Thursday, October 8, 2009
Canyon de Chelly plein air post #1
I wanted to talk today about my recent experience of painting at Canyon de Chelly and how you can approach painting such a daunting subject. OK, so you've traveled a long way to this place, you've already painted it in your head a hundred times. You know how to do it, I mean, it seemed so easy when you did it in your head. No problem. But now that you're here with the panoramic vistas and the wind, and your humble place in the Universe are staring you in the face. Time for a deep breath. Painting the cliffs here can be overwhelming if you stand there thinking you have to get it all in. I mean, how do you paint the Grand Canyon, or even the humblest mountain? The key, of course, is the same key as you need to use to paint anything. This isn't any different at all. Just remember this. Simplify. There is no way to keep up with all the visual information you will be faced with. Not to mention all the other stimulation you will be given. As I painted on the rim the last evening I was there, I was dive bombed by a crow (or a raven, I can never tell the difference between the two). It would come at me from behind, and I could here the wind through the beating of his wings as he got close. It also was very windy that evening. So as you stand there trying to paint and tune out all that's happening around you, you need to boil down the scene to it's essence. What's your focal point? Is it in the shadows or the light? If it's the light, you need to keep your detail in the shadow areas to a minimum. At my first plein air workshop, Joe Paquet used to try to pound this into my thick skull. As an illustrator, it didn't make sense to me. How could the detail in the shadows be any less important than the details in the light? I mean, i could see the detail in both when I looked, so how come I had to weed those out? The answer is: you don't paint everything in because, our eyes don't see everything like that. Think about it for a moment.........I'll wait.........yep, when we focus on something, the other things we see are in our periphery. We only see a blurred representation of what surrounds our focal point. So what I'm trying to do as a painter, is a visual representation of what I truly see. Don't stare into the shadows, and you'll get a good idea of what you need to leave out. All that detail of the cracks and crags is wiped away and you're left with only the big shapes. I make sure that the detail I do put into the shadows is minimal and the values are kept pretty close to one another. This gives me a more cohesive painting and a much more pleasing work of art. Thanks Joe for teaching me what to see.
The second thing that you can do to not be overwhelmed by an overwhelming subject is to play a mind game. Tell yourself that what you are seeing is a big puzzle, with pieces that are unequal in size and shape. Don't think in your head, 'Holy Moly, That is one big canyon down there. No way can I get that down in a couple of hours'. Think of it as putting together a puzzle, and at the end of your time, you'll have a painting. I have to get everything blocked in to judge anything. Now, lord knows I'm not the fastest painter you'll ever come across. It's one of the reasons i usually decline the offer to do a demo. I take my time and work and rework a painting till I feel it's right. I call myself a 'grinder". But I do try to block things in simply and quickly. I can't judge accurately the value of a cliff I've put down until I have the surrounding trees and ground plane and sky in that surround it. Save the details for later. Cracks in the cliffs, tree trunks, variations in warms and cools of the grasses. All of it can, and should be saved for the time that the big shapes are sitting on their proper planes. John F. Carlson's book, "Carlson's guide to Landscape painting", should be in the library of every landscape painter. And every landscape painter should be painting en plein air. No excuses unless you're bed ridden. Then you get a pass....I guess. Carlson's book gives you a great explanation of how atmospheric perspective works and the values of the planes of what you're seeing. I don't want to get into too much detail here, since i don't want to put you to sleep, or give away the surprise ending of the book (the butler didn't do it). But it's a thin book with a lot of gems in it. I don't reread books usually, but I do come back to this one, and every time I do I find more gems. Things I wasn't ready to soak in on my previous reads, I guess. Anyways, you can find it on Amazon used, but even new I think it's only ten bucks or so. Dover also sells it on their website since they're the publishers.
The first painting is called "Navajo Fortress, Canyon de Chelly". The cliff in the center of this painting is famous as being the place where the last of the Navajo held out against Kit Carson, who was sent into Canyon de Chelly in 1864. The army decided that it was time for the Diné to surrender once and for all. This rock fortress was the place the last Navajo holdouts chose to make their stand. According to the story told, the holdouts reached the top of this rock face by using notched tree trunk ladders, which they pulled up behind them. Unfortunately for the natives, Carson simply waited them out until, starving, the final Navajo simply gave up. In the spring of 1864, when the ordeal for the Diné should have been over, another was about to begin. The Long Walk, as it's known to the Navajo, took all the captives from Canyon de Chelly to their new place of exile in Fort Sumner in New Mexico. It was known as the Long Walk because only the sick, the very oldest and youngest of the captives rode. Once at Fort Sumner, the conditions were beyond horrible. The Navajo were one of the few tribes to negotiate with the government to get at least some of their native lands back and eventually were able to return, where they have lived to this day.
The second painting is "Sandstone and Shadows". This was painted within the Canyon, which requires a Navajo guide to accompany you. Kaye Franklin of the Outdoor Painters Society, arranged our guide and four of us split the cost. Traveling in the canyon gives you a point of view that is completely different from painting on the rim. Whatever the time of day, you can find interesting compositions to paint. When I painted this one, I came away feeling that something was missing from it. I put it away for about a week and when I came back to it I knew that it needed another cliff behind the central cliff. So I painted in the far off cliff. I could do it because (thanks to Carlson's book) I understood atmospheric perspective, and the colors of the distant cliffs were still fresh in my mind. I knew what they looked like, so all I needed to do was to put in an interesting shape. I also added some wispy clouds for direction and interest. There weren't any clouds just about the whole time we painted there. Well there was one tiny one that looked like a bean, which we quickly named, but it didn't help much.
I'll post more paintings from the trip later in the week and talk about what I learned, which hopefully can help you too!
Thanks for looking, Steve
Posted by Steve Atkinson