Exploding Views

If I really work at it I can make a scene fit my sheet – really I can. The board in my little plein air kit (gator foam covered with adhesive plastic) fits a quarter-size watercolor sheet (11 x 15). As a consequence that’s the size I generally do outdoors, even when I all I do is a drawing on the sheet, and paint it later. But here in Zion Canyon, the views are so expansive I can rarely contain the scene on a sheet of that proportion – it demands to be wider or taller than “normal”. Over and over I end up continuing the drawing onto a second and even third sheet.

Two days ago while hiking up Observation Point I started thinking about shaped sheets. One of the beauties of work on paper is that one is surely not bound to a rectangle.  This is looking down on the canyon floor, Mt. Moroni, one of the Patriarchs, and the top of Angel’s Landing,

Painting of Zion Canyon

Shaped-sheet painting “Observing Zion” ~30″ x 11″, watercolor on paper

Further update:  similar viewpoint to Maynard Dixon’s painting of Angel’s Landing and the Great White Throne (a double-quarter-sheet diptych, 15 x 22).

Painting of Great White Throne, Angels Landing, Zion National Park

My version of the Great White Throne and Angels Landing, similar to Maynard Dixon’s

The newest rock texture, from my day of painted desert hiking on the southwest side of the park.

Painting of gypsum, limestone and shale in Zion National Park

Gypsum and shale in Scroggins Wash, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 11″

And another update: a better tarantula photo (second sighting).

Photo of tarantula in Zion National Park

About two-thirds the size of my hand.


“Insight, Enjoyment and Understanding”

These are the benefits of the Artist-in-Residence program, so says the sign at the Grotto shuttle stop with a picture of the little house/former museum/original visitor center. I hope I have given them to some of my visitors and observers.

For the artist, the benefit of immersion in a new place can’t be quantified. Instead of a quick study or a slideshow of photos, I slowly begin to understand the place. I recognize landmarks that I’ve seen from being at them and seeing them from many vantages. I know where I want to draw the next picture when I head up to the east rim again, or where the rock with the interesting desert varnish is on the trail.

And then, the opportunity to carry myself into such country also indirectly affects the art produced. Of course, who can resist painting such scenery? But I also find the act of walking long distances is a meditation. I get ideas to take back to the studio. (Why is it more often going up than down?) Next up, shaped-canvas landscapes.


Saw my first tarantula, crawling in the grass by the side of the Angel’s Landing trail, near the bottom. Pretty cute.  Yesterday I saw a shed snake skin, off the Kolob Terrace road.

Photo of tarantula

My first tarantula

Photo of snake skin

High-fashion former snake costume

I’m realizing I am at the half-way point of the residency, and a low-grade panic is setting in. There’s so much more to do! I’m just getting to know a few people. I haven’t painted the river yet, or the huge blind arch on Red Arch Mountain behind the house. I haven’t been hiking in Kolob Canyons or on the east side. There are so many more rock textures to collect and paint…

In the footsteps of Maynard Dixon

Yesterday I went for a morning constitutional up Angel’s Landing before the 7:00am shuttle arrived (1400 feet, 5.4 miles, according to the shuttle narration). It gets easier each time. Then I went hunting for the view Maynard Dixon painted which adorns the cover of the Zion Natural History Association’s centennial book on art and the park, A Century of Sanctuary. I found it, and noted what he modified. Now I will try my own version. I’ll post it if it comes out OK.

But I am building up a backlog of quick-and-dirty drawings to paint. (My method, either when it’s too hot, too cold or my wilderness companions are too impatient for me to spend 1-2 hours painting on location, is to do a pencil outline drawing of my chosen subject. I can always retrieve value and color from a snapshot, but the proportions I see, and the way my subject becomes a center of interest, can’t be duplicated by any camera.)

Wildlife, Wild life

I’ve seen the fox that leaves its “presents” on the sandstone ledge near my front door handle–very bushy tail, mostly grey, but much smaller than a coyote. For my last trek down-canyon for the Lodge’s wi-fi, I was followed or led by a turkey hen the entire half-mile. Today I saw a jackrabbit bound off into the sage in the emptier painted desert portion of the park. And a few evenings ago as I ate my silent solitary dinner at the kitchen table, immediately on the other side of the glass a doe browsed on the vegetation in the “backyard. I couldn’t tell whether she was as happy with her fare as I was with my smoked tuna salad.

Turkey hen in Zion National Park

Turkey patrol

Open Studio days

I’ve begun leaving my door open when I’m painting in the house. I’ve invited people to come look, and talked with folks from Georgia, Washington, New York, Switzerland, Russia, France, Quebec, Austria… Some just want to get out of the heat, some need directions, and some really do want to look at art.  Most are satisfied with a brief explanation, perhaps because they saw me at work through the window and don’t want to interrupt. I was very flattered when one visitor, an artist herself, wanted to purchase the pebbles in the Virgin River (see New Work, Two Kinds). (I am not allowed, no doubt without a concession license, to sell work during my residency.) But I must say compliments are a boost in this somewhat isolated situation.

Outside or in the studio

These rock-texture, fractal landscapes are becoming more satisfying than my plein air scenics. My fellow Banff resident Laura Holwein nailed it when she observed that their “scale is negotiable”.

However, the scenics give me the excuse to head for the hills (or rims, in this case) and of course to search out even more variegated surfaces for the rock series. I still haven’t found the perfect lighting on the perfect cross-bedding example, nor checkerboarding either. I went back up to the West Rim to photograph burned trees with the non-dead large camera, and wandered off-trail onto a wooded plateau and deep cleft between Mt. Majestic and Cathedral Mountain.

So hard to choose between more artistic accomplishment in the more easily controlled studio environment – no heat, no bugs, no complex scene to assimilate, simplify and paint quick before the light changes – and the glory of being fully immersed, fully in the moment, in the ultimate subject. Very little makes me happier than hard walking in a glorious place, except maybe that and a great picture.

(Please forgive temporary photography, which does some violence to the true colors… No studio lights here!)


Rain in the desert

Last Tuesday it rained steadily most of the day. The pour-offs were amazing. Places I’d seen completely dry were – nothing mini-about them—Niagaras. The river was dark brown, cocoa-colored and full of debris. Over the next few days it gradually turned from americano to latte and now back to viridian and raw sienna. Even more amazing to me was a puddle that went from clear to phthalo green with algae in a matter of hours, before drying up completely.

New work, two kinds

Here are some examples of the work I have been doing. I’ve got two kinds – plein air sketches, where I carry a minimal set up and somewhere in the course of hiking, I stop for an hour or two to paint. These are blissful moments, surrounded by so much beauty it’s hard to choose which direction to face. The farther I’ve hiked the more often I’m likely to be completely alone. But even for this morning’s piece, done at a viewpoint less than 50 yards from the road, people were curious and polite.  It’s taken 5-7 of these to feel competent at the new terrain.

The other kind is studio work in the little house. The light isn’t perfect, but I have my easel, my full palette, all my brushes, and my photos. I’ve decided to do a series of 11 x 11 squares of different rock textures I see as I explore; “Six (or however many) Meditations on the Nature of Time” since geology is in some ways the star of the scene. When they are all lined up together it will be quite large.

It is an amazing privilege to be here, doing this!

Great hiking, performance anxiety

Observation Point beats Angel’s Landing hands-down. Longer, less steep, greater elevation gain but still exciting drop-offs keep your attention. This trail takes you to the east rim, more expansive views, a different eco-niche, and today at least, nice breezes. Part of the trail goes through a slot canyon that felt very much like the Deer Creek Patios off the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. I painted at the top for about 90 minutes, and stopped many times to photograph lightning-struck burned trees and the many patterns in the rock.

I am definitely having trouble getting into a canyon-painting groove. I can’t seem to find the right colors, I mistake the values as too light in the shade, and there’s so much to see it’s hard to simplify. The heat and ever-present ants don’t help. Knowing that I promised to host open studio time makes me feel under some pressure to perform. There’s a beautiful book of Zion paintings in the house commemorating the park’s centennial —  I feel honor-bound to live up to that standard; but lifestyle, environment and working conditions will take some getting used to!

Next time I’m ready to hike to Zion Lodge or the Springdale Library for their wi-fi, I will post some photos of work in progress.