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

The Maze 2

Painting 1.10, Pothole arch in the maze. This painting finally forces me to deal with figuring out a way to paint desert varnish, the streaky dark clay deposits that form on the surface of wet sandstone. When I'm working, I try not to become too preoccupied with details in the landscape that I'm recreating. This is important to me because the uncluttered simplicity of the desert landscape is one of the things that draws me to painting it. However, in a picture like this, the intricate patterns created by the desert varnish provide much of the interest in the subject. The tricky thing about depicting desert varnish is that the streaks seem to be sitting on top of the sandstone while at the same time fading into it. In this painting they definitely appear to be sitting on top of the stone. In future paintings I will try to tackle this problem again with an approach that renders these features with more subtlety.

Giclee Print

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Maze

Painting 1.9, unnamed. This pothole arch is located in the remote maze district of Canyonlands NP. This is the painting that I most often look back on when I'm stuck trying to figure out how to translate what I see into a painting. The texture in the rocks in this painting came out just like I was hoping it would and the dark shadows really express the contrast that I think makes desert landscapes so interesting. There's something special about "The Maze". Its an extremely remote and difficult to reach area of Utah. When I try to paint scenes from this area I'm always inspired imagining the solitude in which these formations exist.

Giclee Print

Arches National Park 2

Painting 1.8, Arches NP. One of the reasons that I am so fascinated by desert landscapes is the visible stratification. In a place like Arches, the rock that you are standing on is generally the oldest, while what you see when you look up is the newest. This seems counter-intuitive in a very compelling way and I'm always trying to express that fascination by exaggerating the divisions in the rock. What I realized one day was that aside from the basics, I had no idea how these rocks were formed. After checking out some books on the geology of Utah I learned a number of things that have begun to change the way that I approach painting landscapes like the one above. If I were to redo this painting now, the color differences would be much less pronounced. The main types of sandstone that you see in Arches are Navajo Sandstone, which has a light buff color and Entrada Sandstone, which has a rusty red color. Also, unlike what you'll notice when gazing at the famous views in the grand canyon, the lines of stratification do not all run parallel to one another in Arches. The process of bulging salt domes and eventual collapse have left the rocks in arches oriented in every which way. This same process is responsible for the very presence of conditions suitable for the formation of the arches. To ignore these facts is to miss the essence of Arches NP and the surrounding area.

Giclee Print

Arches National Park

Painting 1.7, Sandstone Fins in Arches NP. I think one of the things that attracts photographers to Arches is the way that the sandstone formations cast such absolute shadows. When looking at a landscape from this area you expect to see stark contrast between light and dark. So often shadows are seen as a problem in photos, so much so that people are always working on ways to create HDR (high dynamic range) photos by combining multiple bracketed exposures. No such trickery is required in the desert though. The shadows become points of interest, where what you can't see is almost more fascinating than what you can. When I'm looking though pictures that I've taken trying to find something to paint, I'll often try to find the pictures with the most interesting shadows because that's the most fun part of the picture to paint!

Giclee Print

Park Avenue at Sunrise

Painting 1.5, Park Avenue in Arches National Park. Park Avenue is one of the first things that you see as you drive up into Arches. The first time that I saw it was at 4 in the morning. It was still almost entirely dark but I could make out the shapes of the rocks that I was driving though by seeing where the stars were blotted out. After longing to visit Arches for so long it was indescribably exciting to recognize the looming dark shapes of these famous rock fins as I drove into the park. I still think that the best way to visit a national park for the first time is to drive in while it is still dark out. That way, your imagination takes over and every shape on the horizon seems bigger than it really is. Finally, when the sun comes up the landscape in your imagination slowly dissolves as it is replaced by what you see in the pictures.

Giclee Print

The White House Ruins

Painting 1.3, The white house ruins, an ancestral puebloan cliff dwelling in Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I really loved how there appeared to be a seam in the rock wall leading down to where these structures were built. Unfortunately I didn't have time to hike all the way down to the base of the cliff. These cliffs are excellent displays of streaky coating on sandstone known as desert varnish. I'm still trying to figure out a way to depict it in a painting, because it is truly one of the defining features of the landscape.

Giclee Print

The Great Gallery

Painting 1.2, this painting depicts a portion of the "Great Gallery" in Horseshoe Canyon. The Great Gallery is a wall covered in pictographs painted by ancestral Puebloan people sometime between 2000BCE and 500CE. I saw this wall depicted in a movie and it really stuck with me. I hadn't painted anything in a long time but once I started to paint this I finished it in one sitting. The way that the figures are depicted like shadows on the canyon wall reminded me of Plato's allegory of the cave where people who know no difference believe the shadows on a wall to be reality rather than a reflection of reality.

Giclee Print