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Back Roads Bill and his trail cameras inspire a painting (9 photos)

Clermont Duval, inspired by trail cam photos from Back Roads Bill, gets permission to use photos as references for wildlife paintings

Art is all around us, especially within Nature. There is a new wildlife painting from a renowned French-Canadian artist featuring wolves and eagles and the inspiration comes from the back roads not so far away.

Like Robert Bateman, Clermont Duval is a well known wildlife artist. Over the course of the last 40 years, Duval has painted over 2,500 pieces and this is not counting the smaller paintings, book covers, and the thousands of drawings and paintings done for the graphic novels.

Duval explains his inspiration.

“When I first saw one of the photos (bald and golden eagles – Facebook/Instagram) I immediately realized the potential and authenticity of the scene. Such exceptional shots are very rare and receiving permission to use them becomes an opportunity that one must take advantage of as an artist.”

The Painter - Background

Author Louis Hémon wrote the French Canadian novel, Maria Chapdelaine. Posthumously it became a classic. Few Quebec books have 150 different editions and have been translated to more than 20 languages, inspired three film adaptations and a play.

The story sold millions of copies at a time when book publishing and marketing had not yet developed. It has been described in French literary circles as “a kind of masterpiece, both in form and in terms of accuracy and truth of observation.”

Duval, illustrated the modern version of the story, with more than 300 pen and ink sketches. These had a huge influence on the storyboard of the 1983 movie version of the novel.

Both the novel’s author and the artist and storyteller have roots in the same environment that influenced storyline and canvas. The latter became inspired by the lifestyle and happenstance portrayed in the novel. It is his new wildlife/landscape painting.

Duval was born in the town of St. Éleuthère in Kamouraska, Que., a rural farming country within a family of 15 children.

Four generations of woodsmen lived off the land. In the early sixties, his family “followed the pines” to the Mattawa area. But he broke the family mould.

A passion for drawing developed at a very young age, so young, “I don’t remember being without a pencil and paper.”

He has always created worlds and objects that he couldn’t access, always making them available in two dimensions.

Duval has averted tragedy. On Aug. 25, 1973, he was involved in a very serious boating accident. His private boat blew up and he suffered burns to more than 50 per cent of his body. This accident could have taken away all hopes of becoming an artist.

“I promised myself that if I regained the use of my hands, I would spend the rest of my life as a full-time artist," he said. 

His hands have healed and he has kept his promise. On Aug. 25, 1994; the same date of his accident, saw the opening of the artist’s own gallery.

His first love in art was writing and illustrating graphic novels.

In 1975, he published his first book titled La guerre à coup de poings. In 1978 he wrote and illustrated his sixth story – L’arme humaine

It was because of this the opportunity arose to write and portray as a graphic novel, the story of Maria Chapdelaine (Louis Hémon’s heroine). The original collection of Duval’s drawings is in the Louis Hémon Museum in Péribonka, Que.

In 1990, Duval began his Children and Wildlife series which combines both writing and painting. In this medium, the artist truly discovered himself.

“Way back, I was working with a co-publisher in Montreal and I was illustrating and writing graphic novels in French of course. When I started painting, I miss telling stories, and that’s what the children in the nature series were doing, a means of telling tall tales using kids," Duval said. "Children would fit so much better in nature than grown-ups, same with the native and their wonderful art, they are blending in, becoming a part of the landscape.”

The work of The Admirable Violent was the first painting to be reproduced as a limited edition print. For this print, not only would each piece be numbered and signed, but each one would be fingerprinted and would include a storyline.

He was the first artist to mark his reproductions with his fingerprints. Now, many artists in Canada and the U.S. have followed his lead. Duval’s work is internationally recognized, with galleries in the U.S., France and Germany showing many of his limited editions.

“Living up North is the main reason for painting the environment, it’s limitless, the temperature, the seasons, the colours, the storms, the old buildings, the log cabins, the spectacular skies, the trappers, the naturalist, the nature lovers, the native and their great conservationist culture, the rivers and lakes, the canoes and the Voyageurs, the history, the stories and the legends!”

He is famous for his little red canoe series of portraits.

"The red canoe became the common nominator, the connection, the calm mean of moving in the pristine bath of colours and subject that is nature,” Duval said.

The settings for many of Duval’s landscapes are within the Ottawa and Mattawa River valleys, never far away from town and his camp on Lake Talon.

The Painting

The Gold, The Silver and The Grey is the name of the 54" x 28" painting on canvas wrap which features a series of up-close and personal depictions of wolves and eagles (bald and golden) along a Mattawa River landscape background.

“The subject is taken from life; it's not a portrait of an animal that breaks for the camera, no! It is the animal in action of survival directly in our part of the country," Duval says. “Everything is there, the setting, the movement, the expression, the cold, the drama of the scene. It's not inspiration, it's the fact and challenge of capturing the brutal actions of nature by putting the pieces together.

"We understand that a deer has been hunted by wolves and the eagles, the bald and the golden, (another conflict) want to take the remains of the prey.

"No, I don't show the dead animal, nor the blood, that is not in the references either.

"The naturalist, who took the pictures, explains it, that's all, the rest is clear. In this drama, there is beauty in the dance, ritual and the fatality of conflict.

"It is a privilege to compose with colours and brushes, a natural theatre that has been common for millennia here in our northern Ontario backyard.”

The Inspiration

I am honoured to say the naturalist Duval references is Back Roads Bill.

These are taken with trail cameras, during the past two winters; it was a COVID project as I continued to live my Thoreau existence within the Park and at the Canadian Ecology Centre.

You bet, I have to behave like an animal, a lifetime of being outdoors has allowed for that privilege.

Wildlife is wary, alert and elusive at the best of times so the positioning of the lens of where they might turn or land is critical to capturing that National Geographic sort of shot.

There’s no substitute for knowledge. You need to know the area, where the food is, where animals go to drink, what places give some shelter from the weather.

You need to know how to spot the trails animals utilize, winter tracking becomes a skill, the range and distances that they travel. You review thousands of nocturnal shots waiting for the daytime, fortunate frame.

Thoughts of anthropomorphism are replaced with the cycle of disease, starvation and predation that is reality.

Apart from snowshoeing to the site, I have had to find, deer kill carcasses, as wolves chase the deer onto the ice where they are most vulnerable, while constantly repositioning the cameras. And don’t tell mom, having fallen through the ice in late March retrieving a camera on thin ice (yikes).

Spending time with Dr. John Theberge with his wolf research and eventual booked helped me a great deal with understanding wolf behaviour.

I was a government l appointee to the once provincial wolf committee. It is a good use of ice cream containers to retrieve scat and urine samples along the way to replicate scent-marking approaching the prey scene; it looks a lot like sandcastle making but in the snow.

I have taken all the trapping courses, fur harvesters have taught me more than any ecology textbook. Thanks to Eldon Hawton, Mark Downey, Mark Taylor, Bob Barnes and Roger Labelle they are the true caretakers of nature. 

Gord Restoule from Dokis First Nation was an Elder, a mentor, he took the time to tell stories to a settler, there is a process to sit still to hear them many times before you can tell the story.

My highest honours are not awards or degrees but being welcomed into their community through a special eagle feather ceremony; I cherish my tobacco pouch and beaded totem star bestowed upon me, I believe it has led me to these opportunities because I am with the land and water through many indigenous teachings; I continue to learn how to respect the culture of the people, the land.

You can see the painting here or at Duval’s gallery and where the photos were taken on the Mattawa River.

Back to Duval. 

“Now, always the same question when I finish a painting, what's next? Yes, I will keep an eye on Back Roads Bill Steer!”

From the naturalist:

“Vitamin N provides much solace and entertainment. But being with Nature is a humbling experience you have to take much time outside to come to this realization, you’ll know. The work of art and the photos tell me so. There is much gratitude to give back, naturally on the back roads.”

What's next?

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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