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, 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

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.