Saturday, February 27, 2010

Celebrating the Saguaro: a photo essay

Having spent 14 years in Tucson from childhood through college, returning is like seeing a familiar old friend.  One of my favorite members of the desert is the saguaro cactus.  It probably symbolizes the AZ, the southwest and the desert moreso than any other single image, particularly for those who have never traveled to this part of the country.

While many people may believe the saguaro is an omnipresent desert inhabitant, its actual distribution is quite limited.  It is found only within the Sonoran desert climate zone - a region confined to the southern part of AZ, southeastern CA and northern Mexico including the states of Baja and Sonora.  It is bordered by the Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts to the west, north and east, respectively.  Even within the Sonoran desert, its preferred locations are the slopes of rocky hillsides or at the bases of desert mountains. 

One such location is Saguaro National Park.  When I was living in Tucson 20+ years ago, it was a national monument, and it is pleasing to see that it was upgraded to national park status in 1994.  There are two park districts - west (Tucson Mtn. district) and east (Rincon Mtn. district).  My mother recently moved back to AZ, and the road to her house goes through Saguaro National Park West.  It was on my return drive home almost 2 weeks ago, shortly after I left her house, that I took these photos. 

The absence of a tripod, and the usual issue of lighting limited the number of "photo-worthy" images I took, but this handful captures some of the personality of this distinctive and charming member of the cactus (cactaceae) family:

Hillside Celebration
The uplifted arms give these saguaros a whimsical and joyful appearance.  Saguaros don't begin to grow arms until they are almost 100 years old.
Cast Shadows
The curved shadows from this small desert plant across the ribs of this saguaro cactus skeleton produce an interesting contrast.
Abstracted Saguaro
This photo focuses on the strong lines and lines, and simple shapes of this saguaro trunk and its two curved arms.
Young 'Un
This juvenile saguaro, probably 25-30 years old, has been sheltered by an adjacent mesquite tree.
The Cycle of Life
A baby saguaro, probably about 5-8 years in age, grows next to the weathered remains of an old saguaro and its root base in this still life image.  The average life span for a saguaro is 150 years.

For more information about Saguaro National Park, click here.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sky Friday - sunset series

This is the set of photos I had planned to queue up for the Friday that I was out of town, so I'll go ahead and post them now.

Photos were taken on Feb 5 along Juniper Ridge Rd., a dirt road that is just west of town and leads up to a set of homes and the radio towers on top of the Mules known as "the divide".  It offers a great vantage point for eastern sky photos and of the town of Bisbee.  These clouds were pretty, but subtle, and I suspect that a really spectacular high key sunset was to the west on the other side of the Mules, along Hwy 92, as evidenced by some of the brilliant coral cloudlets I saw to the west as I was heading back down the road.

Photos are posted in order that they were taken.
Cirrus over The Divide
These beautiful, wavy clouds are seen to the west and slightly north. 

Altocumulus to the northeast

Altocumulus to the east.
This photo looks more like a painting to me.  The vantage point shows the atmospheric perspective of the far distal mountains wonderfully.

Altocumulus revisited
This wide-angle shot shows the entire cloud that is over the northeastern part of the Mules.

A closing view to the east
These clouds underwent rapid transformation just in the short period of time I was taking these photos. 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reflection Abstract in pastel

I've long admired well-done abstract paintings, everything from abstracted landscapes in bright colors to ultra-realistic renderings of objects, or portions of objects, enlarged to focus on form for the sake of design.  Until now, I've relied on my camera to capture abstracted imagery.  Between some artist's work and artist's blogs that I follow who are either self-defined as abstract painters, or whose work is described as such by others, I have been wanting to try it.  While it might be easy to discount such seemingly simple paintings with a:  "my kid could do that" observation, it is decidedly much more difficult to decide what to leave out of a painting, or to find design in someting out of its usual context, than to merely copy what is right before you.

At a used bookstore in Tucson, I recently purchased a book written by Barclay Sheaks, titled Drawing and Painting the Natural Environment.  It was written in 1974, published by Davis Publications, Inc., and is long since out of print.  However, it is an exceptional book and quickly became one of the cornerstone books for my reference library on painting and drawing.  There is a chapter, entitled:  "Abstractions from Nature:  Another Kind of Vison", that offered some really useful concepts and suggestions for creating this type of art.  Between this book, and the other artists whose work I've admired for years (like Wolf Kahn) or artists whose blogs I read regularly, it seemed like a good time to try that myself.
For this particular painting, it is somewhat a combination of realism and abstraction.  It is in keeping with my fondness for nature abstracts by focusing on shapes, patterns and values.  However, it will probably be readily identifiable as what it is:  reflections of trees on the surface of moving water, painted realistically.

I didn't want to get too fiddly with it, so I tried to work quickly and not over-work or over think the process - a rut that is all too easy to get into as a painter.  The painting is based on a photo I took on my trip back from Flagstaff, of a creek just north of Payson.  I'll definitely be doing more abstract paintings in the future.
"Reflections" - 9x11"
pastel on sanded paper

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Water Abstracts: Agua Fria #2

Here is a second set of shots from the Agua Fria river.  The first set was chosen because of square or nearly square crops; this set is either uncropped or cropped to a retangular format.

If anyone feels so inclined to comment, I'd be really interested to hear which one(s) you like the best, from this or the previous set. 

I'll have at least one more set, taken from a creek in the Mazatzal Mtns., that I'll be posting in the near future.

Converging ripples form an angular pattern in this shallow streambed

Metallic Lace
The patterns here are reminiscent of a hand-crocheted garmet, infused with bronze

I was drawn to the way the colors and contrasts shift from left to right in this image
The lower vertical reflections appear to be reaching towards the narrow, orderly bands at the top
These thin reflections of light give the impression of a horse's mane streaming beind it as it runs

Monday, February 22, 2010

Winter Stream - pastel

The weather finally cleared enough for me to take a photo of this latest pastel.  It was done from a photo I took last Saturday on my way up to Flagstaff, about 15 miles south, and located in a snow-covered meadow by a ranch.

I was drawn to the contrast of the stream - both its form and striking blue color - as it abruptly cuts through the otherwise pristine snow.  Its origin and destination are unknown as it meanders across the meadow.  The surrounding snow forms gentle undulations resulting in shadows cast from the late afternoon light.  The ponderosa forest edge adds a sense of space and the warm palette of the trees contrasts with the cool colors of the snow and creek.

As I mentioned in the Old Forge, NY post, winter isn't my favorite season of the year, primarily because I don't do cold weather and short days very well.  However, when I was living in Flagstaff, I used to love the peace and absolute stillness following a snowstorm.  Winter has a sense of quiet and calm that doesn't exist in the other seasons, and it is this feeling that I hoped to instill in this painting, and it is probably my favorite painting to date.  Looks much better in person, though.

Winter Stream - pastel
10.5 x 7" on sanded paper
$150 ppd.

Water Abstracts: Agua Fria series #1

I had hoped to post a new pastel I completed 2 days ago to the blog yesterday, but was unable to photograph it as it rained for most of the day.  I have a complete inability to take decent indoor studio photographs, so that will be postponed until the next sunny day.

Instead, here is a new set of water abstracts based on photos taken last week on my drive up to Flagstaff.  The Auga Fria river runs along parts of I-17, and part of it is included in a national monument of the same name.  It is popular with hikers, equestrians and backpackers, and I try to make time to stop on my way and go on a hike when I'm in the area.  The river was flowing stronger than I've ever seen it, no doubt due to snowmelt from higher elevations.  The mid-afternoon light doesn't make for good landscape photos, but it's ideal for these reflective abstracts. 
Sun hitting the shallow sandy stream in the wash leading to the Agua Fria produces ordered and random reflections.

Rush Hour
If 5PM in downtown Manhattan was an abstract image, this could be what it might look like

This close-up shot shows the distortion detail from the water current on the underlying white granite.

The rocks in this image represent the 7 basic colors, and are further enhanced by the dancing light.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Trip to Northern AZ: Snow

Despite my best intentions and planning, I managed to miss a week between blog posts. The primary reason was a 5-day trip to Flagstaff, with stopovers in Tucson and Phoenix.  The other reason was either lack of WiFi service, free time, or both. So, while I wasn't able to post to my blog, I did come back with lots of photos that capture the amazing diversity of habitat, climate and landscape that this state offers.

I spent most of yesterday editing all the photos, and categorizing them by subject, and I will be posting them over the next several days, in no particular order.

Here is the first set, taken outside of Flagstaff on my leisurely drive back to Tucson on Monday morning, along Lake Mary Rd. and state Hwy 83. The snow is not new; it is the product of the huge El Nino storm that deposited a whopping 50" on the area about 3 weeks ago.  In many areas, more than 2 feet still remain.  Most in the forest is still pristine, devoid of any intentional or happenstance disruption by man or forest creatures. 

The snow has matured and seems to have found a balance with the surrounding elements of the land.  The benefits of this precipitation will not be realized for months; the slow melt of the snowpack is far more influential on the underground aquifers that supply water to Flagstaff and surrounding communities than rain.  The moisture will help the ponderosa pine forest fight off bark beetle infestations that wreak havoc on weakened trees during droughts, and reduces the chances of a forest fire becoming catastrophic.  And finally, a wet winter begets a glorious wildflower display in the spring.

Any photographer will tell you that the best light is early morning or late afternoon/sunset. I didn't have the luxury of these lighting conditions during my drive back, but I think these photos managed to capture some of the winter beauty that AZ offers.
The Remains of the Day
Late afternoon light falls on these defiant plant spires from last season.

Gathering on Upper Lake Mary
A variety of waterfowl species cluster on the melted portion of the lake.  Snow and ice cover the remainder.

Clouds over Mormon Lake
This forming cloud adds a sense of movment to an otherwise tranquil setting along the shore of Mormon Lake - also completely snow-covered. 

Arrangement of Pine and Space
The snow-covered ground allows the ponderosa pines of this relatively open area of the forest to be more fully appreciated
North along Lake Mary Rd.
The token road photo, looking back the way I came, and leading up to a fiberous stratocumulus cloud and its icy virga.

Sky Friday

After missing last week's Sky Friday post, we're back on track. These photos are from the January 17 sunrise taken from the motel courtyard.  They are shown in the sequence taken.  All shots are hand-held; it's way too early and cold to be fiddling with a tripod:
First view, facing east
Multiple layers of clouds reflect different wavelengths based on their position in the sky.

Facing west and skyward
The tip of the tree gives an indication of the position of these altocumulus clouds.

Another view looking west
The clouds form wavy peach-colored streamers across the sky

Skyward eastern view
With no land to anchor them, these clouds take on an abstract form

Final view to the east
The clouds have continued their transformation and now appear to have turned into a layer of altostratus, giving a diffuse glow of color to the sky.

I will certainly miss these skies when I return to CT.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Winter in Old Forge, NY - pastel

I am a daily reader and less-regular poster on the WetCanvas artist community.  I read many of the forums there, but spend about 90% of my time in the soft pastel forum.  The regulars there are very friendly and helpful with advice, and there are a lot of very skilled and talented artists whose work is always an inspiration.  As a landscape painter, I also occasionally stop by the landscape forum.  My favorite feature there is the monthly landscape challenge:  at the beginning of each month, that month's host posts a selection of reference photos, and participants are invited to use them for the basis of a painting, using any media and any changes desired.  It's always interesting to see how others approach the same subject.

This month, the challenge was hosted by accomplished soft pastel and landscape artist, Paula Ford.  Please go take a look at her art blog to see her pastoral paintings of Tennessee and countryside of the southeastern part of the US.  The photos provided were those she took, and represented the four seasons.  In spite of the fact that: 1) winter is not my favorite season; 2) my first and true love is the western and southwestern landscape; 3) I generally prefer to use my own reference photos. Not only do they have personal relevance to me as to the location and what in particular inspired me to take the photo, but I also know what the light, shadows and color was all about and can correct for such shortcomings in the photograph.  I was nonetheless quite drawn to her photos, the winter and spring in particular (spring has a big barn, and I love old buildings and barns!).  I love the sense of quiet and stillness winter brings, and Paula's photo captured the essence of that, along with providing things important to me for an interesting landscape - open space and variety. 

I had originally planned it as a loose, rather quick study, but it didn't go that way.  I found myself getting caught up in the fun detail of the sky, trees and water.  Plus, it was good practice for doing water reflections and stands of evergreens.  It turned out better than I expected.

I have a ton of projects in mind for paintings, but this was a nice change and I found it not difficult to be inspired to paint it even though I've never been to Old Forge, NY.

"Winter in Old Forge, NY"
11x7 pastel on 400-grit sanded paper

Stormy Sunrise

I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as a morning person, although I wish I was, because I do love the peace and quiet of the early morning.  And, of course, watching the sun rise.   Suffering from not infrequent episodes of early morning insomnia usually means I miss a lot of sunrises because I've fallen back asleep by that time.  However, sometimes, it can work in my favor.

Yesterday morning was such a day.  I found myself awake at 5 a.m., and wasn't able to fall back to sleep.  Around 6:30 a.m., around the time that the sky is starting to show the first signs of light, I got up and immediately looked out the window to the east:  clouds - hazzah!  Before I could talk myself into getting back into the warm bed, I threw on some warm clothes, grabbed my camera gear, and headed out the door.  It was quite chilly out, although that is of course a relative thing.  Being Sunday morning, the town was still asleep, and I only saw a few other cars the entire time I was out.  It was glorious.

I had assumed that a prime location for sunrise photos would be along Hwy 80, towards Douglas.  So, I headed out there.  The sky above Bisbee was blanketed in a heavy layer of low-lying stratocumulus clouds, which generally kill any hope of an attractive sunrise.  However, to the east, there was already some pink hitting the underside of distal clouds, and there were patches of open sky, so there was definitely potential.

Once I got east of the hills of the Mules and could see the distal horizon, I realized that I was too far north for an optimal position.  But, there was some color in the sky, so I got a few shots.  Figuring since I was already out, I'd head out towards the airport and see how the sun position was for future reference.  I was delighted to see that I was, in fact, not too late to arrive on some more sunrise color.

I think what makes these particular images interesting isn't so much the dazzling colors but the complexity of the clouds.  There are low, intermediate and high level clouds, some close and others many miles away.  Each catch the sun's rays at different levels, thus producing different colors and effects. 

While it didn't rain during my outing, it did begin to sprinkle as I came home, and we did get a bit of rain later in the afternoon.  This morning when I woke up (well after sunrise), there wasn't a cloud in the sky. 

I hope you enjoy this latest sunrise set:

From Double Adobe Rd
This was the single keeper shot from the drive down Hwy 80.  The lower level stratocumulus cloud layer isn't bringing anything to the table here, but the upper level clouds offer a nice splash of pink.

Taken from the second location south of town, that same stratocumulus layer now gives a beautiful glow of colors while some bright yellow gives the location of the sun.

Depth Perception
A seperate stratocumulus to the south retains its dark blue-grey color, unlike the smaller cloud fragments.  The higher level altostratus clouds in the distance offer a pleasing range of muted oranges, muaves and blue-greys.
Catching the Light
Turning 90 degrees to the north revealed these beautiful colors and shadows on the eastern hills of the Mules.  A tiny window of blue sky peeks through the stratus clouds here.
Fair Skies to the East
The distal mountains take on the same colors seen in the clouds over them.  The nearby stratocumulus is really calling the shots in this photo, however.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Portrait Study: 'Elvias'

The subject of this post is a departure from the winter skies and landscape themes that have more or less dominated this blog since I've been here in AZ.  Unlike the virtually spontaneous nature of those subjects, however, this one was planned months ago, and after great anticipation, has finally come to completion.

Who is 'Elvias'? Not who, but what: a Dutch hybrid Hippeastrum, also known by its common (and incorrect) name of Amaryllis flower. Hippeastrum species and cultivars are tropical flowering bulbs of the family Amaryllidacae. They are usually available during the Christmas season sold as gift sets, and available from your local grocery store to specialty nurseries and garden shops. I own two of these beauties at home, both given to me as Christmas gifts, and they are truly the gift that keeps giving - a splash of color when spring is still months away.

Last October, I was on a routine grocery shopping trip, and as I walked past the floral department of the grocery store, the stacks of small boxes with AMARYLLIS and a color photo of the flower each was to produce proved irresistable for me. After much consideration, I settled on two different hybrids:
'Star of Holland' and 'Elvias'. 'Elvias' is a double-flowered bi-color hybrid.  Not wanting to miss out on the flowering, which would happen when I would be in AZ, I had them shipped out here. 

By the time I finally got around to planting the bulbs, 'Elvias' flower scape was already well on her way to producing a flower, pot or no pot! After soaking the roots, planting in a new pot with new soil and set on my south-facing bedroom window, she needed no further prompting.

On February 1, the flower began to open. I wanted to capture the progression via photos, and it didn't take long. I had to wait until yesterday to take photos of both opened blooms due to a full day of rain.

With the exception of the first photo, the photos were taken with natural light and a tripod.  Here are a few images that I feel capture the beauty of this flower as it went from bud to open flower:

Feb 1st - Morning
This photo was actually taken inside, hand-held, with *a flash* - usually not a combination that will result in anything worth keeping, let alone displaying.  However, with some PP adjustments, it turned out better than expected. 

Feb 1st - Afternoon
A few hours later, this is what the flower looked like.  A third bud has now revealed itself as well. 
Feb 1st - A Close-up
This cropped view shows the color and texture detail of the flower.
Feb 2 - The Second Awakening
Over night, the second bud was transformed into an open flower.
Feb 4th - In Full Form
In this view, the second flower shows its layers of petals and final shape.
Feb 4th - Towards the Light
This 3/4 view gives a good sense of the fullness of the flower, and shows the graceful curves from the rear.

'Star of Holland' should be making her debut in the next 1-2 weeks...

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sky Friday - a new weekly series

Over the two and a half months that I've been here in southern AZ, I've developed an ever-increasing number of sky/cloud photos. Many are taken from the courtyard area of the Jonquil, and others are taken in various random times I happen to have my camera with me and see something unique going on in the sky.

Probably the most telling sign I've completely geeked out over clouds is that I purchased a copy of the Cloudspotters Guide: The Science, History and Culture of Clouds. It's written by Gaven Pretor-Pinney, who is the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. It's a fascinating and well-written book, infused with the author's dry sense of humor (he's British, so there you go).

Anyway, the combination of these things made me think that it would be fun to do a weekly post of skies. These would probably be a few random photos, vs. the usual sets that I have been posting. I'll include information on the clouds, if relevant, or just a brief comment about the time and location.

I may do this in lieu of or in addition to non-photo, non-sky art posts as well. I hope everyone enjoys these, and as usual, fellow artists are welcome to use them for reference material for painting.

So, here are a few random sky photos for this Friday:
Sunrise, Jan 17th - cirrus clouds
location:  Jonquil courtyard
Late afternoon on the hillside
location:  behind Jonquil motel
This tree makes it into many of my photos, and adds a fun contrast to the cumulus clouds.  The upper whispy clouds are 'c. humilis', while the larger masses are 'c. mediocris'.
Sunset, Jan 19th
location:  Jonquil motel courtyard
This is one of a series of photos I took of this sunset.  I believe the cloud type is altocumulus, a mid-level cloud, although it may also be a lower level cirrus (cirrostratus).  Either way, it produced beautiful shapes and colors in the sky.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sunset Clouds in Mixed Media

One evening last month, I went out east of town along Hwy 80 for some sunset photos.  The sky had scattered remnants of earlier storms and would-be storms, and I suspected they'd make for some beautiful clouds.  As is often the case with the skies in this part of the state, a wide variety were present just within the location I stopped right along the highway - cumulonimbus-types to the east; windblown cumulus to the south and patchy altocumulus to the west: an evening cloud festival!

I have plans to do some of these into pastels at some point, probably as larger paintings, but couldn't resist doing one as a small 5x7.  That is also when I discovered that my pastel palette is a bit lacking in the appropriate sunset and greys necessary to do the types of skies and clouds I wish to paint. 

For now, here are some photos and one pastel of the evening clouds from that evening.  I've also included the reference photo I used for the painting.
Cloud Cover to the East
The evening light highlights the interesting projections from this receding cumulonimbus.

Winter Evening Glow
These clouds cast a beautiful coral and peach glow to the southeast.
Three Pink Clouds
This trio of cumulus, with small trails of icy virga, are over the southern-most hills of the Mules.

"Three Pink Clouds" - 5x7
pastel on sanded paper

Sunset along Hwy 80
Bright headlights of cars heading towards Bisbee contrast with the darker land and softer colors of the sky.
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