Dateline: Mitchell Oregon, Sept. 7, Day 2

The Painted Hills, 10 miles from Mitchell, Oregon, are basically unpaintable — or perhaps they have painted themselves so well, it’s foolish to emulate. I did produce a series trying to show the power that they embody (shown in this post on paintings from the John Day Fossil Beds), but I had to lean out over the edge of a number of precipices (mentally speaking) to do those paintings.

Howsomever, never say I give up early — early isn’t my favorite time of the day. We got to the Painted Hills about 10 this morning and hauled the painting cart up the Carroll Rim Trail to the first bench. I had decided last night this was about as far as I wanted to haul materials, and it was already warmish (97 degrees forecast for Mitchell today). The scene I chose to paint was off to the west of the primary badlands area:

When I paint plein air, I’m always interested in the reaction of onlookers. No one ventured up the trail while I was there, but a number of cars stopped on the road below, nicely placed to photograph me. I photographed them back.

I imagined the folks in the red station wagon saying to each other: “Artists! Pshaw! There goes the neighborhood!”

I chose a 12 x 24″ Masonite panel to work on, in part because it was a good compromise between the 12 x 16 vignette scale, and the daunting larger ones I have with me. The scene I decided to paint goes along the right for a ways before a grass-and-sage covered¬† hill cuts it off. It has red and golden formations and cones in the foreground, and lumpish, juniper- scattered mountains skitter off in the distance. The mountains around here feel unorganized to me, and this in spite of Bridge Creek, which can be large enough to push rocks around. Apparently, the number of volcanoes that came and went through Oregon’s geologic history left upthrust basalt plugs, make the landscape bumpy without laying it out in a rational range-like sequence.

So, this morning the jumble of hills caught my eye and that’s what I focused on.

I painted thinly, with lots of mineral spirits, so the paint dried fast. And then I scumbled over the base layer, removing some of the color in the process. This made an interesting toothy surface for tomorrow’s finish work:

Later, at lunch, I had an interesting realization: I have always found the process of “painting the shapes” to be mysterious. I understand it theoretically and know why it is an important tool for landscape painters, but when I try to intentionally paint the shapes, the paintings come out rather stupid. My shapes simply sit there, inert. But Eric Sandgren, in his workshop at the Coast, spoke of “planes”¬† (which are nothing more than layered shapes), and suddenly, a whole new way of perceiving “shape” came into focus. Today I realized why:¬† “shapes” for me have no context, are meaningless. Why not do contours, or shadings instead of shapes? What difference does it make, why bother one way or another? But planes, in landscape, indicate space and place, and since space and the many ways it can be perceived are my primary interests, working out the composition in the context of planes, which are carefully shaped, feels just right. It’s also interesting that language and understanding and seeing are so closely tied together for me.

And the context of the Painted Hills, today, for me, was the context of the disorganized bumptious background forms, which make such glorious lumpish, disorganized planes. These background lumps serve up the rounded, emerging clay forms of the badlands.

Tomorrow we intend to go back out a bit earlier. I want to finish this painting. and Jer wants to get some photos with the sun at a lower angle. Note the “intend” — I had an aunt who used to say “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We’ll see where our intentions get us, tomorrow.

Oh, and here’s the fun photo that I took today when the time of day was just right:

The shadowed hills in the background are quite red when no clouds shade them. –June

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