Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Painting in the Conejos River valley in southern CO

We returned yesterday evening from a 5-day camping trip - the last trip to the high country for the year - along the Conejos River in southern Colorado.  

Monsoon activity was particularly strong on this trip, with rain every day.  Summer is quickly drawing to a close, as evidenced by the yellowing of the grasses, faded flowers, and much colder temperatures at night at the 10,000' where we camped.  

Despite two solid days of clouds and/or rain, I managed to get in four paintings, including this one, which I started on Sunday and had to wait until yesterday morning to finish.  I'm able to post it now because I took this photo on location before disassembling it from the board to take home; it is rainy and cloudy today, precluding taking photos of the others.

Morning in the Conejos River Valley - 12x24", plein air
diptych, pastel on black cardstock
Honestly, though, this is really the only painting that's probably worth posting.  The others were, of course, worthwhile to do, and helped bring my plein air painting total for the year up to 85.  

This region of the southern San Juans is quite beautiful, especially the river itself.  This view was  a few hundred meters from our campsite area, down into the wide valley itself.  I knew as soon as I walked down Saturday morning and saw the shadows and light here that this would be a painting.  

This painting brings up two questions one might ask in regards to choices made for it:

Q:  Why a diptych?  
A:  Two reasons, really.  First is purely practical - when traveling, I carry standard sized papers, always 12x12", the 8x16" prepared boards, and 12x16".  If I want to do a bigger piece in a panorama format on location, a diptych (or triptych) allows that to happen easily.  Second, there is the possibility that you could end up with two paintings that work on their own, as in this case.  That wasn't my intent here, but it is certainly is a valid method for maximizing one's time at a given location!

Q:  Why the addition of the cattle?
A:  I actually debated about whether to add them or not.  The reality is that there were actually dozens of them present in the valley both times I painted, some only 20 yards from me, so they were not added as a figment of my imagination or to cutesy up the scene.  I did decide to add them, again, for two reasons:  they instantly provide a sense of scale for the viewer, and they add some interest to an area that is a bit empty.  Their small size, number, and simple forms keep them from dominating the composition.  I didn't know until I actually started putting them in whether they would make or break the painting.   The consensus thus far is that it was a good choice to add them.

As attractive as the area was, I took far fewer photos on this trip than I usually do.  Part of that was because it was raining so often, and the other reason is that I am not sure I would use any for reference material for studio paintings - it's just hard to do that when you've painted on location and you know you'll be back next year.

But, here are a few from our 9.5 mile hike on Sunday, between rainfalls:

Conejos Falls along the middle fork of the river

Middle fork of the Conejos 
Fringed Gentian along the river looking upstream

Unusual horned cow - breed unknown


  1. Sooo much green, the altitude must have affected your judgement... and yet it turned out sooo good!

  2. Sonya, I love your paintings, photographs and your new blog format! You have been busy! And I like the cattle. They really do give the viewer a sense of nature's grandeur. Beautiful work!

  3. Dan - ha! I think what makes these greens bearable is that they aren't saturated, and are balanced by the blue-grays of the shadows and other things that *aren't trees* ;).

    Thanks so much for your comments, Darla - I appreciate them!

  4. Breathtaking photos -- and I love your diptych.


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