Dateline: Mitchell, Oregon, Day 5, Sept 10, 2011

We zoomed out to Picture Gorge extra early today, hoping to catch the shadows and avoid the heat.

We were carrying the large canvases in the carrier Neighbor Jim made for me; the carrier protects the car from oil paint, and me from sorrowful looks by Jer, who loves his 1994 Honda and can’t bear the thought of it sullied with, gasp, paint:

The carrier is to the right with the canvases facing inward. The slatted piece sits on top the carrier, acting as a lid so the canvases don’t get holes poked in them. The white rectangle (bottom center-left) is the box for the 18 x 24″ boards. My usual small boards (12 x 16″) fit into the smaller boxes beside the white one.

At Picture Gorge, I set up the canvas, this time using an extension cord instead of my belt to secure the canvas to the easel. The cord was long enough to go around the fence against which I lodged the easel, so the canvas and I were secure against the wind gusts that come through the gorge early in the day.

Draft one of the big canvas (30 x 40”) was basically just about getting the composition and large planes (forms/shapes) onto the canvas. So this is where I started this morning.

Picture Gorge, 2011, Draft 1, 30 x 40″, oil on canvas

I worked over the canvas for about 3 hours, then we loaded up and went off to visit a friend whose acquaintance dated from my 2006 residency at the Fossil Beds. True to form, Alicia fed us, gave the tired artist (me, me) a beer, showed us the glorious spread (200 acres) that she and her husband bought a few years ago and generally made us feel very welcome. About 2:30, we trundled back to Mitchell.

I unloaded the car and carrier, and brought the big painting to the porch to join the two smaller ones:

The three paintings that I’ve been working on are perched here on the front porch of Hollyhock Cottage. You can see their relative sizes. None is as small as my usual “vignette” plein air work.

Here’s what evolved from today’s session:

Picture Gorge, 2011, Draft 2. 30×40″, oil on canvas.

It still needs work — I ignored the sky after yesterday’s laying on of a single ultramarine layer, so it needs some white+pigment  paint; I also need to bring out the highlights on the columns, work up the grasses and sage brush, and fracture and facet the columns a bit more.  I was thinking about collaging natural foliage forms over the top, but since I have another large canvas with me, perhaps I’ll just finish this as is (probably another 3—5 hours of work), leaving it as a “straight” landscape. Then I’ll do a new loose version, layered with the local fall foliage.  But that decision can wait until I have a fresh eye – or 2015 — whichever comes first.

Of course, I also have the first two canvases to work on. So tomorrow we will stay in Mitchell, I’ll eat bon-bons (or Peets chocolate blueberries), sit on the porch, commune with nature, and paint.

So think of me on Sunday afternoon, slaving away, surrounded by lush green growing things, with the usual questions of paint and form and hue and temperature circling around my head.  –June

Dateline: Mitchell, Oregon. Canoodling Conundrums on Day 3, Sept 8

It was cloudy at 8 AM when we started off to the Painted Hills, an earlier day than yesterday. I was ready to finish off an already composed painting. The early start and muted sun turned out to be advantageous for capturing the color of the Hills. And the skies, full of clouds and Moran-like sun rays, were quite glorious in themselves.

Of course, I first had to pull my cart up the trail and set up space to finish the landscape I started yesterday.

As I said, I had become enraptured by the disorganized state of the hillocks and hill that surround the basins of colored clays and ash.  The higher lands that surround the Painted Hills have typical desert foliage — sage, rabbit brush, bunch grass, western juniper and cheat grass — but they don’t follow ridges. The volcanic plugs left over after millions of years of erosion stick up willy-nilly, all around, slightly eroded to kindergarten- like mountain shapes.

And in the midst of them are the basin badlands, colorful, without a hair of foliage, pocked by rain and sun; and beyond the lumpy hills and hillocks is Sutton Mountain, an elongated uplift, with a hard rock cap, looking the way mountains should look.

This description, merely an extension of the one I gave yesterday, is important because it became a base for thinking about the painting I completed (tentatively) today. The bumpy hills, gaining height but not necessarily organization as they march into the distance, felt more important to me for this painting than the badlands with their colorful striations. But the badlands are warm in temperature — gold and red — while the hills are cool with sage and juniper and distance. To emphasize them would reverse the usual focus — warm takes precedent over cool, near takes precedence over far.

So while yesterday I kept close tabs on planes and shapes, today I kept thinking about color temperature. Elizabeth Barton has a recent blog post on color temperature; reading it last night I was reminded,as she says, “color is complex dish.” As usual, (my) reality doesn’t fit the theories as nicely as one would like. Because the badlands are closer, they, warm in hue, loom toward the viewer and are equal in size and stature with the distant, cooler hills. So Elizabeth’s guideline about sticking with one temperature over the whole canvas rather than evenly (or randomly) distributing the warm/cool caused some difficulty in actual production. I wanted those cool distant hills to be the focus of attention.

It is certainly the case that a painting that has a preponderance of one temperature is more soothing, less ruffling to the viewer’s eye. Changing color temps can make the eye bounce around, make a kind of jittery dis-ease. Elizabeth’s words were “weird and unsettling.”

Which gets me to my canoodling point: I’m seldom a painter of soothing scenes. Neither my temperament nor my disposition makes me want to sing lullabies or make objects which don’t bring the viewer to a slight shake of her head. So I tried, in this painting, to bring the distant cools, in their disorganized lumpish shapes, as most singly important, while being true to the apparent space and necessary hues in the landscape. I kept the cools behind, putting the warms in front. But I squeezed the actual space into a slightly more vertical alignment, hence elaborating on those cool distant mountains.

We’ll see how this painting holds up when it gets back to level land.

The rest of the morning was spent hiking the Carroll Rim Trail to the top. We left the painting gear at the lower bench, knowing it would be safe from humans (because in my two days, not a single human came up the trail. The greatest activity of a human sort was a “traffic jam” on the graveled park road: the photo below, of the “excessive” vehicle use, was taken from my painting spot.)

The trail is an easy 3/4 of a mile hike to the top of Carroll Rim, a basalt-ish outcrop that marks a ridgeline along the top of the hill from which I had been painting. The scene from up there was even more spectacular — and definitely more unpaintable.


And so, having finished out this day’s visual feast we went back down the trail, gathered up the essential liquids and painting gear, and went off to lunch — not quite as glorious a feast, but more desirable at that point.

Tomorrow it’s to Sheep Rock and the Condon Interpretive Center, 80 miles or so down the road. Sheep Rock is eminently paintable — I’ve already done so on prior trips. Maybe instead I’ll paint some version of the barns at the historic Cant Ranch site. I’d like to see the interiors of them, but that probably isn’t going to happen.

Or maybe I’ll stroll around and scare the rattlesnakes.  –June

The John Day Fossil Beds, Further Explorations

In 2006, I spent a month at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. At the time I was a long-time textile artist but a newbie painter.  My intent was to do studies in oils and watercolor and then transform these into textile art when I returned home.

It was an exciting adventure, providing an enormous lore of artistic ideas and intellectual understanding of eastern Oregon’s geology and landscape. I spent the following year, painting and stitching, and exhibited many of the textiles regionally and nationally. The paintings were mostly thrown out; larger and more ambitious ones got stored.

This month, in August 2011, needing some large canvases on which to paint, I pulled out failed fossil bed paintings, intending to sand off the paintings and re-use the canvas.

This was one I took out to be reused:

It’s a “dream-scape”, an attempt to convey something of the world I experienced during the month at the Fossil Beds. The piece references elements from the geography and geology of the region. It is also a bad painting.

I needed first to get rid of the irritating sky.  At a recent art opening I had been discussing the featured artist’s use of hexagons and was reminded by a friend that the basalt pillars that are a visually striking part of the Fossil Beds area are generally hexagonal in shape. With that nudge, I saw a way to transform the sky. And of course I had new  compositional strategies  (reported in an earlier post here) which could make use of verticals to move the eye around.

I was off. And this is the result:

JOU, Paleosoles, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2007, 2011

In this new version, the fracturing of the space with the hexagons and the use of the verticals is accompanied by motifs which appear at the Monument.

Being satisfied with that result, I thought I should tackle another canvas from 2007, a rendition of a badlands scene called the Blue Basin. This painting was less bad but more boring (if this distinction is valid, which I’m not sure it is).

Here’s the painting as it was “finished” in 2007:

And here it is as it appears currently:

JOU, Blue Basin, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2007, 2011.

Again, I inserted hexagonal motifs. I turned the canvas vertically, and in removing the sky (I may be giving up on ordinary skies) found a vertical against which to push the other elements. Here the dream-scape has none of the object motifs of the first, but it retains some of the  weirdness of  Paleosoles. The space in this painting presents very much the mouth-drying sense one has as one advances along the Foree trail in the monument.

In both these paintings, I think I have achieved something of the “feel” of my month-long experience of the  landscape. The weirdness of the actual badlands, both the iron oxides of the paleosoles and the blue ash outcrops, seem best realized in weird paintings.

I have another canvas from the Fossil Beds to play with as well as an almost finished painting from the Oregon coast experience. In this latter coastal rendition, I play again with ambiguous space and vertical compositional strategy. Stay tuned.