starting out, keeping the story simple is critical to a successful piece. To demonstrate, she focused on the ochre-coloured earth that cradled the Kiwa Glacier’s long tongue.
“My first story that I think I want to talk about is the middleground. The colour variations of the tone in the earth are amazing. There’s not a lot of spots we can go and see that kind of tone,” she said.
For Wacko, painting is about getting outside. Not only does one get to feel, smell and taste the landscape, but painting in the wilderness offers unique challenges, such as how to capture the dynamic light changes and how to manage your canvass when the wind comes up.
“When you paint from a photograph you miss the details,” she says.
Moreover, you’re missing the elemental beauty. In two hours the scene in front of the duo changed from bright, radiant and sunny to moody, dramatic and foreboding.
“We’ve seen the sky go from cobalt blue where it’s kissing the glacier, now we’ve got this incredible dark patch of cloud that is framing the white and the glacier still seems to be lit up,” Wacko said.
Tackaberry definitely saw the light.
“The best part was that so much was changing as we were painting it,” she said. “The lighting and the colours would change, the textures and the mood would change, and I think that really made me see my painting in a different way than if I was painting from a picture.”
Tackaberry, who described herself as a hobby painter, was gifted this trip—it was a Christmas present from her mother. Besides the adrenaline-pumping helicopter ride and the chance to see a remote glacier up close and personal, she cherished the opportunity to learn from Wacko.
“For me, it was a total adventure; something I wouldn’t have normally done or thought about doing.” she said. “Wendy provided a good framework for understanding watercolours and how they work, but really set no expectations on the outcome. This gave me confidence and allowed me to explore my own style.”
For her part, Wacko loves introducing budding artists to new mediums, but also to the glory of painting outdoors. She and her student toasted to many more brush strokes in the wilderness.
“Laying down watercolours isn’t easy, it’s about miles on your brush,” Wacko said. “And the only way to get it going is to start.”