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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