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