Friday, December 3, 2010

Window Rock

Painting 1.36 Window Rock. I feel like this painting really boils the desert landscape down to what I really love about it: beautifully colored stone and sharp, contrasty shadows. The shadows were the real subject of this painting though. I first painted the sky in plain blue with a slight gradient to white and then covered that with the patchy color of whitish sandstone, only slightly acknowledging which areas needed to be darker or lighter. This was all done in an evening. The next two days were spent filling in the shadows, making sure not to miss any important shapes that would hopefully give the picture some dimension.

I feel like this is approaching the type of abstraction that I had hoped for when I started painting this type of landscape. It was also very reminiscent of one of my favorite paintings #1.9 which I might try to redo now that I've gotten more experience. I also discovered how important it is to focus tightly on your subject. I originally started this painting on a wide canvas with the actual arch taking up a much smaller portion of the frame. This composition seemed bland to me so I tightened up the focus on the arch and chose a vertical orientation and was much happier with the results.

Giclee Print

Monday, November 29, 2010

Coyote Gulch

Painting 1.35 Coyote Gulch. I really like paintings where the entire sky is beyond the view of the canvas and the whole frame is filled with a canyon wall. The other 5 paintings where this has happened have all depicted man-made subjects like cliff dwellings or pictographs. Here, instead I have my first attempt at a tree! Because this tree is at the bottom of a canyon, the lighting is strange with some parts lit by harsh direct sunlight and others lit by diffuse, warm, reflected light. I'm not sure if I was able to capture the warm light. I also think that the bunches of leaves seem a bit contrived. They were supposed to look sparse, but I think I got carried away and didn't realize that I'd overdone it until I stepped back and looked at it. I do really like the division between shadow and light in the background.

The way that the shadows ended up being depicted made me realize one of the reasons that it is difficult to paint from a photograph. A photograph has a limited dynamic range and highlights will appear brighter than you would see them in person and shadows darker. If you were painting en plein air then you would be looking around at the different elements of the scene with your eyes adjusting to the localized lighting of each of those elements. This allows you to bring out details in the shadows that are lost in a photo and to tone down the highlights. It would be difficult to lug along a easel, canvas and paints on a hiking trip so you have to be sure to take lots of pictures, from different angles and from close up and far away. These will help you to remember what it was like to stand in front of your subject, with your eyes darting around taking in its elements one at a time.

Giclee Print

Spiderweb Arch

Painting 1.34 Spiderweb Arch. This one almost felt routine, so it must be time to try something new. My goal has always been to work towards an abstraction of the landscape that I'm trying to depict. I want the paintings to be simple and to evoke things like sunlight and shadows, blue skies and red rock. In this painting that was almost taken too far in that there is no middle tone on the rock. When looking at these formations in person, you'll notice that the shady areas sometimes glow with warm light reflected from the surrounding sandstone. The reflected light can't reach everywhere so there are then shadows within shadows. So my two goals for the next painting are this: warm reflected light and something else new that I haven't tried to depict in a painting yet. If these paintings are going to become abstract it will be because I can develop a shorthand for showing what I have seen, but I need to feel confident with a literal depiction first.

Giclee Print

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kanab Canyon

Painting 1.33 Kanab Canyon. This is based on a drawing from General Wesley Powell's "The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons" I may have to update this picture later because I never really finished the painting. I left it sitting too long after finishing the rocks in the foreground and wasn't able to finish the shadows on the background rocks and the water. When I've let something sit to long before getting back to it, its usually easier to just start a new painting than to try to get back into the mindset of the previous one. Looking at it now, the unrealistic lighting and coloring on the water make it look like an abstract shape imposed on the rocks rather than a shallow river at the bottom of a deep canyon. The shadows in the far background seem like they've melted into the highlights which may make those rocks look farther away. If I had a plan for how I was going to handle these things, it is long forgotten. This is why it's important to maintain a good work ethic!

Giclee Print

Monday, September 27, 2010

Glen Canyon

Painting 1.31 Glen Canyon. This is the first painting that I've done that has any kind of message beyond my attempts to express my fascination with the desert. Until 1966, Glen Canyon had been the tedious creation of millions of years of erosion by the Colorado River, the home of the Anasazi, the landscape rediscovered and described in beautiful detail by explorer John Wesley Powell, and the site of desperate archaeological study in 1956 as the Glen Canyon Dam was being built. After 1966 it was to be none of these things. The Glen Canyon Dam converted it to a holding tank for water that was to be used to make life livable in the surrounding desert. Now, life had always been livable in the desert as the Anasazi have left evidence of. However, life now means green suburbs, golf courses and water-skiing. How could people be expected to grow a modern economy in this hostile environment if they couldn't live a modern lifestyle? The other motivation for the dam was the idea that the energy accumulated by the water of the Colorado during its descent from the plain could be converted into a cash by a hydroelectric plant built into the dam.

And so a gate was slammed down in the path of the conduit for millions of years of erosion and deposition. The contents of lower glen canyon were drowned and the result couldn't have been given a more offensive name: Lake Powell. By the time people realized what they had lost, it was too late to go back. The surrounding area depended on the water to survive, and the emptying of Lake Powell would have catastrophic effects downstream.

However, even a lake in the desert might not be enough to quench the thirst of cities like Page, AZ. Precipitation rates show a downward trend in the west and the water levels in Lake Powell have dropped to record lows in the last 10 years. As the water drops, the sickly, bleached white sandstone of Glen Canyon is exposed once more. During one extended drought in 2003, the mechanisms of desert varnish creation were allowed to function once again on this exposed sandstone and its color began to return before it was submerged once again.

The truth is that Glen Canyon will outlast the dam. While a concrete dam embedded in stone may seem permanent on the human timescale, on a geological timescale its akin to trying stop the tide from destroying your sand castle by laying down in front of it. The Colorado River will sabotage the operation of the dam by piling sediment against it and cutting through the sandstone that anchors it. Once this happens, humans may be forced to accept the reality that they have to adapt to their environment rather than conquer it.

Giclee Print

Skull Arch

Painting 1.30 Skull Arch. This arch was an especially challenging subject. The two-arch formation seems so surreal and improbable that it might just look like I was painting a picture of a wall and decided to throw in two random blue blobs in the middle of it. In an attempt to make this scene believable I looked at all the pictures I had taken of this arch when I visited it and others that I found online for reference. Each picture showed the arch at a slightly different time of day, and each position of the sun cast vastly different shadows on the rock. Parts of the scene are depicted under mid-day light, while others are as they appear later in the afternoon. This allowed each piece of the scene to be shown in a way that was most easily imagined in three dimensions. I selected little bits of each picture to highlight different details of the arch, such as the background rocks seen through the arches which should look like they're being hit by more direct light. The foreground should appear to be lit by a combination of direct light and diffuse light, reflected from the opposing wall, behind the viewer. This meant that the shadows in the foreground needed to have a subtle glow to them.

One of the advantages of the plein air painter is that he is copying the original. If any detail is unclear, he can move around and look more closely to work it out. When painting from a photograph, one is making a copy of a copy and the scene has lost a lot already by being captured on film. This is why it helps to have multiple pictures of the same scene in different conditions. It will at least simulate the experience of sitting and watching a place for an extended period of time.

Giclee Print

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Great Gallery II

Painting 1.28 The Great Gallery II. I wanted to revisit the subject that got me into painting again in the first place. At the time that I finished the first painting of this wall, I didn't realize that what I was painting was part of a much larger mural. I would like to learn more about the history of this painting as it seems that the section on the left was painted at a later time than the rest of the mural, based on the fact that the left surface was only revealed after the outer sandstone layer collapsed. This is further suggested by the fact that the two figures on the far left have their bottom sections broken off, meaning that there has definitely been some collapse since the original painting was made. One new thing that I tried to tackle in this painting were the crumbly bits of sandstone on the left. I struggled with this in 1.17, where there were piles of broken stone beneath the arch that I left out of the painting because I wasn't sure how to make them fit in with the style of the rest of the painting. I want them to almost look like they are part of the wall here, but separate from the ground. This ended up taking considerable time to complete, not just because of the size of the painting but the fact that I had to make contact paper stencils for each figure to get the clean lines and uniform washed out color that I wanted.

Giclee Print

Swinnerton Arch

Painting 1.27, Swinnerton Arch, Monument Valley, Arizona. I tried to put something other than a blue-blue gradient in the background. I didn't think that wispy, painted clouds would stand up next to the solid shapes of the stones so I painted solid looking clouds. I only wish that I had put some on the other side of the sky to balance it out a bit. Other than that, it was a relatively quick and simple painting. I need to start looking for a new way to depict my subject again because I'm starting to get a little tired of increasingly literal translations of a picture. This is showing in the quality of the paintings, especially here where I've started to copy the picture that I'm looking at rather than attempting to depict a three dimensional object. This is particularly bad in the top left corner of the arch. What is that up there? It certainly doesn't look like a three dimensional chunk of sandstone. It looks terribly flat when it should appear to loom over the viewer.

The advantage that painting has over photography is that you can pick and choose what you depict in order to make the scene more understandable to the viewer. When photographing a feature like this, you'll have to move around to find the right angle where the most features are visible so that the viewer of the photo will be able to piece together in his mind what it would feel like to stand in the place where the photo was taken. Even then, some burning and dodging is necessary the highlight and correct the photo to make it more understandable. In a painting, you can simplify shapes and add highlights that give the illusion of depth. This is something that I've failed to do here, and I'll need to work on it.

Giclee Print

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bowtie Arch

Painting 1.26, Bowtie Arch, Utah. After my frustration with the last painting I wanted to pick a simple subject. Rather than trying to convey dramatic sunset or sunrise lighting I wanted to paint something under hot midday lighting, the way you'd actually see most of these arches. The shady area under this arch would be very inviting after a long hike with little relief from the sun. I also made the sky behind the arch a simple white to blue gradient without any brushstrokes to create ray-like streaks of light. The extreme rang of tones in most of the skies in my paintings is probably a result of my using a polarizing filter when I take pictures out west. A polarizing filter when oriented correctly will darken the sky in a photograph while leaving the horizon relatively light. Because many of the pictures I paint are from photos I have taken, I am used to the skies appearing this way and enjoy the effect.

I tried again to give depth to the painting with the "desert varnish" created using a wash of brown and black paint. It didn't look as natural as I had hoped, and the effect was diminished. I also struggled with the color choice to indicate that the foreground at the bottom of the painting was flat and not part of the rock wall. I thought that I lighter color would indicate more direct lighting from the sun, but perhaps it still isn't light enough.

Giclee Print

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Teardrop Arch

Painting 1.25 Teardrop Arch, Monument Valley. I really don't like this painting. However, I find that putting thought into why things don't work can be even more useful than appreciating the things that do. In my mind, this scene had a lot of interesting elements: dramatic sunset lighting, a beautiful scene in the distance which could be made to fade into the horizon and a closeup of a shadowy rock wall. I really enjoy painting all of these things, so I thought this would be a joy to work on. My first problem was choosing a small 11x14" canvas on which to do the painting. 11x14" is a great size for trying out ideas before attempting them on a larger and more expensive canvas. They also allow me to complete paintings quickly, in two days for me if it's working. The problem here is that the scene from Monument Valley in the distance could have been its own painting and I was trying to paint it as such. This means that I had to fit an entire painting's worth of detail in a 3x5" space. Some people can do this very effectively and sell loads of tiny paintings, but this is something that I have not been able to do up to this point. The result was a scene that didn't convey the immensity of the actual site and didn't fade into the horizon the way I wanted it to.

The second problem was with the arch itself. I was attracted to it because of the large crack through its top and the wonderful shadow it casts at sunset. However, aside from this, the rock face is relatively smooth and shadowless. I tried exaggerating little cracks that I saw in the surface of the rock by giving them larger shadows to add interest but to me it ended up looking fake and unrealistic. Weathering in rocks is governed by random distribution of weak points in the stone. The result is almost always stunning, but the randomness is difficult to fake. A person trying to create a random array of lines will almost always unknowingly imbue them with some order which will be obvious when one steps away from the painting and looks at it.

Giclee Print

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mesa Verde

Painting 1.24, Mesa Verde, Square Tower. I enjoy using cliff dwellings as a subject because they provide a point of interest that is small in comparison to a natural feature like an arch. This gives me a chance to paint a small detailed portion of a cliff wall. Painting a cliff dwelling also usually means that there will be no sky in the picture which I think makes the paintings feel more abstract because the viewer only sees shadows on rock and can only guess where the light is coming from or what time of day it is. The light here could be from a sunrise or a sunset or it might even be night and the walls are illuminated by firelight. The sky doesn't usually play a big part in the pictures that I paint except to act as a smooth gradient in contrast to the jagged and absolute shading on the rocks.

Another note on the subject in this painting: while it is very likely that these structures were built using stone similar to the stone on which they were built it was important to me that the two surfaces look different in the painting. Almost as if the life had been drained from the stone when it was hewn into blocks for use in building houses. It is easy to think of Anasazi structures like this as being part of the natural landscape because both the buildings and the landscape were around long before we ever where. However, my interest in this area is not archaeological but geological and these structures are just man made objects deposited in the landscape.

Giclee Print

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Double Arch

Painting 1.23, Double Arch, Arches National Park. After that last painting of the white house ruins I was trying a new approach to depicting the dreaded but beautiful "desert varnish". What I tried to do here was to paint the highlights and shadows first, and then go back with a very wet brush containing some dark brown and lay down the strips of varnish over both the highlights and shadows with one stroke, darkening them both at the same time and forming a link between the two. Too often, either the shadows can look like dark shapes floating on the highlights or the highlights look like strange aberrations amidst the shadows. Having a continuous line through both reminds my eye that they are different aspects of the same object. I was especially pleased with the area in the top right.

Giclee Print

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The White House Ruins 2

Painting 1.22, The White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. I decided to revisit the subject of one of the first paintings I ever completed. I had changed the style of my painting a lot in the intervening time and had always wanted to better convey what I loved so much about this cliff dwelling. The most interesting pictures of this location are taken from the canyon floor. Only at that angle do you realize how the canyon wall extends out of the ruins then curves upward toward the rim. Desert varnish is plentiful at the rim and strips down the canyon wall towards the gap where the Anasazi built these structures. This gives pictures a sense of isolation as the brilliant sandstone fades to black at the top of the frame. I'm still not quite satisfied because I don't feel like there are enough hints in the shading of the rock to convey the shape of the cliff to the viewer. I also still feel like the buildings stand out too much. They are extremely old, likely made from the same stone that makes up the canyon wall and they should look like part of the canyon wall.

Giclee Print

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Surprise Arch

Painting 1.21, Surprise Arch, Arches NP. I'm hesitant to post this painting because I am not very satisfied with the results. I do think that it provides an excellent example of how taking too much time off between starting and finishing a painting can have a negative effect on your work. I had finished the last two paintings rapidly over the course of a couple days. I started this one excited to try out what I had learned from the last two. Then I went away for the weekend and by the time I got back I had forgotten most of the ideas that felt so fresh before I had left. Its kind of like a dream that is so clear right after you wake up, but fades away much faster than you expected it to. When you try to revisit it later, you realize you have no recollection.

The other problem that I encountered with this painting was the choices that I had to make about highlights and shadows. I was so sparing with the use of highlights around the edge of the painting that those areas seemed very empty when filled with a black shadow. I tried to minimize this effect with the addition of a lighter shadow layer but the parts just don't seem to fit together. I really love this location in the fiery furnace in arches national park and will definitely revisit this in a future painting.

Giclee Print

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gemeni Bridges

Painting 1.20 Gemini Bridges, in Moab, UT. One thing you'll notice when looking at formations like this is a faint but warm red glow in the shadows created by light reflected from the ground. I realized that up to this point I had been ignoring this aspect of the scenes that I had been painting and wanted to try to recreate it here. I'm not sure how well it worked out, but one thing that I am happy about is the look of the upper left hand potion in the foreground. I struggle a lot with making the rocks in the painting really look "3D" and in this case I really feel like you can tell that those jagged rocks are protruding from the sandstone. The only problem is that I can't really put my finger on what makes it look better than the other parts of the painting to me. Maybe it's the highlighting around the edge of the rocks, or is it the darker color of the whole area? In any case I'll have to keep trying different things to create this effect in subsequent paintings.

Giclee Print

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Big Eye

Painting 1.19 The Big Eye, Arizona. This is a remake of a painting that I attempted some time between 1.12 and 1.17. I wanted to accentuate the contrast of the darkened rock wall to the light shining through the arch and catching little bits and pieces of the sandstone floor in the foreground. The mistake that I made with the original was that I didn't focus on what I was interested in, the eye itself, and tried to include too much of the wall in shadow. At the time I was frustrated with my recent paintings and tried to recreate the feel of the painting I did of the white house ruins in canyon de chelly (1.3). This meant trying to add all kinds of exaggerated shadows and details to the dark portion of the wall which really just distracted from what the focus should have been, the eye. I also tried including some more noticeable highlights in this painting to really give the impression of light flowing through the arch.

Giclee Print

Friday, April 23, 2010

Landscape Arch

Painting 1.17, Landscape Arch, Utah. Thanks to being snowed in for the weekend I finished this on a huge 24x48" canvas. This painting was based on a picture that I had taken while visiting Arches National Park the previous year. What I noticed while looking at the picture was that it was taken from a position much closer to the arch than all of the other pictures that I had painted to that point. This meant that I could see very well the texture in the sandstone. So, as I started to paint in much the same way as I had been before, I felt the need to express some of that texture in the color of the sandstone. The other contributing factor was that I had just bought a new tube of red paint and its color was a bit off so I was continuously adding hints of yellow and brown after it was already on the canvas. The result was a much more "informative" surface to the sandstone. By informative I mean that the three dimensional qualities of the scene are not only conveyed by the location of shadows but also hopefully by the variation in tone of the light areas.

I was pleased with the result and felt that it looked less "cartoon-y", but this particular scene has raised a new issue. The actual "landscape arch" stretches over a hill covered in lush (for the desert) vegetation. I made the choice to eliminate the vegetation to preserve the simple shapes and not distract from the shadow of the arch span. A twisted juniper is the epitome of desert life, supplying nutrients to only its most sun-bathed branches and killing off the branches that are a waste of resources. I would love to depict these along side these arches, but that will have to wait for another painting.

Giclee Print

Hope Arch

Painting 1.12 Hope Arch, Arizona. This was the last painting that I finished for a long time. After I finished it I was very happy with it at first, but the more that I looked at it, the more the exaggerated differences in color between the strata began to bother me. Not only that, but the divisions between the strata were looking kind of arbitrary. I always paint the full shape of the subject in black on top of the sky before beginning to fill in the color. I kept a small sliver of black showing through between strata to accentuate the division. As water soaks through the sandstone and reaches a junction between strata it will often be easier to flow out through the sides of the rock than to continue downward, this results in some amount of pitting visible at the surface between layers. So I felt that these black borders should be some shade of the color which they border to reflect the fact that they are just shadows caused by the weathering of the rock. The next 5 paintings would be a frustrating transition to an alternate portrayal of sandstone.

Giclee Print

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Maze 3

Painting 1.11, Fin arch in the maze. First, a quick lesson in how arches like this are formed. Once an area of stone has been reduced to tall fin-like pillars of sandstone there are a couple of ways that arches may be formed from these fins. One way is the seepage of water from precipitation into small cracks in the rock. When temperatures are cold enough, this water will freeze, expanding and putting pressure on the surrounding rock until pieces break off. If a fin is strong or weak in all the right places we might be able to temporarily see an arch form shortly (geologically) before the fin collapses entirely. Because arches form as a result of large chunks of rock breaking off rather that being worn down by wind, the features of an arch are usually jagged. In the case of this arch, most of the features have been smoothed by the passage of time. This makes it hard to pick an absolute point where shadows fade into light. As a result, looking at this now, I feel like some of the locations of dark shadows seem a bit arbitrary and do not lend the painting any depth. I plan to revisit this subject again to see if I can approach it in a different way.

Giclee Print