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Friday, March 5, 2010

Painting the Grand Canyon

Sunset on the Rim

No one ever said painting the Grand Canyon would be easy. The first day, it almost felt like I had forgotten everything I knew about painting. The Grand Canyon will do that to you. Shadows and colors seem to shift with mischievous intent. The shadows you so carefully blocked in at the beginning merge, changing their patterns; the greyed greens and violets grow subtly warmer, and the paint you mix never seems warm enough. When the day is done, you discover your palette is filled with abandoned mixtures.

Grand Canyon Sketch 1, 5x7, oil - SOLD

All that said, I came away from the four days with three 9x12s, six 5x7s and 257 photographs. I turned out one real scraper, a 9x12, which once scraped and painted over, became a pretty nice one. I have a couple of 5x7s that should have been scraped, but I'm holding onto those as a reminder of how the Grand Canyon can cost you paint and time but never the experience. And my experience was indeed fantastic!

M.L. Coleman, who's painted the Grand Canyon for over 30 years, asked me if I'd like to take a trip. It was an honor to go with someone who knows the Canyon so intimately. We even had a special permit that allowed us to take his 22-foot Lazy Daze over roads where only the shuttle buses can go. The timing was good for me, plus we'd just had a snowfall and the weather for the next few days looked to be fine.

M.L. Coleman painting by the Lazy Daze

Indeed it was. Mornings never dropped as low as forecasters predicted and often bottomed out just below freezing. Once the sun came up, highs climbed to around 50. That may not sound warm, but at 6000+ feet in Arizona, the March sun is intense. Winds were generally calm, picking up a bit only toward sunset and then on our very last day. "I always feel blessed when I come to the Grand Canyon and there's no wind," Michael said.

Grand Canyon Sketch 2, 9x12 oil

The whole point of winter painting at the Grand Canyon is to capture the snow on the rocks. About two feet of snow lay along the rim. The Rim Trail, which is partly paved, was somewhat clear, but where drifts had blown over it, the snow had been packed down to ice by hikers. We often had to watch our footing, because as the day warmed, the snow and ice grew slippery. Whenever I took a break from painting, I ventured out on the Rim Trail to see what views I could get. Sometimes I went off-trail and got pretty close to the edge, but not as close as some hikers, whose footprints I could see wandering right up to a fateful fall. Dangerous, because what you think is snow-covered rock might actually be snow-covered air - a corniche.

Me, painting near Hermit's Rest. The bandana protects my ears from the sun.
(The pith helmet didn't make it on this trip.)

We had great painting Monday afternoon and also Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday night, a front began to blow in, and by dawn we already were having 40 mph gusts. But the scurrying clouds created a great hide-and-seek show down in the Canyon with light and shadow. No sensible painter would be out painting in that kind of wind, but we considered ourselves very fortunate indeed to have incredible clouds for photography.

Learning how to paint the Grand Canyon well, I think, will take a lifetime. Every moment is different - clouds fly over, shadows creep, colors shift with the speed of a chameleon. You can try abstracting it as you would any landscape, but because of its slippery complexity, it resists easy analysis. But worse, the Canyon is seductive and lures you away from your painting. Rather than paint, you want to just look deeply into its mysteries. At one point, I felt its call so strongly that if I had suddenly tumbled headfirst into its awesome beauty, I don't think I would have minded.

Grand Canyon Sketch 3, 9x12, oil - SOLD


Steve PP said...

Good post Michael! I really like your last painting!
Thanks for sharing the experience.

Casey Klahn said...

In a field of many, these rise to the top of your recent works (IMO). You really have the touch in these, and I look forward to seeing what you post as a result of these studies, too.

The way you posted this, I feel like I went there with you. Thanks for the log of this experience.

Pam Holnback said...

Great photos, paintings, post. I really like the strong foreground in the bottom painting.

David Westerfield said...

Nice work Michael. I was there last Spring (though I didn't paint), the scenery was daunting. I'd love to go back just to paint.

Deborah said...

Michael, that last sketch in particular is a treasure! I enjoyed hearing about this trip. I'd love to be able to paint the Canyon someday, but if I was going in March I'd want that camper, that's for sure... Beautiful work, as always.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thank you, everyone!

Jo Castillo said...

Very nice paintings. We have only looked into the canyon a couple of times but haven't spent time there. I was pleased to go on your trip! Thanks for the great post.


you captured the light beautifully!

what an amazing experience - to travel to such a majestic spot, to feel the elements, to interpret through your hands and eyes.

I've never been to the Grand Canyon...but am now yearning for it!

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, Jo and Shanna!