Monday, October 17, 2011

PleinAir Moab - Part I

Back from my 6-day plein air painting adventure in Moab, UT!  Actually, I got back late Saturday night, but yesterday was spent catching up around here and because I managed to completely forget to take photos of the paintings done during the week, I couldn't just zap them up on the blog, and all had to be taken out of their frames anyway.

Where to start?  Well, it was truly an adventure, with ups and downs and more activity crammed into each day than I am used to.  I've decided to break it up into two separate posts of 3 days each so as to not overwhelm readers.  This post is long enough as it is, but hopefully, it will be sort of entertaining to read...if not, you can see the photos and move on.

Overall, the experience was great, and I'll probably go back next year, having learned a lot about what to do, what not to do, what to expect and where to focus my efforts painting.  Thus, the level of chaos should be reduced significantly.  The two highlights of the trip for me were: 1) meeting other artists and making new connections; 2) having my favorite painting strike a chord - not with the judges or other artists - but with a resident of Moab who loved it enough to give it a new home.   Honestly, that is what made the expense and effort and moments of frustration worth it.  

Here's the painting, posted first even though it wasn't the first one completed.  It was the painting I chose to enter in the competition:

Quiet Reflections in Hunter Canyon
16x12 inches - pastel on Artagain
© 2011, S.Johnson
Monday, Oct 10

After arriving in town and securing my lodging and getting several of my panels stamped for the event at the MARC, I headed to locations recommended by some folks on an outdoor forum I read that is Utah-based.  Kane Creek Rd, which heads south out of Moab and passes the portal (where the Colorado River crosses from one canyon, past Moab, and down another canyon) was recommended, and after a couple of brief stops, I found one of the recommended locations - Hunter Canyon.  The canyon is about 2 miles in length, and includes a perennial spring and an arch.  

Due to the time of year and the relative width of the canyon, much of it was in shade.  After about 1/4 mile along the path and a creek crossing, a section of the canyon was in sun.  As I looked back along the path, I saw this lone shrub sitting atop a slab of fallen sandstone.  It was backlit, and had a glorious reflection in the pool in front.  The distal canyon wall and scrub oak were in shadow.  I knew instantly that I had my first painting, and I quickly snapped a photo to use in planning the composition of the painting via thumbnail sketches.

About 30' away was this reflection, forming the most beautiful abstract design:

This isn't the sort of image that I feel would translate well into a painting, so I had no intention to paint it.  I love it as a photo.  Regular readers know my love of water and reflections, so this was right up my alley, so to speak.  I shot a few more photos of possible painting subjects, some of which may end up as studio pieces and/or plein air paintings for next year.  Hunter Cyn was now officially my favorite painting location in Moab!

After this, I headed back up the road towards town and drove out Hwy 128, which follows the Colorado through a larger canyon for about 15 miles as it heads east of Moab and towards the Fisher Towers (a planned destination for possible sunset photos that evening, and possible painting subject.  I saw a handful of artists painting at pull-outs along the highway in the main section of the canyon.  

As the highway continues east, it opens up to Professor Valley and the highway diverges from the Colorado such that it is no longer visible.  At the time I was heading out, it was around 4PM, and the light to the south was ideal for painting, and the LaSals come into view past the turn-off to Castle Rock.  The recent storm that went through the region left a significant amount of snow on their peaks, which added to the beauty of this "big picture" scene:

A bit further east, I noticed a small creek and several bright cottonwoods right off the side of the road...and two painters busy painting away!  I pulled off, and not wanting to bother them, I walked a couple hundred yards up the creek bed.  A small cluster of young cottonwoods on the edge of the wash were backlit against the shadowed slopes of the wash and some mesas, near and far, in the background.  Seemed like a great location to get a quick painting done:

Arroyo Shadows
9x12 inches - pastel on Artagain
One thing I discovered quickly is that, despite my efforts to select a palette appropriate to the southern Utah landscape, it always seemed to fall short.  Not quite cool and gray enough was the recurrent theme of the trip.   That being said, the practice pieces I did were still a big help.  After talking with other artists, and pastelists in particular, I discovered that everyone struggled with the same issue (including Terry Ludwig, who was one of the judges...apparently, even he didn't have the right colors!).  We further concluded that this landscape was indeed a big challenge to paint.  

So, this first small painting didn't turn out quite to my expectations and there are things that bug me about it, but it was worth the effort (and the photos of all these paintings suffer from the same problem of being too bright and contrasty.  Ugh).  And, it was here that I met fellow artists Bill and Andre who were painting nearby.  Andre lives in La Honda, CA, and Bill lives near my old stomping grounds in Sedona, AZ.  

Tuesday, Oct 11:

After a rather wretched nights' sleep, I got up with the intent to spend the day painting along Hwy 128. The primary reason for this was that the first of the three quick-draw events was being held at the Red Cliffs Resort & Winery along the same highway and I thought I might like to try and enter that.  I also discovered that the quick-draw events were 3 hours in length and not 90 minutes that I originally thought.  

I also thought that the general location along Professor Valley and the Onion Creek area would be good to do a large painting - 16x20 - of a big picture scene.  Having planned for only one of these sized paintings, I had my single panel and no back-up paper of this size along.  Mistake #1.  Mistake #2 was deviating from my normal procedure which is to paint with the paper taped to a board.  Because I wasn't sure how to handle the whole stamping process, I created panels to paint on...something I never do, which in this case, was paper taped with framer's tape to the boards, with a few swipes of a glue stick where it would actually hold.  Turns out, it didn't work well for me, but thankfully, I discovered that some gesso painted on the back of the paper worked great for a stamp location and that you could finish your framing after the stamp was verified by a volunteer at the check-in table.  

Mistake #3 was spending far too much time deciding on the "perfect" location for this "perfect" painting and then realizing about 1 1/2 hrs. into it that you bit off more than you could chew and that while the composition and concept were good, the execution was clearly heading south.  The view was of the Fisher Towers as seen from Onion Creek.  Light was excellent, but the complexity of the scene was a challenge and the pastels were mocking me with their shortcomings.  Wind kicking up wasn't helping at all.  And, I never even took a photo of this scene.

So, I decided to scrap the painting, and walked down to the creek and in one of those "why did I do that?" moments, proceeded to first brush off the pastel and then wash it off with creek water from my hand.  Since parts of the paper were adhered to the panel with a glue stick, and to what was essentially a corrugated surface, I was to find out 2 days later this forever doomed the paper and subsequent painting attempt on it.  

Not to be completely discouraged by these failed efforts, I headed back, turned down this intriguing dirt road that led off of the main highway

and beyond an impressively huge ranch to a remote location that had a view that I immediately loved.  It was about 1 1/2 hrs. until the quick draw event at the Red Cliffs began, but nonetheless, I set up the easel and began what would be Failed Painting #2.  Despite using my viewfinder, it just seemed I couldn't get the basic drawing to work.   At that point, I think my right brain just shut off for the day, and I shot two photos for a later studio piece, because there was no way in hell I was driving another 44 miles RT to try it from location again, and so I headed off to Red Cliffs for the quick-draw.

By the time I got there, folks were already setting up and getting their paintings underway.  I walked around, looking for a view that would grab me, decided I really wasn't "feeling the love" for anything, and headed back into town.   Since painting was done for me for the day, I decided to take a drive down the west side of the Colorado River south and west of Moab, known as Potash Rd.  I only drove about 6 miles, and while I saw no locations conducive for painting, I did stop to take some photos of beautiful Datura flowers (also known as "moonflowers"), before heading back to my room for some much-needed sleep.

Datura in full bloom

Datura flower spiral, unfurling

Wed, Oct 12:

Following a solid night's sleep, I got up and headed off by mid-morning to my original chosen location, Hunter Canyon, for at least one and possibly two paintings.  I felt good and excited to paint, and thanks to the spiffy backpack conversion kit for my French easel (thanks again, Dan, for telling me about it!), bringing the easel the 1/4 mile down the trail to the location was easy.

When I arrived, everything was still completely in shade.  This was fine, as I was able to get the sandstone slab, bush, pool and its edge drawn in and the background (which was in shade the entire time) completed.   Having completed about 1/2 of the painting at this point, I realized that: a) I was sort of cold from standing in the shade not moving; b) I was hungry.  So, I sat in the sun about 20 feet away on a large rock and ate and enjoyed the warm sun.

It was about this time that a breeze decided to kick up in the canyon, and while I knew my easel wasn't going to be disturbed by this, it didn't occur to me how unsecured both my panel was to the easel and the paper was to the panel, since I'd removed 3/4 of the tape for the painting process and had planned to re-tape it after I was finished.  By the time I figured that the breeze could be a problem, it was too late:  I watched as a gust came up and the paper and Coroplast separated from each other and the easel and landed face-down into the pool of water!  

I guess I could have gotten either really mad or completely discouraged by the fact that my painting was suddenly ruined after about 1 1/2 hrs. of work, but after assessing that it was indeed ruined, I just shrugged, walked back to my car, grabbed my pad of Artagain (that I thankfully had the foresight to bring along), whipped out my trusty piece of sandpaper from my apron pocket, dried off the Coroplast (which thankfully had the stamp on it), and started again.  

Using the original painting as a guide, I was able to quickly re-draw everything, and decided to sit while I did this.  By the time I was finished with the background, the light was at its "magical moment", and I set about to paint in the window of time while the plant, reflections and sandstone were in the sun.  I had to wait a few times for the breeze to settle so I could paint the reflection, but I managed to get it 90% completed.  I ended up sitting on the sand for the entire painting.

Feeling energized from a successful painting rising up from the setback, I decided I'd try another one on my way back, this time from the Kane Springs campground a few miles back towards town.  The sandstone cliff walls in shadow and the foreground field and mid-ground trees had a relatively simple design, so I was able to get this about 80% completed before it got too late and the sun went behind the cliffs:

Late Afternoon in Kane Springs Camp
11x14 inches
The photo of this has the same issue with the overly contrast-y shadow colors on the rocks.  Even p.p. adjustments couldn't make it look like the actual painting.  While I was painting, another pastel artist and local Moab resident, Victoria Fugit, came up and introduced herself and we had a delightful chat.  Later, the campground host came up and told me she felt I captured the feeling of the rocks, their shadows, and the area very well, which was encouraging to hear!

Here's a photo I took from the same area on Monday, earlier in the day, of this most magnificent cottonwood at one of the campsites, off to the right of where I did my painting.  The Colorado river lies just on the other side of the row of tamarisk:

After what turned out to be a productive day, the fun times weren't over yet:  after driving back into town and pulling into the McDonald's parking lot to call Wayne, I went to start the car afterwards, and much to my dismay, during my 10-minute conversation, it decided not to start.   This is the time my sister would say:  "I hear circus music!"  Indeed, it was playing loudly in my head.  I drove Wayne's Civic because it's a reliable car, so what are the odds it would decide to have issues on this trip?  Murphy is laughing somewhere, I know.

To make a long story short, despite having to walk back to the hostel in the dark about a mile, thanks to Wayne doing some internet searches and calls, there happened to be a repair place with a tow truck that was just down from the place I was staying.   The car was towed there that night.

It turned out to be a dead battery, so I really couldn't blame the little car, and while this all sounds like a bit of a nightmare, indeed it could have been so much worse!  I shudder to think what I would have done had the battery decided to go out when I was way down on the remote Onion Springs road the day before, where there was little traffic and no cell phone coverage 27 miles outside of Moab.  That I only had to walk a mile back to the place I was staying and the issue was minor was a blessing.  

Thus ends Part I of my PleinAir Moab adventure...


  1. Oh, Sonya. I have been missing you! The Moab trip sounds wonderful, and your paintings and photographs are excellent! I can't name a favorite, because I love them all. Looking forward to the second installment! Welcome home. :)

  2. What an inspiring trip! I love your photo of the Datura spiral. Seriously, you could enter that in a photo competition.

  3. Darla - thanks so much for your sweet comments! I was bummed that I had no internet access during my time in Moab where I could have posted short daily updates, and I missed reading everyone's blogs. Maybe by next year, I'll have the iPad and iPhone that would make that happen!

    LeAnn - thank you! It was an inspiring trip, and this Datura spiral photo was my favorite of the dozen or so I took - glad you like it :).

  4. I love this post! I know many of the spots you mentioned! And, I was there, too! Wish I'd known you were there, we could have met. Maybe next time!

  5. Thanks, Pam! It was fun sharing stories about the week with other artists I met, and one of the highlights of the whole trip, for sure. Maybe we can meet next year :)

  6. Heehee, I was just thinking "I wonder if Pam was there at the same time?!" (: But wow, what an adventure!! Glad you are home safe. I love, love, love Arroyo Shadows, that brilliant lime colored bush is brilliant, as is the whole thing--but that's my favorite part. You're a trooper, Sonya!!

  7. Hi Diane - yes, those first three days in particular were sort of insane, and there were honestly times I wondered if I should just head home early...glad I stuck through it, though. That brilliant backlit cottonwood sapling in "Arroyo Shadows" was totally what grabbed my attention to paint, so I'm tickled that you like it :D!

  8. Love the quiet reflections painting! Wonderful light and reflections. I see how someone loved it enough to take it home!

    Sounds like you had a great experience - good for you for sticking it out! I'm glad you didn't get stranded with the car in the middle of nowhere.....I think about that all the time when I go off somewhere remote by myself, but so far I've been pretty lucky ;-)

  9. Thanks Debbie! Having someone else love a painting you put so much work into enough to have it on their wall is really the ultimate compliment, I think. Despite the mishaps, it really was a great experience, and I definitely want to go back next year!

  10. Glad the car battery thing turned out okay for you - like you needed more work to do!

    The reflections painting (Hunter Cyn) certainly does resonate, and your tales of color issues are educational to read for us pastelists.

    Thank you for posting a great report!

  11. Hi Casey - well, you know how life is: completely unpredictable, and I guess at this point in my life, I have finally learned to just roll with the punches...and there will always be some!

    Pastelists doing location paintings and wanting to work with local colors would be well-advised to bring along some extra sets to supplement whatever you think will work, because you'll probably need to dig into them. I know why so many plein air painters work in oils!


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

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