Monday, May 7, 2012

A weekend of plein air painting at Chaco Canyon

A trip with the 4CPAP at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico...

Fajada Butte - 6x12 inches, pastel on brown cardstock
Friday morning, I packed up my pastels, painting and tent camping gear, and hit the road south to rendezvous with some members of the Four Corners Plein Air Painters.  It's about a 2-hr. drive from Durango, with the last 20-odd miles on a dirt road that criss-crosses through a patchwork of of BLM parcels and Navajo Nation land before reaching the park.

After securing a campsite and checking in at the visitor's center around 12:30 p.m., I took the loop drive through the park to re-aquaint myself with the areas and get ideas for painting.  The combination of a poor night's sleep and strong gusting wind made both standing and and attempting a larger painting a no-go.

I have been drawn to Fajada ("banded", and pronounced "Fa-HA-dah") Butte the other times I've been to Chaco, and decided it would make a good subject for a small 1:2 format painting.  The top of this butte, which was sacred to the Chacoan people, is the location of the famous "Sun Dagger" astronomical petroglyph spiral

The perfect location for painting...
 From this view to the west in full afternoon sun, this painting was about the colors of the land and the butte itself.  As you can see, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, but something needed to break up that large span of sky and help balance the composition.
...both shade and windbreak
After finishing this painting, I was feeling a bit energized, so I drove back to the Visitor's Center and picked up a backcountry permit to hike out to Wijiji (Navajo for "black Greaswood"), an outlier ruin I've not seen before.  The trailhead was conveniently located less than a quarter of a mile from the campground.

Since it was an easy 3 mile round-trip hike, I carried my chair and the small folding table along with my daypack of pastel boxes (I added a new box for this trip, which you can see in the above photo).  I must say that these little panoramas are very satisfying to create, and I'm finding that the light and dark brown cardstock worked out well for these landscape paintings.

Wijiji Wall - 6x12 inches, pastel on brown cardstock

On the hike back, I saw two photographers setting up for the full moon to rise over Chaco wash, and decided to head back to Fajada Butte to get some full moon photos of my own.

On the drive back, I saw a most unexpected sight:

I met up with the rest of the 4C group that was staying overnight shortly before they headed off to listen to the astronomy presentation and nighttime sky viewing through telescopes located at the park.  

In light of the full moon, one of the objectives of the coordinator for this trip, Rhonda, was to try nocturne paintings for those interested.  I did bring a headlamp, but was too tired to try and paint.  

But, before I headed to my tent to try (unsuccessfully, I might add) to get some sleep, I experimented with moonlight photography:

Light painting of the small ruin at the campground
33 seconds @ f/5.0, with a few quick passes on the ruin from a mini Maglite, which is known as "light painting"

60-second exposure @ f/5.0
Interesting to see how much the stars "move" in such a short period of time

Because there are more paintings to share, including one that is a complete departure for me on many levels, I'll save the rest for another post.


  1. Incredible landscapes. And I love your full moon photo!

  2. Sonya, these are all wonderful! What an exciting trip! I can't wait to see more! :)

  3. Thanks so much, Darla :) - despite getting hardly any sleep because of the brightness of the full moon, I managed to keep my focus and do a lot of painting in 48 hours.


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