Paintings from Pine Creek: Finale

Morning Fog

Morning Fog

In preparing for our extended visit to the old family home,  Cedar Pines, along Pine Creek in northern Pennsylvania, I realized that the lush green landscape required more than my usual travel supply of small boards. I needed ampler materials so I could stretch myself into the landscape.

Lots of artists don’t work large, and the truth is that large paintings are impractical for most houses. But I love the physicality of working large, of waving my arms, extending my wings; and the actual space on the canvas acts as a challenge — more to fill up, more to detail out, more planes to commit to, bigger brushes to use — all kinds of things that plein air painters for the most part don’t get to play with.

So I packed a large roll of canvas in our 1995 Honda, along with ample supplies of paint, medium, and (big) brushes (I left room for Jer in the driver’s seat). At Cedar Pines, my brother and nephew found me a 4 x 8 piece of plywood to stretch the canvas on (using duct tape, of course) and gifted me a big easel left over from my niece’s wedding.

I needed to work outside as the light and space inside were inadequate.

One canvas sort of stretched -- it needed a bit more muscle.

One canvas almost stretched — it needed a bit more muscle.

I began with a 4 x 4′ piece of canvas, the painting for which I had notions but no fixed ideas. It was not to be a plein air piece, but rather a compilation of many scenes and memories. I propped it on the back porch, with my back to the scenery.

Back Home, in progress, on the back porch of Cedar Pines

Back Home, in progress, on the back porch of Cedar Pines

I started with it on the easel, but discovered quickly that the wind coming up the  Creek can pick up a 4 x 8 piece of plywood as if it were a sail. Jer and I ended up nailing the top of the plywood to an upper porch beam. That kept it from flying away.

After a while, I could go no further with that painting and needed to move along to another big canvas. So I took the 4 x 4 foot one off the board and stretched the 4 x 6 foot on on it.

I wanted this painting to be done plein air, painting the scene across the Creek from the back yard, painting as the fog rose with the dark patches of mountain on the other side, the snags forming their presence in the foreground. I drank my coffee in front of this scene every morning. It is, for me, the essence of Cedar Pines.

Big Canvas propped against the easel in the back yard of Cedar Pines

Big Canvas propped against the easel in the back yard of Cedar Pines

Ever the optimist, I thought I could tie the easel to the porch, fix the plywood to the easel with duct tape, and withstand the wind’s force. Of course, I was wrong; I painted a great deal of the front of my shirt as I spread-eagled against the canvas-and-board, trying to keep it from flipping face down in the grass.

So back to the drawing board:¬† although the view wasn’t what I had in mind, we figured out a solution that stabilized the canvas/plywood and raised it up so I could work on it. I sat the board on the canoe and drilled holes into the it, tying it to the porch railings.

Big canvas sitting on canoe, tied to porch, stabilized by two-by-fours

Big canvas sitting on canoe, tied to porch, stabilized by two-by-fours

Not elegant, but workable.

When the time came to take the paintings back to Oregon, unfinished as they were, we took off the duct tape, rolled up the canvases, put them back in the original box, and off in the Honda they went.

Then they hung in my studio while I studied them, hung in my living room while I studied them, and went back to the studio — where I studied them.

The final paintings, finally done, I think, are glazed and over-glazed — they probably have between 15 and 20 layers of paint on various parts. I was hoping to achieve the glow that transparent paintings can sometimes accrue through layering.

When I thought I had finished, I took the paintings off to my crit group, and showed them to my various critics and friends, trying to see what “bumped” at people. The biggest canvas, “Morning Fog” needed some tweaks — my crit group was good at seeing problematic areas —¬† as a conventional landscape, it was relatively easy to plan and execute and tweak; the fog gave me a bit of trouble, as did the half-snag, half-pine tree, but fixing those areas wasn’t too hard.

Morning Fog, 6' x 4', oil on canvas, 2013

Morning Fog, 6′ x 4′, oil on canvas, 2013

The smaller canvas (4 x 4 feet) was a different kettle of fish. In fact, there were times I thought I should just paint a bunch of trout over it and be done with the problem. Everyone had opinions about the piece and no two opinions were alike. What one person loved, another hated. The friend who sat on the right raved about the top, but the friend on the left found it totally baffling. The slate ledges were “wonderful” or, conversely, “simply don’t work.

Going Home, 4' x4', oil on canvas, 2013

Going Home, 4′ x4′, oil on canvas, 2013

In the end, I did what I wanted to do. I think this piece is finished, but perhaps not — I’m still pondering. However, in a few days, we’ll be off to the desert and all thoughts of lush green will flee from my head. So I think I may have to make my final decisions today and tomorrow. If you have any observations, make them quick, so I can include them in the notions I must discard:-) –June

Petrified Forest, Relationships Grouped: “Natural Monuments”

As I have been stumbling to explain, my plein air experience is infinitely larger, more amazing and important, than my plein air paintings. It’s inevitable, the smells, the sights, the history, the culture, geology, geography, the wind and sun and sky — only tiny bits of this can be encompassed in any single painting. And so, trying to give a slightly greater insight into the experiences of the paintings, I have grouped seventeen of them from the Petrified Forest into five “sets.”¬† My hope is that each of these sets has its own “verse” which then resounds into a greater chorus of the whole.

I’m going to go through the sets, one at a time, over the next couple of weeks. This is set #1, “Natural Monuments”:

Natural Monuments: Petrified Logs, The Tepees, Blue Mesa Hoodoo, Oil on masonite, 2010

These are all paintings I’ve shown previously as individual paintings. These three have a similarity of style, which is due to the way I painted them, of course, but is also related to the nature of the formations themselves. The Logs are the smallest of the “monuments,” being about 3 — 5 feet in length. The Tepees are the largest, perhaps 200–300 feet high. The Hoodoos are perhaps 6 –8 feet. And yet each stands apart from its neighbors, forming some kind of isolated grandeur. The logs are not eroded; they are hard minerals. But the hoodoo and the Tepees are both part of the formations that wind and water sculpt and shape, the hoodoos of hardish sandstone, the Tepees of concentrated ash and clay.

So these are all of a kind and yet differentiated and isolated, grand in their separate ways. As the first set, they practically chose themselves.

In general, the pulling together of the sets was remarkably easy. In part, the colors helped choose the sets, but in part, the landscape and environment forced the style of the painting.

This is the formalists’ heresy, that the style comes from outside the painter. Yet, for the plein air painter not to be manipulated by the¬† scene she is painting seems unfathomable to me. Just as I manipulate the scene, the scene forces me to paint in particular ways. It’s a mutual act, which results in a third thing — neither my vision nor the landscape itself, but something that is a force from both.

More next time. –June

In the continuation, I have the separate views of each of these paintings.

The Blue Mesa Hoodoo, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2011.

Petrified Logs, 16 x 12″, Oil on masonite, 2010

The Tepees, 24 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

PEFO Paintings, Mostly Finished.

I promised to provide updates to this blog as I worked in my Portland, Oregon, studio on the Arizona Petrified Forest National Park Paintings. I am in the process of moving this blog, pages and posts, to my website, but until that process is completed and ready for public consumption, I thought I would continue here.

The following paintings are mostly finished. At the moment I seem to have 17 acceptable paintings which I am moving around into various groupings to see what works best. Here are the 17, in alphabetical order.

Agate House, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010.

This is one of the two structures in the park made from the petrified wood that litters the landscape (most of the Puebloan buildings are constructed out of sandstone, not petrified wood). It was “restored” in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is not considered an authentic artifact. The original dated to the 1250’s and was built by Puebloan peoples, part of the language group that Mesa Verdi and Chaco Canyon National Parks feature. I was fascinated by the grasses, the petrified logs along the path, and the structure, high on the hill.

The Bidahochi and Chinle Formations, 24″ x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010. This is the big geological unconformity in the park, where the volcanic Bidahochi, 10 million years old, meets the Chinle, 225 million years old.

Blue Mesa Hoodoo, 16 x 12″, Oil on masonite, 2010.

The hoodoos are weird wind-and-water eroded features. In the Petrified Forest, they are often blue-gray, but when the waning sun hits them, they turn golden. The Blue Mesa trail is one of the best in the Park. This painting is an unconformity all its own, having a style very unlike most of the work I did at PEFO. It resembles most closely paintings I made in Death Valley, up some of the side canyons, where the features are sculpted and golden.

Lacey Point, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010.

One of the pull-out points where the Painted Desert is the predominate item of interest. Here the clouds caught me in their spell; the badlands faded beneath the skies. This view was recommended to me by a park service staff member, but the time of day she recommended painting it surprised me with its colors.

Long Logs Trail, 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010.

The Long Logs Trail was once a macadam road, although that doesn’t show here (I have photos and think sometimes of painting that unconformity). I suspect the road was turned into a walking trail not long ago because as a roadside attraction, the innumerable petrified logs were tempting for poachers. Vehicle passage near them made poaching easier. This is just a guess. But the trail is a delight because it is not close to the current highway. And the lushness of the area around the littering logs was fun to paint.

Petrified Logs in the Visitor Center Plaza, 24 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010.

Sometimes the visitors don’t really want a drive through the park. The main visitor’s center is just off Interstate 40 and can be entered without going into the park.The plaza that the Center and a gift shop/cafe that surround it have charming bits of petrified wood, including one 20-some foot log. The Visitor’s Center Building, across the Plaza from the log still life, is pictured below.

The Neutra Plaza, Main Visitor Center, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

The Visitor’s Center’s main doors are at the end of a long wall, facing the parking lot. Beyond the doors is the open entrance to the Plaza, and the petrified wood displays face the incoming traffic. At the far end, the plaza has a pond and artworks and is open to an artificial but pleasant desert hillock that hides the employees quarters. The cafe and gift shop run along the other edge, stopping short of the welcoming entrance. This view looks at the windows of the Center which face the Plaza, opening up the small interior to give it a sense of the Arizona sky and foliage. I painted it just as dusk was coming on.

Painted Desert Inn, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

The PDI, as everyone referred to it, is an historic structure, built over an older structure by the CCC guys and decorated by a well-known designer of Spanish Revival style Park buildings. These spanish revival buildings and decor can be seen in many places around the southwest. The PDI was almost torn down in the 1970’s but was saved.

Painted Desert Inn, North Side, 12 x 16″, Oil on masonite, 2010

The PDI sits on a bluff overlooking the badlands of the Chinle Formation. I got fascinated with the challenge  of painting adobe (or in this case, faux adobe.) The building has, I think, at least 10 levels of roof, each of which is a subtly different color of rose-pink.

Storm from the Painted Desert Inn Patio, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010

Inside the PDI is a covered porch that protects a bit against the wind and rain that can gust through the park. Through its adobe openings, the Chinle and Bidahochi formations are presented, against a wide wide sky. Painting within the protected porch while gazing outward was magical.

Pintado Point 1, 12 x 16″, Oil on masonite, 2010,

The badlands of the Chinle formation.

Pintado Point 2, 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010.

Another view of the badlands, with the washes, which were important as roads, depicted. In both these paintings, Pilot Rock stands, as it stood for explorers, as a way to take one’s bearings.

Puerco River Meadow, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010

We were at the Petrified Forest in an exceptionally lush year for foliage. This scene was painted right next to the Puerco Ruins, which sit on a hill above the Puerco River. We saw water running in the river several times during our stay.

Puerco Ruins, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010.

The ruins here date to about 1250 AD, and like those elsewhere in the southwest such as Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon are from a Puebloan people who left the area for reasons that are unclear. Current Pueblo people say these are ancient habitations of their ancestors. The Navajo who are now more prevalent in the area arrived some hundreds of years later and spoke a different language than the Puebloans.

Route 66, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

The Petrified Forest Park is full of unconformities, but the one that stands out, both in the painting and at the park is this reconstructed old car, placed prominently on a pull-out where Interstate 40 roars by.

The Painted Desert Inn from Tawa Point, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010.

PDI takes on its proper place in the area when viewed Tawa Point. It blends into the landscape and reveals the true small nature of its historic status.

The Teepee, 24 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

The Teepee painting has a couple of funny stories attached, but for my purposes here, it’s another of the badland features of the park, less complex than the Painted Desert, but fascinating in its stature.

These paintings will be grouped for exhibit. That’s the process I am currently working on in the studio — that and painting the 1/8 inch edges of each, as well as planning for their mounting, floated, so they can be readily hung. — June