Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Prelude to Fall - San Juan Mountains

The summer continues to blaze by, and feels like it's rapidly drawing to a close.  There is a sense of urgency to cram in as much outdoor activity as possible in the high country before the season ends.

Two painting excursions - to Lemon and Haviland Lakes - in the past week have resulted in unfinished paintings that may or may not make it to completion.  One has promise; the other not so much.   Lately, it seems my creative energy has been focused through the lens of my camera rather than my pastels and paper.  So, I have to run with it.

Today, a trip back up to hike and fish along west Lime Creek.  Since our last trip a month ago, the deerflies have finally been knocked back, the summer alpine meadows are transitioning away from green towards the golden browns of fall, and a new round of mountain wildflowers is making an appearance.

August 30 in photos:

Cascading falls along Lime Creek

Raspberries along the trail - tasting as good as they look

A marmot casts a wary and scornful glance from his look-out point below the trail

A tiny Arctic Blue nourishes itself on a Showy Daisy

Mountain Gentian, filterized

Mushrooms, everywhere!

Monsoon skies

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Painting in the Pine River Valley - Four Corners Plein Air

So a week has passed since my last post...not really sure where the time has gone, but it took that long to get back in the groove of painting, I guess.   My sole excursion outdoors last week did net an unfinished painting, but it's not one I'm likely to bring to any conclusion.  Add to that an alarming wind gust out of nowhere that produced a wind vortex over the river (it was essentially a dust devil over water) less than 30 feet from my easel was so unnerving that I couldn't finish on location if I wanted to.

Today was the biweekly paint-out for the 4CPAP group, and I decided that I would go and that perhaps I could get my mojo back.
Late Summer in the Pine River Valley
12x12 inches - pastel on black Strathmore
© 2011, S.Johnson

Location was well east of Durango, on a huge private ranch located in an area known as the Pine River Valley.  East of Vallecito Lake, along a FS road and tucked away from civilization, it's incredibly scenic.     The granite peaks and valley layout have tones of the Sierras.

It took me probably 20 minutes to settle on a location to paint.  Not only from being overwhelmed with choices, but at the time we arrived at this location, it was in full shade, which I found unappealing to paint.  Despite the presence of a charming little creek running right near the road, I decided that I'd beg off painting water for a bit, and decided to paint this mountain peak.   As is often the case, the dirt road clinched the deal.  The slope to the right was in full shadow, as was the left side of the granite peak.

Monsoon season is still in full throttle here in southwestern CO, and while the sky was initially clear when I set up, clouds soon started developing, and I couldn't resist adding some.  

What the sky looked like around 12:30 PM - yikes!
Thankfully, I was finished by this time

As usual, the group offered up some good suggestions during the critique session, so I came home and made a few adjustments and reworked the blue spruce trees in the middle ground, added some more yellow to the foreground grasses, and called it done.

A few more photos taken from the area where many of us painted:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sunset along Florida Mesa in photos

No painting I thought I'd share some photos taken yesterday evening at my favorite location on Florida Mesa before I head off to tonight's photography club meeting.

All:  tripod-mount, with Nikkor 18-70mm DX lens.


Horses and the lone ponderosa 

Making her way 

The barn along Hwy 550 

Field and fencepost

Skies to the north

Heading east on CR 220

Final light along CR 220

Tree against sunset virga

Monday, August 15, 2011

Approaching Teec Nos Pos - graphite on paper

Approaching Teec Nos Pos
9x12 - graphite on sketchpad

So, today was one of those days I felt inclined to sit down and draw.   Drawing skills, aside from being an absolute necessary skill for painters, are something that I suspect many of us don't practice enough.  I'm always in awe of the artists whose blogs I follow who regularly post drawings they do, either as the beautiful loose field sketches of Sherrie Y or more detailed renderings in colored pencil, such as William (Bill) Cook.

I'm in a slight lull as far as my sense of direction goes for painting.  It's not really an artistic block, but more like being overwhelmed by the possibilities and all the things I want to accomplish.  Yesterday, we took an afternoon trip to Haviland Lake, and I brought along my gear (noting to leave the heavy French easel at home), excited about getting out to paint.  And, I painted, but it didn't go anywhere, and I felt my concentration sort of slip away as things just didn't come together.  But, that was totally okay - it was good practice to try and paint the ever-changing reflections on the lake.

Ever since we got back from AZ, I've been itching to do a new roadrtrip series based on the photos I took.  It seems that Hwy 160 is my artistic muse, always beckoning with that constantly changing landscape that draws me in every time.  I see the same features, and structures, and even creatures, on each trip, yet they never get old.  

So, I thought I'd at least dip a toe in that proverbial bathtub and do a drawing of what will be one of the first paintings in the series...whenever I decide to start them.  It is of this long sweeping stretch of highway that is just east of that small Navajo community Teec Nos Pos, and a few miles west of the actual Four Corners monument.  

The drawing thing was good.  I like it because, unlike painting, I can draw right at my computer, and listen to my favorite songs on my YouTube playlist.  After getting into "the zone", it's great.  Drawing with pencil is a very disciplined thing - you can't be lazy and use color.  It's all about value.  Since this particular image doesn't have a great deal of value range, that made it a bit difficult.    And, it took me longer to do this drawing, which isn't much to write home about, than it does to do a painting of the same size.  It was exceedingly difficult to photograph as well.  

But, it was just what I needed today.

On an unrelated note, I was delighted to find out that all 3 of the photos I entered in the county fair last week won ribbons!  And, both of the paintings took blues and reserve champions, but there weren't many entries this year, so it wasn't quite as exciting as the photography wins.

Here are two of the three photos - both entered in the "Wild Animal" category in the Adult Intermediate division:

"Melissa Blue"
10x8 inches
First Place and Reserve Champion in its category

"Bramble Hairstreak"
8x10 inches
Second Place

Both shot with my entry level Nikon D40, Nikkor 55-200mm DX AF lens, and printed at Walmart's 1 hr. photo lab.  Just in case anyone thinks it's all about having expensive DSLR's and high-end's not.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ice Lake - a hike in photos

No painting yesterday, and while I'd originally planned to go out with the Friday plein air painters to La Plata Canyon, between getting up too late and the self-imposed beating I took yesterday, that didn't happen.

So, instead, I thought I'd share some of the photos I took on yesterdays hike, where we took advantage of a [supposed] break in the monsoons to hit one of the most scenic locations in the San Juans:  Ice Lake.

We've done this hike twice before, but only once have reached the destination of upper Ice Lake itself.  Nestled up high in the mountainous basin west of Silverton, it's a hugely popular day hike and backpacking destination for locals and photographers.

As it seems with so many things, the best things never comes easily, and that's quite apropos for this hike, where the spectacular views are proportional to the degree of difficulty required to obtain them.  With a trailhead elevation of 9,900', it gets serious right out of the blocks, with 2,400' of elevation gain in 3.5 miles  to the first money shot:

Ice Lake - 2-part pano
Yes, the lake is really this color

Wildflowers at alpine tundra elevations are right at the cusp of peak season, so I brought my tripod and both lenses along for this hike rather than the plein air get-up.  It requires much more mental energy and concentration to paint rather than set up and take photos.

Getting there is not easy, but scenic the entire way as it passes through forested sections of fir and spruce (the aspen are left behind within the first 1/2 mile or so), and open meadows.

Every hike I take, I obtain several photos of the view along the trail itself - the light and shadow patterns and trees full of character never get old.  It's hard to just choose one for these blog posts.

[This is for Dan]

I keep speaking of a series of trail paintings, and it's a certainty I'll never run out of reference material.

At timberline elevations, larkspur, monkshood and these tall white flowers are abundant.

The huge boulders of what appears to be a mix of conglomerate (rock composed of smaller rocks of older and different compositions and origins) and what appears to be volcanic basalt deposition are scattered in the meadows.

Perennial waterfalls are found all along the hike, cascading down through the dark rock and occasionally making crossings difficult.

The pale slopes - mine tailings - are a testament to the history of this area as mining country.  The main creek that enters Silverton from this area - Mineral creek - still carries heavy metal contaminates from these old tailings.  The water is crystal clear...and is devoid of all life.

I've been on a major butterfly photographing kick this summer, and never pass up the opportunity to get a good photo of these colorful and beautiful creatures.

With the unfortunate closing of Borders, I was able to get Kaufman's field guide to North American butterflies at a great price, which helps to identify this male Shasta Blue.  He is very small - about 1" wingspan.

Patience, persistence, practice, location and luck, along with a telephoto lens are what you need to shoot members of the Lepidoptera order.

The final ascent of the trail climbs a particularly rough section of cliff and broken rock, and on the trail map, has the black diamond classification.  Llamas and dogs can follow it, but horses will be turned back.

This is the final 200-300 yards, out of the somewhat exposed and most treacherous part of the trail, and as you are hiking, you wonder if the unrelenting trail ever ends and if the lake or the promised views really do exist...

...and then you see this:

Colorful wildflowers explode on the tundra of the basin, and the eastern side of Yellow Mountain is visible; time to swap out the telephoto lens for the regular zoom.

But, it gets better as the deep turquoise blue lake comes into view.

By this time, clouds are building up and to my dismay, I hear some thunder off to the south.  However, there is no lightning and to the north and east the skies are still relatively least for the moment.

So, after taking a break and getting some photos of lower Ice Lake, we decide to push it and head up to the next basin level.

A cluster of beautiful blue columbine sets off the foreground of this photo of a smaller lake and the Yellow Mountains.

This was amazing, and I used my tripod with the aperture stopped down to f/20 for maximum depth of field.

It's one of my favorite of the "money shots".

pano shot of the upper and lower lakes - what a view!

A beautiful stream surrounded by Parry's Primrose and Marsh Marigold (both of which disappeared from lower elevations about 5 weeks ago) make their appearance.

Large boulder erratics sit atop the highest basin below the mountains.  View is to the east and shows the ominous dark clouds that sent us heading back soon after.

The old miner's cabin near the upper most lake.

After hearing more thunder, we decided not to push our luck any more than we had already, and quickly beat it back down the trail, hoping to escape any torrential downpour and possible lightning.

It did start to sprinkle, but stopped after we dropped below the lower Ice Lake.

This is the view of the timberline meadow below the steepest section of the trail.

The view after reaching the meadow.  Amazingly, we didn't get any more rain for the remaining 3 miles of the hike.

And in fact, the clouds cleared and the sun came out towards the last 1/2 mile of the trail, allowing another view of shadows crossing the trail in the aspen section.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the photos and the hike.

For those that find these photography-based posts boring and tedious and choose to un-follow the blog...well, sorry, but this is never going to be a painting-only blog.   Photography is a much a passion for me as painting, and I enjoy sharing the photos of these beautiful places I visit with you all.

And thank you again to those who are reading this - you are the best!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

After The Storm - pastel, 16x20 inches

After The Storm - 16x20"
pastel on black Strathmore
© 2011 S. Johnson

First studio piece in a few months, because I wanted to go bigger and because:  clouds + road + reflections = awesome to paint.  

I started it last week before I went on my trip and finished it up today.  It was based on a photo taken on the recent Sunday afternoon photo shoot (the post with all the horses) along Florida mesa.  

I had some specific things in mind when I did this, and for those that read The Pastel Journal, the article by Albert Handel on painting clouds was one thing that nudged my choice for reference photo.  He does some of the best skies, and his comment in the article about using different colors of the same value was apropos to this piece in particular.  For all the sky and cloud paintings I've done, I don't think I've done one quite like this.  The sky in particular was a blast to paint - subtle color and temperature shifts, lost and found edges - clouds are great for such things.  

Another reason was to have a piece to enter in the local county fair.  Yeah, laugh if you want, but I've always loved county fairs, having entered them since I was a kid.  I don't enter to win anything, but really to just support the fair and community.  I also entered three photos, and based on the # of entries, anyone winning a ribbon should be thrilled.  

Anyway, I chose 16x20 because I happened to have a couple of frames I refurbished in that size.  Normally, I don't care for the 4:5 format for landscapes; it seems too indecisive to me:  either square or 1:2 or 3:4 are my preferred formats.  

It also gave me a chance to experiment with framing the pastel directly against the glass, which I have never done before.  There was a recent article in Pastel Journal that discussed it, and which I couldn't find, but it gave the technique.  I use Coroplast for a backing - it is ideal for this method of framing - and framer's tape around the glass-pastel-backing to form a nice sealed package.  Pop it into the frame, drive the points in, and you're good to go!  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Grand Canyon, and pushing envelopes

We are back from our trip, and while it was fun, it is always good to get back home.   It was a banner day for reference photos of clouds and skies along the highways and interstate drive to Phoenix on Thursday, with the monsoon season providing the most unbelievable array of clouds that I've ever seen.  Most of the 500+ photos I took on the trip are of that drive.

Another treat was a side trip to the Grand Canyon on Sunday.  It's been almost a year since I've been there, and even longer - almost 5 years - since I've hiked down into it.

Coronado Butte from the New Hance Trail
6x8 inches - pastel on Strathmore

Since developing a near obsession for painting outdoors this year, I've been continually thinking of new ways to bring my painting operation to more difficult reaches where I used to rely only on photography.  And while I'll never leave my camera behind, I've now discovered that I can indeed paint on location in rugged and remote locations.  It's exhilarating.  

Enter the New Hance trail on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  Most visitors to the Canyon will never know of its existence, let alone hike it (it is not even listed on the official GC NPS site).  This is a good thing, as it is arguably one of the most difficult of the named trails within the park - an unforgivingly steep, narrow  and unmaintained trail that would (or should) turn back all but experienced Canyon hikers within the first 1/3 mile.  I've hiked and backpacked just about every named trail (and a few routes) in the park, and I can firmly attest to its rough nature and reputation.

What trail?  
The upper section crosses large slabs of broken Toroweap formation and Coconino sandstone

But, it also gives unique and unparalleled views and for geology geeks like myself, it offers up unique features found no where else in the Canyon.  Wayne has never been down it, and I realized it has been a whopping 7 years since I was last on it during a backpacking trip.   Figuring (correctly) that we'd likely not see anyone else, it was the easy choice to experience the spiritual nature of the Canyon and avoid the noisy and often annoying tourist crowds that are omnipresent at this time of the year.

A view of Sinking Ship butte to the west along the trail; this is also visible 
from the South Rim drive on the eastern part of the park

Back when I used to hike the Canyon regularly, I generally avoided it during the summer.  It is a hot, dry desert and only three trails (Bright Angel, Hermit and the North Kaibab on the north rim) have any reliable water.  Even on the rim, temperatures were in the mid-80's, and they just get higher the further down you go.  Summer hiking is unpleasant at best and potentially deadly at worst.  

Looking up to the south rim from the trail, about 1000' down.  The trail is out of sight to the left, and follows breaks in the sandstone cliffs [2-part vertical pano]

Because of this, we planned a descent of no more than 1,500' or 3 miles one way - whichever came first, and at the earliest shaded spot with a good view.  In this case, the vertical limit was reached in about 1.5 miles, which luckily coincided with both a shaded location under a large pinyon tree and provided this view to the north.   The trail continues for another 6.5 miles, eventually dropping down into the aptly named Red Canyon before finally reaching the Colorado River.  It amazes me to think that 10 years ago, I did this trail - from rim to river and back - as a day hike.  

The early afternoon view from our approximate stopping location

Despite the wonderful panoramic view of the Canyon here, it's a bit overwhelming to paint, particularly with the limitations of my plein air palette.  Light and shadow aren't ideal anyway and it's just a really busy scene to try and distill to a small field sketch.  Even though I brought my painting gear along (stadium chair, pastel box, tape, gloves, a piece of foamboard and several sheets of 4x6 and 6x8 inch Strathmore paper), I would have been happy to just hang out and not paint - which I have done on most of the trips I've brought it along on a hike - I just like having the option.  

After hanging out for about 30 min, I finally decided on a subject to try and paint:  adjacent Coronado Butte.  It forms the left side of Red Canyon, and the unique perspective from below gave plenty in the way of light and shadow.  The reddish-gray sandstones and limestones of these Permian-era rocks are similar in color, but are broken up by grass and juniper-covered slopes and differences in orientation of the layers (vertical jointing vs. horizontal layering and erosional patterns).  

Every time I paint on location, I can feel my observational eye developing.  I know I sound like a broken record with the chorus of artists and instructors who say the same (and am preaching to the choir for everyone else), but it is impossible to stress the value and importance of location/life painting enough.  Even if the paintings aren't successes in themselves, it doesn't matter - it's about the process, and training the eye to see.  

A badly cobbled pano shot of the approximate view I painted from
Seriously?  Aside from the physical shapes, it looked nothing like this in life, and not 
super interesting to paint unless you were there

On hikes, I tend to stick with my 55-200mm tele zoom lens on my camera, since I'm: 1) usually out during the least desirable lighting conditions for decent landscape photos; 2) wildlife, wildflowers and invertebrates are favorite subjects to shoot on hikes, and best done with a tele lens, like this attractive and elusive Canyonland Saytr butterfly that I had a helluva time getting a photo of:

So, almost all these wide views are panos, and shot with the intent to use as possible reference photos and journaling the hike rather than good photos taken for their own sake.  

Nonetheless, the photos do a good job of telling the story and also showing how remarkable the shifting light is in the Canyon, and how it can go from "blah":

single shot looking west @ 2:12 pm 

To "cool!" in just a few hours (note the smoke from a north rim managed fire to the far right):

5-part vertical pano in same orientation @ 6:02 pm

One of the unavoidable facts of hiking the Grand Canyon is that what goes down must come back up, and it's never easy to have the hardest part be at the end.  So, after kicking back for a few hours, we gathered up and headed up and out.  The Canyon has much to teach us, including how much about hiking it is mental.  Go down 3,500' below the rim, look up, and you'll know instantly what I'm talking about.  

the "easy" part of the trail by the creek drainage
It also teaches patience, perseverance and to appreciate and respect what we are capable of - which is much like the process of painting.   Like the process of creating art, it humbles and challenges us by exposing our limitations and weaknesses - showing us what we need to work on to improve, so that each experience gets a bit easier and more learned.  But, just as we know as artists, it never gets easy, which would be boring, and that's always been part of the appeal to me.  

only another 1,100' to climb, Wayne!

 Sun silhouetted ponderosa pine

Wind-sculpted juniper along the upper section of the trail

 Erosion forms abstract patterns along a sandstone overhang

A view to the north rim - 6:02 p.m, not far from the trailhead

So, this post really isn't so much about the small field painting as it is about musing about the process and the experience, and the path we take to betterment and pushing our personal envelopes.  That being said, I love the painting for what it represents in this regard.  I hope that it is just the first of many I am able to do from the depths of this most beloved and special place.  
Readers and fellow artists:  please feel free to share any similar experiences you've had with experiences that helped shape and push your personal envelopes - I'd love to hear about them.  And I appreciate those of you who read and maybe even enjoy these longer posts.  Tomorrow's post will be much shorter - I promise!


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