Monday, May 7, 2012

Chaco Canyon plein air, day #2

A full day of painting on Saturday...

Single Family Home - 12x12 inches, pastel on brown cardstock
After waking to a perfect, sunny morning, and having some much-needed coffee, I headed over to the informal "base of operations" campsite where Rhonda and another 4C member were staying.  Helen and Jerri came over, and said they were going to paint the modest little ruin in our campsite, so I decided to join them; after all, it's 50 meters from my campsite!

What I really liked about it was the contrast of the ruin structure, its subtle shadow and stone detail (including shadows along those open edges), and the contrast against the darker alcove in which it was located.  Painting that alcove - with its variety of reflected light, ever-shifting surface planes and intriguing desert varnish facade - proved by far the most difficult aspect of this painting.  Nonetheless, I got it done in maybe 1 1/2 hours, and it was a good warm-up for the day.

After eating an early lunch, I got my next painting surface ready.  For whatever reason, while driving around Friday, I got an idea to try something I've never done before, studio or elsewhere:  a triptych.  Don't ask me why this idea came to me on this trip, but I now had this compulsion to at least try it.

I did originally plan to try a large painting - 16x20 - on this trip, so I had the paper already taped to a 18x24" foamboard panel.  Off it came, and in its place went a 12x12 and two 12x6 pieces on either side.   Heck, the largest painting size I've done on location was 12x16, so this was new territory for me as well.

Perhaps channeling our first trip to Chaco about 1 1/2 years ago, I stopped at the first ruins along the drive - Hungo Pavi.  I'd taken a photo, not of the ruin, but of the canyon wall behind the ruin, and thought that might make a good painting.  Wasn't thrilling me as a triptych, though.

As I walked around the ruin, I came across something that also had grabbed my attention (and a photo, it turns out, of the same window!)  during the first trip:  a small window through which the opposite side of Chaco canyon was visible.  It suddenly occurred to me that I just stumbled upon a triptych subject!  I also realized that even if the side panels didn't work out, the center 12x12 could probably stand on its own.  And, my thought at the time I decided to do this was:  "this will either be pretty neat, totally different from anything I've ever painted or seen done, or just plain weird!"

I spent 3 hours on it, and got it about 75% finished, surprisingly.  Periodic gusts of wind made it a challenge to paint, but luckily, there was never any risk of anything actually blowing over (or away).  Our group critique was at 3PM at the visitor's center, so I hauled it, and the above painting, along for the critique, not sure what to expect from the group.

Sort of surprisingly, everyone really liked it, and the concept.  The group is having a show at the end of the month, in Farmington, for paintings done at Mesa Verde, Aztec and Chaco.  So, I will definitely enter this one.

Here it is, on location, at the end of the second painting session yesterday (Sunday), after I'd finished "bricking and mortaring" it in:

Amazing masonry of Hungo Pavi
(note black trash bag used as a ground cover:  a requirement by the Park to paint there)

It's not completely finished; I need to go and do some final finessing to the rocks and mortar areas.  When you are looking at Chacoan architecture, it's not just about the impressive size and scope of the Great Houses, but about the skill of the masons.   These buildings are over 900 years old.  I wanted to recognize the masonry detail in my painting.

I'll post a photo later when I've touched up the remaining areas and have it framed.  The framing is a whole separate issue that I've spent a good deal of time thinking about.  I've come up with a solution that I hope looks good.

hanging out during Sunday's painting operations

Unfortunately, my camera really didn't make much of an appearance during this trip, save for the first day and this shot.   When you are in the mindset of painting, snapping some photos just doesn't have the same appeal.

After the critique session, I went back to the camp, heated up leftovers for dinner, and then decided to head out and paint some more - this time, to Pueblo Del Arroyo, which as the name describes, is a ruin that is right near Chaco wash.  Four other 4C people were painting there when I arrived, so clearly, it was The Place To Be on late Saturday afternoon.

Picture Window - 12x9 inches, pastel on brown cardstock

This just appealed to me because it was really about sitting and observing the masonry detail again, since the entire wall was in the shade.  Noting, for example, how the very top has a variety of rock types, many dark, some very light.  The main section has little mortar, which is suggested by a few dark, thin lines.   The edge of the window was formed with thin, even sections of rock, and the outer edge formed an hourglass-type curve.  Then, the single layer of darker rock, protruding slightly.  The bottom layer of homogenous stone with mortar.  And, the small paired openings to a lower room.

For this painting, I was mindful to create interesting negative spaces and irregular intervals:  symmetry is not what we want here!  The paired openings, window and top of the ruin create a triangle, as do all 3 sections of sky.

After this painting, I was really too tired to try a nocturne a few hours later, although one intrepid member (Deb) did.  The rest of us sat around a blazing campfire, talking of things art and not, and enjoying the extra full, extra bright moon rising over the canyon walls.

I've already decided that if and when another 4CPAP to Chaco Canyon is arranged next year, I'll be back.


  1. Wow, what a wonderful experience you got to have there! These pieces are lovely and I enjoyed the titles of your pieces, too. "Single Family Home" made me laugh because my husband and I seem to keep ending up in towns and cities where the cost of housing is ridiculous, so whenever we see an abandoned house or a ruin like that one we exclaim "We could afford that one!" (although probably not because the land is so expensive.) Anyway, I'm glad you had such a wonderful time at Chaco Canyon. I hope you get to go back next year.

  2. Hi Gabrielle -It really was a lot of fun - productive fun, even :). I never know what will happen, painting-wise, on these trips, so to have finished as many paintings as I did (and not have any be immediate "tossers") was a surprise. The longer I was there, the more subjects I found to paint, which isn't always the case!

    Re the little alcove ruin: we were sort of musing about its purpose, especially given that the Chaco area was comprised of Great Houses and some smaller houses, all of which had dozens or hundreds of rooms. So, this little isolated ruin is an enigma. A "farmer's house" is how one of the gals described it.

    Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. I'm so impressed at all the work you were able to get done! (And totally jealous of your whole trip ;-) Such a beautiful area of the country. Your paintings are wonderful. I get such a sense of place from them. I am looking forward to seeing your triptych!

  4. Thanks, Debbie; heck, I impressed myself at all I was able to get done! It's nice when things click on a dedicated painting trip, making it worth the while.

    The ruins aside, I do find Chaco Canyon itself to be quite scenic - it's a wide, relatively low canyon, and the sandstones are totally different in color than Utah slickrock. The shadows and glow that occur in the late afternoon are amazing.

    I really appreciate your comment about getting a sense of place from the paintings; that is important and means at least something worked ;).


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

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