When artist Charlie Palmer is on the hunt for the perfect natural landscape to paint, he might take his camera and hike the Inland Northwest’s creeks and riverbanks for miles.
“What I’m doing when I go outdoors is I’m looking for special scenes I can take back to the studio and use to create this kind of symphony of paint,” Palmer said.
He might just stumble on the perfect scene by accident. “Like that long horizontal there,” said Palmer, pointing to one of several paintings of the natural world he is delivering to Dodson’s Jewelers for his show opening this week for First Friday.
“We were at a rest stop in Moses Lake and I looked east and there was this beautiful horizon, clouds and sagebrush, and this green field, and so I snapped some quick shots of it,” said Palmer, 74, clad in camouflage suspenders and a Spokane Chiefs baseball cap. “I got a nice painting out of it.”
Palmer’s studio is nestled in its own natural setting in Medical Lake. Some of his rural front yard shows up in the oils he’s slated for the Dodson’s show. (He has two other studios on the Oregon Coast at which he regularly sells paintings). The studio itself, a 34 foot by 30 foot pole barn that sits outside Palmer’s log cabin home, used to belong to a lithographer who needed to move fast for a job 20 years ago.
“My wife was getting real tired of me sawing wood in the living room,” Palmer said. “I was at a party and we were talking about studios. Harold Balazs told me this place was for sale.”
Insulated and heated, Palmer’s studio has become a creative playground for the renowned landscape artist. His passions stretch beyond depicting the distinctive Northwest creeks, waterfalls and riverbanks for which he is highly sought by art collectors throughout the United States.
Among the dozens of fishing poles he regularly employs and animal hides garnered from shooting with a traditional muzzle-loader, (“You only get one shot”), are piles of stunningly crafted wood bows and arrows. Palmer is an avid bowyer and fletcher (someone who makes bows and arrows). He can rattle off the different types of woods he uses, such as yew wood and Osage orange, based on tensile strength, point out the heartwood and the sapwood, and explain how to wrap and glue deer hide to the bow as backing.
A lot of artistry goes into the ancient craft. And a lot of time and trouble. For Palmer, that’s the fun part.
“I can build all this stuff myself, make the bows, find the wood and feathers for the arrows, make the braided bow string, it’s called a Flemish twist,” Palmer said.
Out of a box among dozens, near the area of his studio where he makes jewelry, Palmer fishes out a sheaf of papers in which he wrote and illustrated how to make a Flemish twist bowstring by hand. Palmer has written several articles for Primitive Archer Magazine, including one about his former teacher, who then asked him to paint a portrait of him when he was 93 years old. Palmer can trace the lineage of who taught his teacher how to make bows, and who the famous archer was who taught him, and which American Indian taught the teacher before him, and so on. “It’s like a genealogy,” Palmer said.
On his studio wall is a framed cover of Sea Kayaker magazine, for which Palmer did the art, as well as a nude he painted of a young woman who went skinny-dipping when they sea kayaked together on a hot day with friends (Palmer met his wife while sea-kayaking the San Juan Islands). Among the stacks of envelopes of nature photographs are several photos of beautiful women and female screen stars, unsmiling and strong.
“I’ve always wanted to do some paintings of tough warrior women with lots of hair and a real serious look,” Palmer said. “I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, Palmer was first enthralled by drawing after trying to copy the Disney cartoon characters he saw on the big screen and in comic books. His life changed after he got a copy of his first Mad magazine in middle school.
“It was funny and sacrilegious and anti-establishment,” Palmer said. “The art was great with legends like Wallace Wood and Willie Elder.”
Palmer’s roommate at Boston College was Rick Meyerowitz, the Bronx-born illustrator who went on to fame as an illustrator at National Lampoon and who did the iconic poster for the movie “Animal House.” As college students, Palmer and Meyerowitz created a strip lampooning the BU faculty, a must-read for the entire campus.
Palmer ditched his original idea to go into advertising and illustration after figuring out that he loved to paint. After graduating with a master of fine arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and with the Vietnam draft board hot on his tail, Palmer accepted a job teaching art in Spokane in 1968 at Fort Wright College. He eventually became director of the university’s gallery before retiring in the 1980s. His work also appears in the Art at Work Program at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. A former avid hockey player, Palmer enjoys a side job creating portraits for team members.
“But I can’t get too blotchy with the portraits, it freaks out these people,” Palmer chuckled.
That “blotchy,” slightly abstract style is Palmer’s signature. Broad, loose brush strokes keep his landscapes dynamic and distinctive.
Palmer is inspired by impressionists such as Claude Monet, whom he studied in college. “The Boston Museum of Fine Arts owns about 16 Monet paintings, earlier ones, not the big water lily ones, which I don’t really care for,” he said. “I like the hay stacks and the church facades that are very atmospheric.”
“Monet said, you don’t actually paint the water, you paint what’s reflected off the water, you paint what’s in the water and you paint what’s underneath the water, and if you can do all three of those, then your painting will look a whole lot like water,” Palmer said.
Water is falling from the sky as this reporter bids the artist goodbye. Palmer grabs an umbrella and gives a final tour of his vast vegetable garden. He’s in the midst of prepping more than a dozen beds for carrots, asparagus, zucchini, and several types of potatoes. He pops a dozen different types of garlic bulbs he’s grown into a paper sack and insists I take it. He even follows up later with a shrimp and garlic recipe by email.
Palmer’s connection to the natural world continues.