Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Back from southern Utah '12 tour - Days 1 & 2

Wow.  Where to begin?  The trip, aside from some weather issues, was amazing.

I managed to do 9 paintings (10 if you include a diptych I did yesterday as two paintings...) on the trip.  I'd actually hoped to do more, but between lots of hiking and extreme wind conditions that made painting outside a complete deal-breaker, this was as good as it got.  Which was unfortunate, because those were often locations I found amazing areas to paint.

Anyway, the paintings were done, with a few exceptions, pretty much near where we ended up boondock camping.  I did bring my painting gear on 3 hikes, but time became an issue, so that didn't work out.

Most of the paintings weren't finished on location, usually because of time and/or weather restraints.  I'm hardly a purist in terms of what is considered a "plein air" painting, regardless of how much of it was completed on location.  I'm a landscape painter, plain and simple.  Studio or on location - it's the end result that matters, not the process.

Not including the informal evening strolls around the campsites, we hiked about 45 miles, most of it through unassuming canyons in remote wilderness areas, seldom seeing other people.

I ended up with 700 photos, encompassing all of my favorite subjects: wildflowers, butterflies, canyons large and small, and the ever-changing landscape of the Colorado Plateau itself along the loop we drove.

I will break the trip up into segments, to include both paintings, and photos grouped by theme rather than timeline.   This also gives me time to actually bring the rest of the paintings to completion.

Painting from day 1, along a very scenic wash located in the Paria River valley (and site of Old Pareah Townsite - now a ghost town), in the heart of the Grand Staircase National Monument.  It was also the location for a few movies, including the Clint Eastwood classic "The Outlaw Josey Wales".   I suffered through an onslaught of No-see-um bites to paint this, but I was determined to finish despite that:

Afternoon Light Along the Wash - 12x12
plein air
pastel on brown cardstock
Canyon washes and arroyos are one of those subjects I could happily paint my entire life and never get bored of. The way the light was hitting the edges of the white sandstone, and silhouetting the shrubs and small pinyon pine appealed to me immediately.  The variations in the reflected light - both cool and warm - was remarkable and not captured on the photo I took.

And, I thought to take some photos of my various plein air set-ups, so here's the one I used for this painting:

I just hold the piece of foamboard in my lap to paint in this situation.  The small stool - from Walmart - is lightweight and has its own carrying sleeve.  Unfortunately, it's not as durable as I'd have hoped for, and is already starting to split along the sections where the seat edges are...sigh...but, I should be able to repair it with some more durable fabric.

The next morning, I got up and whipped out a quick painting before breakfast, using the same get-up as above.  A small hill of pale white rock had some intriguing shadows cast, along with several small junipers.  The strata of the shadowed cliff in the background made for an interesting contrast.  It's not much to write home about, but I enjoyed the process nonetheless:

Morning in the Paria River Valley - 8.5x11"
plein air
pastel on maroon cardstock

Later, after breakfast, we decided to hike down the Paria River towards the confluence with Hackberry Creek in the canyon of the same name, and I brought my painting gear along.

I had Wayne take a picture of me at the painting location (painting unfinished), which was close to 2 miles down the river:

You can see the 2 boxes of pastels in the daypack there, and while Wayne carried the small folding tray for me, it's really lightweight and easy to carry, and I usually just carry it myself.

Here's what I attempted to paint:

Paria river bend
I may either revisit the original painting or start another later, maybe in this format.  The location piece, maybe 30% finished, was portrait format.  By the time we decided to head back, the shade I'd been sitting in was gone.

Photos from the area and along the road leading back to Hwy 89:

The most colorful example of Chinle formation ("Painted Desert") I've ever seen!
It was really this saturated and colorful, and we were camped about 40' from the base of it.

Folds in the Chinle slopes as the sun sets

sunset across the distal cliffs near the Paria river.  You can see the small
pale slope I painted the next morning in the middle there

along the Paria river wash towards the "box" area

the view to the west

the wash - in morning light

pano of the cliffs and colorful slopes on the drive out

looking north up the Staircase near Hwy 89; domes of white Navajo sandstone are visible in the distance

Next:  Day 3 & 4:  Zion National Park

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Off to Utah for 10 days

In less than an hour, we are heading off for a trip encompassing some of the finest scenery in the country, if not beyond:  the heart of the Colorado Plateau:

Paria River, Zion, Bryce, Escalante NM, Capitol Reef NP and Valley of the Gods/Cedar Mesa.  Really, to my eye, it just doesn't get any better than this.

We will be at Zion NP during the eclipse, which also happens to be in the path of totality.  Hopefully, I'll get some neat photos of that.

I have every piece of painting gear I own loaded up in the car, and the RV will carry everything else.

My plan is to paint every day, on hikes, in towns, along the side of the road if I want.  I'm 1/4 of the way towards my goal of 100 plein air paintings, and I hope to make a sizable dent in that on this trip.  

Anyway, I won't have internet access for the 10 days, so no posts until the 29th or beyond.

Photos from our similar car camping trip 6 years ago:

Virgin River Narrows - Zion NP

Bryce NP

Grosvner Arch

Entering slot canyon in Round Valley Draw - Escalante/Grand Staircase NM

Escalante River

alcove - Escalante River

Friday, May 18, 2012

Chaco Canyon triptych plein air - finished and framed

Frame for this arrived yesterday evening, just in time.

A Window Through Time - plein air
pastel on black cardstock
12x5.5", 12x12", 12x5.5" triptych
© S.Johnson
This is the finished painting still taped to the foamboard.  I mentioned in the original post about this painting that I worked on it in two sessions in order to actually finish it on location.  Not only is that a requirement for the upcoming National Parks show in Farmington, NM, that I painted it for, but honestly, it's just plain easier.  Besides, I'm back in that mental state where I'm finding it difficult to paint in my studio, and the last thing I wanted to do was to try and finish it at home.  So, I finished "bricking" it in on location, and added most of the mortar as well.  About the only thing I did back in the studio was to enhance some of the black shadowed areas between the stonework and finesse the values on some of them.

So, framing it.  I went back and forth about how to do this - three separate frames, mats or not, etc.  The problem with three separate frames is that the side pieces - 12x6"- are not standard sizes.  I cannot afford to custom frame anything, so it had to work within the confines of what is available pre-made.  I also thought the effect would be lost with matting each piece.

What I came up with was to frame all 3 pieces together in a 12x24" frame, separated by 0.5" on top of a mat.  I chose a 3" mahogany plein air frame, rather than gold, silver or black, which is what I most often use.  I'm also one of those crazy rebels that frames the pastels right up against the glass with no spacers.  Guess what:  despite what the naysayers try to tell you, it works great.

Here's what it looked like initially:

framed on off-white matboard
Later, while in the shower, of all places, I got to thinking that the white spaces were pretty stark, and I  quickly thought about what I could do to come up with a solution, and then it hit me:  strips of my dark brown cardstock that I use for painting.  Black or light brown were also options, but I thought the darker color seemed best suited:

final version
On the same note about framing, I am into refurbishing frames from thrift stores and garage sales.  Most of the frames you find there are junk, but occasionally, I find those made from quality wood that are in good shape.

Earlier in the week, I happened to swing by a nearby thrift store, as I was looking for some long-sleeved shirts to wear while painting.  In the frame section, this caught my eye:

It's solid oak.  And you can see the price - $5 - including glass.  And, a 1:2 aspect, although I wasn't sure of the exact dimensions (turns out it is 8x16").  But, I knew it would be perfect for one of the 6x12" pieces I did at Chaco:  Score!

I sanded all the clear glossy varnish off to bare wood, and using some titanium white oil paint and mineral spirits to give the effect of liming, transformed it to this:

Not bad, eh?   I think it suits "Fajada Butte" perfectly.

A view from the river - pastel painting, plein air

From an earlier trip.

Near the Footbridge - 12x12"
pastel on cardstock
© S.Johnson
Since I have not managed to keep with my schedule this week to get out and paint, I at least managed to finish up this piece, done two weeks ago.

The title refers to the footbridge where the Animas River Trail crosses the river, a stone's throw behind where I stood to paint this.

The hardest part - and that which I didn't finish on location - was the mid-ground row of trees.  Most are cottonwood and similar in color, save for the shadowed areas.  Massing them in was not easy.

During the time I was painting this, I had a guy who appeared to be quasi-homeless come down to converse with me.  After telling me of his misfortune of having someone steal some of his ink drawings and telling me he'd never been able to paint well with pastels, he then hit me up for money.  Does anyone bring money with them when they are out painting?  I certainly don't.  After realizing I was a financial dead-end, he wished me a good day and headed back up over the footbridge...which is how he'd seen me to begin with.

Later, a Canada goose paddled upstream past me to the second little grassy extension you see, and busied itself looking for food.  Later, I noticed it had moved out to hang out on one of the larger boulders in the river.

I think it's for these things that I also enjoy being on location.  In addition to the prolonged observation of place that location painting affords, I witness the small events such as these that add to the experience.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rocks, sky and sagebrush - plein air in pastel

A minimalist piece, of sorts, from this afternoon [edit:  re-done version posted on 5/18]*
Skyward Sagebrush - plein air
12x12 inches, pastel on brown cardstock

Finally, some time to get out and paint.  Between the odd storm weather that moved in for the better part of last week, followed by visiting relatives, my plans to get out and paint had to be put on hold until today.

We took Wayne's parents, who live in Phoenix, up to the cool 9,000' mining town of Silverton for a good part of the day.  After we got back, I grabbed my gear and beat it out to Santa Rita Park to at least get something done in the way of filling a sheet of paper in with pastel.

Sort of reminiscent of the recent painting done in Utah, this features a rock outcropping and sagebrush. It's along a dirt trail that heads off of the Animas River Trail a few hundred meters past the park and skirts the Animas river to the east and above.  I looked up to the top of the rock outcropping, saw these, and knew instantly that I had to paint them.

*I normally don't offer up critiques and/or point out shortcomings in my paintings here on the blog.  However, in this case I feel compelled to point out that the clouds bother me.  They are always a challenge to paint on location as they are in constant flux, and I'm always fighting to keep them from looking contrived, or just plain funky.  I knew I wanted them to come from the upper right to balance the elements in the lower left, but they aren't working for me.  Too lacy, too convoluted - I'm not sure.  I do know that I want to, er...need to, to rework them.  Simplify, simplify!

From the Silverton trip:

A bighorn sheep yearling along Hwy 550, curious but unafraid
of me and the camera

Andrews Lake
Wayne and his parentals in Silverton, because I do occasionally
take photos of people!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Lone Tree - plein air pastel

From late this afternoon.

Lone Tree and Passing Clouds - plein air
pastel on turquoise cardstock - 8.5x11"
© S.Johnson
Also at Santa Rita Park, looking across to the flat hillside that makes up the edge of the dog park.  The terminus of Smelter Mtn. slope is in the background.

We've been having weather conditions that are similar to the summer monsoons, although without the intense winds, thunder and lightning...or rain.

The skies are clear in the early a.m., and by mid-morning, clouds are building over the mountains.  Today,  the sky filled completely before I could head out and paint, and then we actually got rain.  The main storm had cleared away by about 4 p.m., so I headed out to slip in a quick painting.

It's on a new color - turquoise - of a pack of Colorbok cardstock I bought from Walmart.  These are dark jewel tones, and the smaller size makes them really easy to do for a quick daily painting.

From our deck today:

Friday, May 11, 2012

Animas River, plein air pastel, 12x12 inches

From yesterday, a late afternoon painting at Santa Rita park.

Perins and the River Split - plein air
12x12", pastel on black cardstock

A quickie piece, sort of, from my decision to head out at 4:30 PM to try and paint.  

The Animas river divides for a short section right at the park.  I painted a section of the little island bank, in winter, here.  Anyway, looking upstream and west afforded this view of a backlit cottonwood, the shaded side of Smelter Mtn. and Perins Peak off in the distance.  

I got it 90% finished on location, came home, and finished the remaining areas before it went on the "not finished" pile.  Took a photo, which was horrid, and showed what I felt were small, but glaring, issues that seem to only be visible in photos, and fixed those.  

Looks better now.

My original plan was to paint at the Dry Fork area a few miles west of town yesterday, while Wayne hiked.  We've been having these monsoon-like clouds and storms build up over the past several days, and I hadn't given any thought that while they are great to paint from a distance, when they are overhead, they kill the light.


So, I turned it into a photo session and hike instead, which was rewarding on its own.


Western Flag - native iris
the view I'll paint next time 
A Silvery Blue - one of the earliest blues to appear in spring - on unfolding iris
Gambel's oak leafing out along the trail
Silvery Lupine 
Colorful member of the Pea family 
Beautiful, and apparently very rare, Purple Lily 
Impressive clouds to the east, but no rain

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Secluded canyon, plein air pastel painting

From last week.  

Footpath Through Willows - plein air
12x9" - pastel on brown cardstock
© S.Johnson

I recently discovered a new trail just minutes away from where I live, that seems as remote as somewhere in southern Utah canyon country.  The main trail leads up to the top of Smelter Mountain, but this small, seldom-used path splits off early on and leads up the small canyon behind Smelter.

A neat find, with potential for future paintings.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Plein air studies in pastel, 6x6 inches

Four small studies done at Santa Rita park.  Two days' worth.

I don't spend more than 20-25 min. on each of these.  The goal is to work quickly and not fuss over details.  I also try not to duplicate sky and cloud colors if I'm doing two back-to-back.

Passing Clouds - 6x6"
pastel on dark brown cardstock
Cherry Tree
Pastel on dark brown cardstock
Cloud Study #1
pastel on light brown cardstock

Cloud Study #2
pastel on light brown cardstock

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.

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