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Art: The Mind`s Eye The Angling Art Of Eldridge Hardie

I met my first Eldridge Hardie originals at Scenic Mesa Ranch in Hotchkiss, Colorado. The next day I stepped into the humbling grandeur of one of Hardie’s fishscapes by wading into the rushing Gunnison with a rod, a patient guide at my side instructing me in Fly Fishing 101. Envisioning us from afar, I pictured the two sportsmen talking tackle in Hardie’s Fly Fisher’s Afternoon.

The artist sums up such moments in a note he scribbled on his sketchpad, reproduced in the 2002 book, The Paintings of Eldridge Hardie: “sport—it’s art and life mixed together.” And therein lies the appeal of a Hardie watercolor or oil. Soaking in the peaceful goldening hues of Wyoming September or the lavender, magenta, and apricot rendered by an ascending sun in Early Risers makes any sportsman with a memory bank sigh out loud.

For 20 years, until 1985, Hardie worked exclusively in watercolors. So sure and spontaneous do they feel, with unpainted negative spaces standing in for the light of the sky or glistening water, you’d think he tossed one off in a single sitting.

But you’d be wrong. Because El Paso–raised Eldrige Hardie (born 1940) approaches his work with as much attention to the Greek principles of composition, order, and balance—called the golden section, or divine proportion—as did masters such as da Vinci and Dürer. “There are four points in a rectangle to which the eye naturally wants to go, and I usually try to locate my center of interest at or near one of these points,” writes Hardie, who graduated first in his class in the School of Fine Art at Washington University in Saint Louis.

Whether inspired by an experience in the field or the blush of dawn light, Hardie first chooses the viewer’s vantage point to look upon the scene. Then he organizes the overall shapes in the vista to create a satisfying composition. He takes liberty with reality, compressing the angles to tighten the relationship between gumdrop mountains in the distance, a cathedral-shaped stand of pines in the middle ground, and another, more massive, stand to one side to anchor the picture and provide scale to the figures.

A river might pour diagonally across the canvas, picking up all the subtle nuances of fading light while sculpting the sportsman with shadows, Heightening his body language. Or the focal point might be a fisherman in a boat, heading serenely away from the viewer to disappear into the depths of the canvas and around the bend.

But above all it’s Hardie’s effective sometimes dramatic use of tonal values—the relative luminance ranging from light to dark within Afternoon Hatch, for example—that gives his work individuality, strength, and poignancy.

During the creative process, Hardie pens the question on his worksheet—“What is the main idea of this painting?”—adding that art is “the difference between the indiscriminant imitation of nature and the expression of an idea.”

What does that mean for the evocative Miramichi Canoes, whose shimmering lilac-infused surface reminds me of Monet’s water gardens at Giverny? Or for action works like the Atlantic salmon fishing in Coming to Net? Or bringing in tarpon in Saltwater King, where each character is busy at his task?

Hardie’s work is definitely not about landing a trophy fi sh, or even painting it in exact proportion to the boat (although he records both measurements on his worksheet). Rather, it’s a celebration of the mood of the moment beyond the remembered: what’s indelibly imprinted in the mind’s eye to be savored for life. It’s about the time the largemouths ignored the plastic worms shimmying through the weeds, but the lightshow and harmony of the landscape left their mark. One can imagine, in Miramichi Fishing Canoe, Hardie dropping the killick and wading ashore, and then looking back and seeing the solid, attractive lines of his trustworthy craft bathed in dancing coniferous blue and green.

Hardie seeks such strong visual statements because the subject of his art is a look, not a story. It’s the job of the sportsman to provide that.



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Interestingly, although Hardie seeks authenticity and uses photography to capture precious reference material, his goal is not to reproduce a specific place or event. Like singer Carla Bruni (Mrs. Nicolas Sarkozy) saying her love songs aren’t about one lover but a brew of all her many lovers, Hardie’s work conveys a universal Restigouche River or Santee Marsh, not their GPS coordinates. Hardie’s loose and cheerful brushstrokes are the near opposite of the masterfully executed photo Realism that has spoiled so much sporting art.

When in the great outdoors, Hardie seems equally glad to have a rod, a 12-gauge, or a paintbrush in hand. He makes extensive field sketches and notes the sky, wind, and weather, how the fi sh and water behaved, which flies worked, and the moral of that almost holy day of “life and art,” because there always is one if you seek it.

Hardie sees the colors in his mind’s eye before taking up the brush, and jots down “visual: blue/ yellow/green” for radiant, boldly colored oils like Fish Creek, Wyoming, which no woman would object to hanging in her home; or “UB” (ultramarine blue) and “YO” (yellow ochre). He’ll fearlessly enrich a landscape’s solemn tranquillity with indigo, Persian, and cornflower blues; fern, malachite, and parsley greens. Yet his typical palette, he says, whether for watercolor or oil, usually numbers some nine pigments.

Even in his engaging, highly researched splitlevel trout portraits such as Buffalo Ford, there’s a hint of playfulness: the dimmed rosy peaches of trout in tannin-colored waters suddenly brighten in the sunlight when the fish rises to the fl y; and he plays with the resolution on the edges of the details, sharpening them above the surface and softening them below. In Spring Creek, to emphasize “their world/ our world,” the shapes of snowcapped mountains are repeated in the rocky creek bottom, and the wooden structures above the surface are waterloggedbranches below.

An accomplished wingshooter, waterfowler, fisherman (and lover of Labs), Hardie pays attention to all the gear that goes with sport, but this focus is refreshingly free of fussiness; it’s just there: the hat and suspenders, the net and rod.

It’s interesting to follow how Hardie’s mind’s eye evolved from his first heady mix of pursuing game in gorgeous surroundings with his brother and dad, doves along the Rio Grande, and trout in the mountains of southern New Mexico. As a teenager, he backpacked to fish the beaver ponds of the Mescalero Apache Reservation, and worked as a fishing guide for four summers on Yellowstone Lake.

At a crucial moment in his impressionable youth, Hardie’s war-hero uncle, Eldridge King, who earned a comfortable living as a professional Illustrator in New York City, gave his namesake his first box of watercolors. After high school Hardie visited him and the city’s world-class museums, which surely contributed to his seeking an utterly un-’60s classical education in fine art, with its focus on draftsmanship, figure drawing, and anatomy.

After graduating from university, Hardie briefly tasted the waters of a fine arts master’s degree program, but joined the Army Reserve (these were the VietNam years) instead. After six months of active duty, he began illustrating stories for magazines such as Colorado Outdoors, and his first book. Today, Hardie has illustrated or done covers for several dozen books, from Ortega y Gasset’s classic Meditations on Hunting to Michael McIntosh’s Shotguns & Shooting, including covers for two books by Roderick Haig-Brown.

In 1966 Hardie moved to Denver, where he still lives, and worked improving the art in biology books and illustrating publications for the Colorado Department of Game, Fish & Parks. Marriage to Ann and two children followed, as did his first series of prints, Trouts & Flies, which launched his career when Orvis purchased one third of the edition for its catalog. In 1978 he became Trout Unlimited’s Artist of the Year, and his works in a Denver gallery began to sell.

Once Ann began managing his talent, the recognition grew. Hardie was named Atlantic Salmon Federation Artist of the Year in 1994, and is credited with fi ve Texas Upland Bird, Wild Turkey, and Quail stamps. He’s been in more than a dozen invitational shows and exhibits, including at the Gilcrease, National Cowboy & Western Heritage, C.M. Russell, and National Bird Dog Museums, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, and the American Museum of Fly Fishing.

Hardie’s fishing and hunting oeuvre reminds us of nature’s—and life’s—bounty, especially when it includes creativity rewarded, grandchildren, and plenty of good sport.



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