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!



  1. Great job on the painting, wonderful red tones against the blue sky -- just enough variation of value, without going overboard on detail. I love the photo of the Juniper!

  2. That is a grand pastel, IMHO. And, the blog is very well done, too. A treat to look at.

  3. Thank you Dan and Casey - two of my favorite pastelists! I always appreciate your visits and comments.

    Dan, it seems one of the bennies of these remote location paintings is that you just don't have the energy or desire to fuss with detail - your right brain just takes control. The other field study I did a few weeks ago was much the same. And, my NuPastels actually proved their value (pun sort of intended) for those earthy reds.

    Casey, I'm glad you enjoyed the blog post and photos. It took me the better part of the day to do (should I admit that?). It's just a subject that is difficult to give justice to in a single paragraph or a couple of photos.

  4. the pastel drawing is beautiful. I can understand the exhilaration you get while painting outdoor, as I had a similar experience during my first outdoor painting recently...nice blog and great update.

  5. Thanks, M.R. - I'm glad you stopped by and shared your experience with plein air painting. And thanks for reading!

  6. Love, love this post.
    Amazing photos...remind me of everything I loved about our trip to the Grand Canyon this spring. And while we didn't hike it to the extent that you do, I hope we will make it back to explore more soon.

    I also appreciate all that you wrote about plein air painting. I am working way out of my comfort zone with it, but am determined to "push my personal envelope" because there is so much I want to say about some of the places I love. I've spent this summer refining my gear and figuring out how far I can take it - and being totally humbled by how poorly my paintings have been coming out! But I am learning with each one and hope that with experience my paintings improve.

  7. Debbie, thank you so much for your comments. The post took a while to write, so I am really delighted that you appreciated my musings about the trip. And thank you for sharing your experience with location painting this summer :).

    It is not easy, but I honestly do believe there is value in 100% of the work done on location. So, keep at it, have faith in the process, and the rewards will come...though not in the ways you expect.


Your thoughtful comments add value to this blog - thank you so much for taking the time to leave them!

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