Saturday, April 29, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - Final Report

Big Bend I 9x6 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Some readers have been curious about what colors I used for my painting retreat at Zion National Park this week.  Well, in addition to my usual split-primary palette, I added a few "convenience" colors; these are colors that I could, if I wanted to, mix with my split-primary palette, but which I decided to include to save time.  The colors are raw umber, transparent earth red and yellow ochre, all Gamblin colors.

Raw umber greys down ultramarine blue nicely.  Transparent earth red (TER) is a great base color for the shadowed parts of Zion's cliffs.  Yellow ochre, for the warmer, sunlit areas.

I started each painting by first blocking in the rock shadow masses with transparent earth red.  Although this is a very rich, warm red, it is easily greyed down as needed with yellow ochre, raw umber and ultramarine blue (plus white.)  Some of this rich underpainting always remains, adding a little spice to the landscape.  Sunny rock areas I block in with yellow ochre.  Together, these colors give good value and temperature contrast.  Later, I use many other colors to modulate them to get the correct local color and atmospheric effect.

Our week ended with a painting session at Big Bend, near the end of the shuttle line and below stupendous, vertical cliffs that are favored by rock climbers.  I've always loved Big Bend, especially in the morning, since the rising sun lights the cottonwoods along the banks of the Virgin River from behind, giving them a beautiful halo.  I've painted here several times before, once for the Zion Plein Air Festival in the fall, when the cottonwoods were decked out in their autumn beauty.  This time, I made two small color studies, which I hope to turn into larger studio paintings later.

Big Bend II 6x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
To paint the two studies, I simply divided my panel in half with a
piece of masking tape.  Later, I'll use a utility knife to cut them apart.

It's always sad, parting at the end of these retreats, but there'll be another one at Zion in a few years.  Now, Trina and I are on our way to the east, but first – a stop at Capitol Reef National Park.

Backlit springtime cottonwood

Goodbye to the Virgin River!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - Another Midterm Report

The Watchman 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Two things you can't get from a photograph are depth and color.  To get a real sense of the depth of the landscape, you need to be looking at it with two eyes.  Stepping back and forth in front of your subject enhances the effect, allowing you see clearly what's in front of what, and how shapes are modelled.  As for color, cameras have improved greatly since George Eastman's day, but nothing yet beats the sensitivity of the eye.  Working from life, en plein air, in the field, outdoors, is the only way to truly capture the moment.

Here in Zion National Park, there's plenty of opportunity to experience depth and color.  When you're in the canyon, along the river, you are right up against the rocks.  When you're higher up, like at Kolob Canyons, you have more of a vista.  In both cases, depth and color play key parts in the experience.

I find color especially fascinating here.  From the blood-red stains on the West Temple to the ivory white of the Great White Throne to the subtle blues and purples in the canyon shadows, the Park offers a wealth of color.  When I go out to paint, the first question I ask myself is:  Should I paint the color literally?  Or should I "push" the color to enhance the sense of the moment?

I don't have an answer for this.  Sometimes I'm accurate with the color, and the paintings fill with the beautiful muted tones of the realistic landscape.  At other times, it seems right to saturate the color a little more.

Since Kolob Canyons on Tuesday, we've painted at Court of the Patriarchs, Canyon Junction along the Virgin River and the Nature Center, as well as at a little pull-off I found up near the tunnel that has a view of West Temple.  It's been a surprisingly tempestuous week with the weather.  I'm used to the usual breeze that comes down the canyon without fail each dawn, but afternoons have suffered clouds and high winds.  Still, we've found spots hidden from the wind, making for a very successful week thus far.  It's hard to believe we have only a couple of days left!

Shadow of a Patriarch 12x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

The Sentinel 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Penstemons!  It pays to look at more than just the vistas in the landscape.

View of West Temple

Kayakers passing by our painting spot at Canyon Junction

A quiet respite along the river

Location shot for my painting of The Sentinel

Home-cooked gourmet meals!  Courtesy of our participants.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - First Midterm Report

Court of the Patriarchs

The best thing about Zion National Park—and also its most challenging—is its bountiful offering of both beautiful vistas and more intimate scenes.  Every turn in the road gives you endless possibilities.  The question I always ask myself is, Should I paint a postcard?  Or something perhaps   more "artful" and less cliché?

When the artist travels to a famous place that is new to him, it's tempting to paint something that resembles the postcards he sees in the tourist shops.  Postcards do a good job of capturing the awesomeness of a vista or the character of a landmark.  The idea behind a postcard, of course, is to give the folks at home a glimpse that may entice them to visit, or, for the visitor, to provide a memory of the place visited.  Here at Zion, you'll find postcards of Angel's Landing, a soaring rock tower, with the Virgin River lazily snaking far below it.  You won't, however, find postcards depicting close-ups of a sandstone boulder basking in the sun at the water's edge.

Angel's Landing

For me, it's always a struggle deciding what to paint when I visit a famous place packed with beauty.  Angel's Landing occupies postcards for a reason—it is indeed beautiful and awe-inspiring.  And there's a spot where you can stand and paint that iconic scene.  But the painting will most likely turn out as trite as the postcard.  What if I choose a different location?  A different time of day?  Decide to do more of a close-up of the base, omitting the tower's top?  Use an "edgier," more contemporary style?  If I think "outside the postcard," maybe I can come up with something more interesting but still convey a sense of place.

It's always good to have a plan when you go outdoors to paint.  (I talk about this at length in my plein air painting workshops.)  For painting in famous places, here are some possible goals:

  • Paint the postcard view (easy but not very satisfying creatively)
  • Paint the iconic landmark from a vantage point that is purposely different from how it is usually depicted
  • Forget the icons, and go for conveying a sense of place by focusing on typical subject matter
  • Or go for conveying a sense of place by focusing on color and light rather than subject
  • Or treat the scene is an edgier, more contemporary way

Another question I ask myself is:  Is it more satisfying to paint a study or a "picture"?  Creating a "picture" (a finished painting ready for the frame) is much more demanding because it requires all of your skills to be in top form.  Creating a study can be more relaxing because you may exercise only a few skills.

Over the last couple of days, we've been blessed with good weather, though the mornings have started off hazy.  Our first day, we went all the way up the canyon on the shuttle buses to the Temple of Sinawava; the second day, to the Kolob Canyons area, at the western end of the park; our third day, at the Court of the Patriarchs, one of my favorite spots to paint.  In some of my paintings here, you'll see the overcast start to the day and the lack of strong light; in others, you'll see stronger contrasts, indicative of more sun.  I don't think I've painted any postcards yet, but the week is still early.

Three painters, seen from Taylor Creek trail at Kolob Canyons

Painting at Kolob Canyons

Painting at the Temple of Sinawava
Yes, the vegetation was that lush and green!

Kolob Canyons - Painting Shuntavi Butte on a hazy-light day

Painting at Court of the Patriarchs, sunny but clouds moving in

Into the Narrows 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
A 45-minute sketch after the haze cleared at Temple of Sinwava
I'll probably go out later this week to refine it or save it for a studio reference.

Overcast, Kolob Canyons 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
A postcard view?  No, the postcard would have full sun!

Hazy Light, Shuntavi Butte, 12x9 Oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Again, not a postcard, thanks to the hazy light.

View to the South, 9x12 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
Another hazy day painting.

West Temple, Late Afternoon, 6x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson
An unusual angle of West Temple, with close cropping, so it doesn't qualify as a postcard, either.

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