"Most of the time I can think two colors ahead," he said. "But this time the effect of the blue will be huge. Until I see it on the paper I can't know the next step."
Chatham has been making lithographs for 25 years and claims to have done more lithography "than anyone in the world." As one of America's most famous landscape artists, some of his older, rarer lithographs sell for more than $10,000.
"Lithography makes painting feel like falling off a log," said Chatham, whose original paintings routinely fetch more than $100,000. "Doing this has improved my painting hugely. It made me pay much more attention. I used to paint far too casually."
In original lithography, each color is printed individually using a single unique aluminum plate made from the artist's drawing. The number of colors needed to finish a print is never the same. Some of Chatham's early lithographs had as many as 50 plates. Most of his recent work is typically under 30.
It takes months to produce an edition, but the results are incomparably more vivid than those done with standard four-color process printing. Chatham refers to creating a lithograph as "hell," and finishing a lithograph as "hell is over for a while." In spite of this, he loves the medium.
He's recently donated a handful of those lithographs - some quite rare - for a student reading room in Montana State University's Renne Library.
Chatham's never adopted a public space before and the reading room in Renne is the largest assemblage of his work visible outside a gallery. The much-used room holds eight lithographs and three digital reproductions of Chatham's oil paintings. He's promised the library an original as well.
"The credit goes to Sue Leigland," Chatham said. "She got the ball rolling." The owner of Montana Travel Company in Bozeman, Leigland traded Chatham travel for the donation of work to the library. Intrigued, Chatham decided to augment the gift, but in terms of value, Leigland's action covered "the lion's share," Chatham said.
"I really like the idea of speaking to students, to young people and giving them a chance to see this art," Chatham said. "If it's good enough, hopefully it will have some kind of positive influence on them."
Chatham aimed to create a peaceful, contemplative environment in the reading room and maybe something more.
"Great art is spiritual," Chatham said. "Not Jesus spiritual, but spiritual in ephemeral values that you can't explain. It has to do with the belief that there is a force in the universe bigger than you are, that you can't understand."
The press is running now. The blue ink rolls onto the paper. Chatham prints his lithographs with the trusted eye and experience of master printer Geoffrey Harvey, owner of Sunlight Graphics, at his side.
The RV-sized press makes a steady thump, like a heartbeat and a regular whoosh of air like breathing.
"It's all instinct," Chatham said, watching Harvey adjust the press. "He's incredible. In six years, he's never made a mistake."
The image has evolved as Chatham wished, but the light blue has complicated things.
"It's got to be believable," he said. "It can't look like a cartoon cloud."
He looks at the image, again his hand pulling at his chin. He's considering calling it a day. He has other projects wanting his attention and the next color is not obvious.
"I'm not exactly sure how I'm gonna do that, but I'll think of something," he said. "This is not going to be easy."
Contact: Patricia Denison, director for MSU library development and relations, (406) 994-3340 or email@example.com; Russell Chatham, (406) 222-4663.