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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Painters on Wheels: Lyman Lake State Park, Arizona

5x8 gouache on 300 gsm cold-press paper

In my last post, I told the story of getting our PleasureWay, touted the benefits of painting by RV, and mentioned our first trip, to Lyman Lake State Park in Arizona.  In this post, I thought I'd share some of the sketches I made on that trip.

We'd last been to Lyman Lake maybe 20 years ago.  I scarcely remembered anything about it when M.L. Coleman, posing it as a possible painting destination, asked if I'd ever been there.  All I could remember was flatness—the lake is a manmade reservoir used for irrigation—but that there was something scenic about it.   It hadn't seemed to make a big impression on me.

After fighting the afternoon winds across the shale hill flats south of St John's—even in our Subaru Outback, I would have been fighting the wind—we descended into the park.  I don't know where I dredged up that sense of flatness, for the lake was surrounded by little interesting hills, topped with rocky bluffs.  I looked forward to not just painting them, but also to hiking some of the trails we'd heard about, trails that wandered through outcrops decorated with Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs.

After stopping at the little store to claim our reservation, we headed down to our campsite.  M.L. was already there and hooked up.  Our site was directly across from his, and I could see that every site had a view of the lake.  Although we had tested some of the RV's systems, I'd not hooked up before, but it was extremely easy hooking up to electricity and water.  The electricity was especially important, as the highs were supposed to be in the 90s for our two days there, and neither Trina, Raku nor I can tolerate heat.  We had the air conditioning running almost 24/7.  From bed, I'd reach up around 3 a.m. to switch it off until shortly after sunrise, when we'd turn it on again.  (Yes, we like it cold.)

Mornings were quite pleasant, and M.L. and I would head out shortly after breakfast with our packs.  The hill on Petroglyph Peninsula was like a magnet for us with its morning shadows and picnic tables that were ideally placed for plein air painters.  Then, in the middle of the day, we'd take a break.  (I've been working my way through Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is set in a global pandemic.  Believe me, our current pandemic could be a lot worse!)  In the late afternoons, our attention was drawn to a hill closer to the campground, so we'd set our chairs up in the shade of a cottonwood.  Although the mornings were cool and calm, not requiring any shade, afternoons were hot with a gale blowing, and the tree was important not just for shade but also for protection from the wind. 

Before painting each day, Trina, Raku and I hiked the trails at Petroglyph Peninsula.  There are enough interconnecting trails that we were able to do interesting variations each day, with panoramic views around the lake.  If I'd had another day or two, I would have taken my gouache kit on the hikes to do some very early morning painting, as the sunrise light on the rocks was spectacular.  The light was particularly rich because of smoke from the wildfires east in New Mexico, tinting the light with all the warm colors of the spectrum.

I took both gouache and pastel on the trip.  I had time for six sketches, four in gouache and two in pastel.  You'll find some “repeats” of scene in these; I don't mind painting the same feature over and over again.  I always see something different, and thus the experience is always different.

5x8 gouache on 300 gsm cold-press paper

5x8 gouache on 300 gsm cold-press paper

5x8 gouache on 300 gsm cold-press paper

9x12 pastel on UArt 500-grit paper

9x12 pastel on UArt 500-grit paper

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Painters on Wheels: En Plein Air via Caravan

Here's our rig, a 1999 PleasureWay.
M.L.Coleman's Lazy Daze is in the background.

I remember once while very young seeing a whole farm field crowded with silver-skinned vehicles.  They were big, streamlined and shiny—Airstream trailers.  I didn't know at the time but learned later that there are actually clubs for Airstream enthusiasts who like to travel in caravans and camp.  The romantic notion of these wanderers, motoring their way in a long, snaking line of silver through America the Beautiful to enjoy nature and the company of like-minded people, appealed to me.  A wanderer myself, I do tend to prefer a more solitary adventure, but I felt I wouldn't mind a few friends to hook up with now and then.

This idle thought gained speed once I became a plein air painter.  Over the years, I've painted at many outdoor painting competitions.  Although these events often provide housing to the participating artists, some artists prefer to bring their own lodging, setting up camp in a campground, the National Forest or even in the parking lot of the sponsoring organization.  I've seen truck campers, van conversions, RVs bigger than a city bus and even amazingly customized homemade jobs.  Some of these artists, though, did more than just take their rigs to competitions—they regularly took them to places where there are no motels and no AirBnBs.  They could paint all day in these remote places yet not have to worry about driving back a hundred miles to the nearest lodge after nightfall.

I became friends with a painter, M.L. Coleman, about whom I've written before.  He has a Lazy Daze, a smaller but very functional RV.  In fact, he's had a succession of them over the years, taking them throughout the US and Canada to paint.  One day he suggested we go off on a painting trip, and that was my first RV experience ever.

And I loved it.  Imagine waking up at some overwhelmingly stunning location, then watching the sunrise over coffee and planning which direction you are going to point your easel in first.  Imagine painting all morning, the sun getting higher and hotter, and then retiring to the RV's interior for shade and lunch.  Imagine painting all afternoon, then setting up a pair of camp chairs so you can watch the sunset over dinner.  Then imagine a good night's rest in a comfortable bed, with heating or air-conditioning should you require it—and then doing it all over again the next day and the next.

Another benefit is that, if the weather is inclement and your rig affords a view, you can paint from inside.  I did this one very windy, dusty day up in Monument Valley in Utah.

“So when are you going to get your RV?” M.L. would ask at the end of each of our many trips.

“We're looking,” I'd reply.  I was a bit hesitant.  Why?  Well, an RV isn't just a box you sleep in.  It's got “systems.”  Grey water and black water systems that need to be dumped.  Batteries that need to recharge so you can have night lights and running water.  Propane tanks that need to be refilled so you can cook and take a hot shower.  Plumbing that needs to be winterized.  And some even have solar panels that need—well, I'm not sure what they need.

An automobile is complicated enough, I thought.

While mulling over the pros and cons, I started thinking about those Airstream caravans, and I decided it'd be fun to have club of traveling painters—Painters on Wheels.

Finally, the dream of painting footloose and fancy-free won me over.  It took awhile—years, in fact—to decide exactly what would suit us.  There are so many options of differing complexity and pricing.  We finally decided on a used PleasureWay, which has everything we need for not just campgrounds but for boondocking for several days.  (“Boondocking," also known as “dry camping,” means camping without hooking up to electricity, water or sewer.)

As for the systems, I had traveled enough with M.L. to know the basics.  And the previous owner of our PleasureWay was kind enough to go over a few things with me, and to let me know about a Facebook support group for owners of these older rigs.

So, this past week, we had our first unofficial outing of Painters on Wheels.  We met M.L. at Lyman Lake State Park in Arizona with our very own RV.  It was a short painting trip, but I'm sure the first of many.  The experience was everything we hoped it would be.

I've included a few photos here.  I'll post images of my sketches in the next blog entry.

By the way, I've set up a website for the club,, as well as a Facebook group.  (And check out the hashtag #paintersonwheels on Instagram.)  Maybe we'll see you on the road!

M.L. Coleman (left), Me (right)

Me, working in pastel

Me, painting gouache

Well-controlled pets are welcome with Painters on Wheels

You'll notice a lot of sitting among these painters.
I'll give my thoughts on Sitting v. Standing in a future post.

Early morning walk to see the smoky sunrise
(Lots of wildfires burning in Arizona and New Mexico now)
I wouldn't have seen this had I not stayed the night

Our last morning before departure.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Final Batch of Gouache Sketches

Another 5x8 gouache sketch from the canyon

This week, I finished "The Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vol.1." That's what I'm calling my collection of 46 gouache sketches of the canyon behind my studio. I started painting these on April 3rd as a way to clear my head and relax—and to avoid checking the body counts every hour. This has been one of the best things for me, and even now that the country seems to be opening up, it is a practice that I will engage in again and again. It's good for the soul.

I didn't go out every day, but I did go out most days.  Usually after lunch, when I knew there'd be some good, strong sunlight on the north wall of the canyon, creating interesting abstract patterns.  (I went out mornings sometimes, too, but these sketches were more difficult; for some reason, I find it easier to abstract a pattern that's mostly light than one that is mostly dark.  In the mornings, the north wall is mostly in shadow with a few light spots.)  I'd take my cushion if I thought I could find a shaded rock to sit on or my stool if not, and then lately, my bug spray as well.  Early summer has seen a blossoming of little gnats—cousins to Scotland's midges—the bite of which you never feel until the damage is done.

Every session was a moment of peace.  I looked forward to my quiet time, when the chatter in my head would fall silent, and my senses would open up, like two hands lightly cupped to receive communion:

While I sketch in the cool shade of a juniper, the morning grows hot, and the vanilla scent of ponderosa pines fills the air.  Cliff swallows arc in the space between me and the canyon's north wall.  A Gila woodpecker drums against a dead snag, the sound a counterpoint to the canyon wren's descending notes.  The blue shadows under the north wall's rim shift like the minute hand of a clock.

Afterward, I walk slowly back, along a now well-worn path between the clumps of cactus and penstemons.  Though I may have hurried out to paint, the return trip is leisurely, and there is nothing beyond the moment.

Will there be a second volume?  Most likely.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

About My Plein Air Gouache Kit

I've had many questions about what's in my gouache kit for plein air painting.  Although I described this at length in a post about one of my Scotland trips, the answers bear repeating.  Plus, I have made some changes.

Caran d'Ache Studio Gouache Set

First, the core of the kit is a Caran d'Ache Studio Gouache set.  This contains 14 pans of color plus a small tube of white.  I prefer the pans to the tubes because, out here in the high desert of New Mexico, tube paint develops a “skin” very quickly.  The skin is so thick that you'll damage your brush trying to poke a hole in it.  (As for the tube of white that comes with the set, I put out just the tiniest amount, and only when I need it.)

One problem with the pans is that, apparently, no individual refill pans are available.  I've emailed the maker, with no response, and I also have searched extensively online.  I use about half the colors frequently; the other half, rarely.  Rather than keep buying new sets—I now have plenty of extra pans of jaundicey yellows, gaudy reds and fluorescent greens—I am about to start experimenting with refilling the pans from tubes.  (More on that in a future post.) [UPDATE:  The replacement pans, or "cakes," are available through Rochester Art Supply.)

The set comes with a nice, pointy brush.  I use this brush a lot.  Not just the point, but I also scrub with the side.  After filling one watercolor journal, the brush gets somewhat worn, and it's hard to get that precise, fine line I like for the little cracks in rocks.

Richeson Plein Air Travel Brush Set

I have three other brushes, which I keep in an old pencil case:  two flats of different sizes plus another pointy brush.  (I also have a brown pastel pencil in the case for making a brief, initial drawing.)   Richeson makes a nice plein air brush set, which I prefer when it's available.  (I have two studios, one in New Mexico and another in the Canadian Maritimes, and sometimes what I prefer isn't where I am!)  This is the Richeson Plein Air Travel Brush Set.  It has three flats and three pointy brushes.  I prefer it because it has more variety in sizes and doesn't take up any more room than my old pencil case.

By the way, I've tried those water brushes everyone's talking about.  I don't like them.  They are good enough for washes, but I can't control the flow well enough to not make a mess with finer work.  But as they say, your mileage may vary.  The ones I've tried are the Pentel Aquash Water Brushes.

Pentalic 5x8 AF Aqua Journal

I don't make large gouache sketches on-location.   I can get what I want in a session with a 5x8 format, and the Pentalic journal is perfect.  The 300 gsm cold-press paper is durable and can take a beating—I scrub a lot.  It buckles only ever-so-slightly, even with a heavy wash.  The pages are signature-sewn and lie flat, so if I want to use two pages for a wider, 5x16 sketch, I can do so.  I also like the little elastic band that holds the journal closed; this keeps the pages from being damaged when I cram the journal into my pack and hike out of the wilderness.

Other Stuff

An old 8-oz sour cream container makes a perfect bucket for rinsing brushes.  A refillable, 500 ml water bottle holds enough water for that plus for my drinking needs.  Four spring clips with vinyl handles allow me to clip the gouache set plus the journal to a plastic backboard.   A partial roll of paper towels completes the kit.

More Other Stuff

Because I'm packing light, I don't take an easel.  Instead, I paint in my lap.  If my back is good, I'll just sit on a rock, padding my posterior with a foam seat cushion.  If my back needs a little TLC, I'll use a folding camp stool.  Lately, I've come to prefer a four-legged stool with a wider seat than the narrower, three-legged one, because the latter tends to cut off circulation to a vital area.  I've also found the stool to be a better solution than the cushion because I can't always find a shaded rock with the right viewpoint, whereas the stool can be put wherever I want.

Lately, because of some pesky gnats that have blossomed with summertime, I've started including a small can of bug spray.  Also a pair of foam earplugs, which keeps the gnats out of my ear canals.  (Will I be able to hear a mountain lion sneaking up on me?  I hope so.)

The Goal

My goal is to pack light.  If I didn't mind lugging more baggage along, I'd take my plein air kits for oil or pastel.  But sometimes I just want a streamlined, easy-going experience.  I want it to be more about “being in a place” rather than “messing with gear.”  This kit works perfectly for those times, and also for traveling light just about anywhere.

Finally, here are some of the latest 5x8 gouache sketches from my hikes into the canyon behind the studio.