Saturday, January 6, 2018

Revisions: El Malpais: Lava and Sandstone

El Malpais: Lava and Sandstone
19x25 pastel by Michael Chesley Johnson
While packing for our move from Arizona to New Mexico last spring, I came across paintings I'd had in storage for 15 years or longer.  Some of these were large pastels painted on full sheets of sanded paper.  I enjoyed rediscovering these past works.  Although I've grown as a painter, I feel they still have value.  In fact, I actually like them quite a lot.  But, with my more experienced eye, I see things in them that I want to change.

Set up and ready to work.  All revisions were done without references.

So, this past week, I pulled out two to work on between other projects.  The one I write about here features a place known as the “Narrows.”  It's a sliver of land caught between sandstone cliffs and the vast lava fields of the El Malpais (or “bad country”) in New Mexico.  Several hundred years ago, if you were from the Zuni pueblo and traveling to the Acoma pueblo with your trade goods, or a Spaniard, traveling from one mission to the next, you most likely took this route.  The lava to the east was sharp, cutting boot and pastern; the sandstone cliffs to the west were high and unscalable; so you stuck to this narrow trail that threaded between these areas.  Today, the route is paved, and there's a trail that takes you to the top of the cliffs for the view I depict in the painting.

On “El Malpais:  Lava and Sandstone,” I didn't make any substantial changes; my revisions were small in scale, as follows:

  • In my early days, I tended to use cool colors, and these days I look for warmer passages.  With that in mind, I added more warmth to the sunny areas as well as to the light bouncing into the shadowed rocks.
  • Having painted a whole continent of rocks in the past 15 years, I now know how to paint rocks.  The sandstone outcrop was too soft-edged, so I reinforced angular areas and broke up the top of the cliff a little so it wasn't so straight across.  Also, the boulders at the bottom looked like a tractor trailer had overturned, spilling a load of potatoes.  I gave these sharp angles, too.
  • I wanted to enhance the idea that the painting shows an area of ancient volcanic activity.  I already had the dark passages of lava out in the distant, flat areas, but I added a small caldera on the horizon to give the viewer another clue.  Not too far from this spot, there is the “Chain of Craters”—a series of cinder cones, lava tubes and other volcanic features for the visitor to explore.  (But make sure to carry a couple of spare tires if you go.)  Just out of the picture frame there is a caldera or two, so I just slid one over into the picture.
  • Finally, I added ravens.  I love ravens—I seem to have some spiritual connection to them—and they are such a characteristic element in the landscape in my part of the world.

Below are some detail shots, plus a side-by-side comparison.

If you'd like to paint scenery like this, check out my one-on-one intensive workshops in New Mexico as well as my March workshop in Sedona, Arizona




Left: First Version; Right: Final Version

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