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.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Zion National Park 2017 Painting Retreat - Day 0

Dawn in Zion Canyon - Angel's Landing

Trina and I are now on our way back to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, for our summer season.  But first, we have a few stops along the way.  Right now, we are in Springdale, Utah, for a painting retreat.

It's been three years since our last retreat in Springdale, the "gateway" to Zion National Park.  Zion is one of my favorite places to paint.  Every bend in the road offers enough material for a full day of painting.  And, thanks to the combined efforts of the Park's shuttles and Springdale's, it's one of the most accessible parks.  This year, we've rented the same house we always rent, which is just a short walk to the first shuttle stop.  With only a backpack and a Park pass, we can get to all the best spots.

In previous years, we've had as many as ten on this retreat; this year, for a number of reasons, we have only five, including Trina and me.  It'll be a small group, but that only means more intimate gatherings and the possibility of reaching more out-of-the-way spots.

The retreats are intense.  Everyone stays under the same roof, which helps with communications and builds a certain camaraderie.  We have early breakfasts, followed by a show-and-tell of the previous day's work.  Right after making bag lunches, we hit the Park.  Quite often, we take a break after lunch at a scenic spot, but the concept of bag lunches gives us the flexibility to travel to another location for afternoon painting if we wish.  Sometimes, we head back to the house for lunch and a rest.  Afternoons, some folks paint, others sightsee.  Evening meals are communal or "dining out," followed by art talk and planning for the next day's outing.  By the end of the week, the body is tired but the spirit is refreshed, and everyone goes home with a clutch of paintings to remind them of their time here.

I doubt I'll post every day, but I do hope to share a few moments, photos and paintings with everyone this week.  Stay tuned!