Dateline: Mitchell, OR, Picturing Picture Gorge, Sept 9, Day 4

After I posted yesterday’s journal, I decided to work more on the paintings I had started earlier in the day.

During the morning session, in addition to working further on the long narrow 12 x 24″ piece, I had hurriedly used up the paints on my palette¬† as Jer hiked up the trail toward me. So I had the reworked narrow painting plus a more rectangular panel, 18 x 24. The 18 x 24 was basically a bunch of fast smears. However, when I pulled it out of the box back at the cottage, I liked the looseness of the smearing.

The Painted Hills, September 2011, draft 1, 18 x 24″ Oil on masonite

The feel was right but the crude thin layer of paint needed work. As dusk descended over the cottage, I layered over this first smudgery, resulting in the painting below, an improvement in which I managed to keep the looseness of the first draft.

JOU, The Painted Hills, September 2011, draft 2, 18 x 24, oil on Masonite

This needs more work, both compositionally and in its detailing. But dusk was drawing nigh, and I was looking with dismay at the other painting that I had reworked in the AM. It looked like this:

The Painted Hills, Sept 2011, 12 x 24″ oil on Masonite

In the cooler light of evening, the reds, which seemed muted in the blaze of the desert sun, suddenly became much too much. Elizabeth Barton and the traditional guidelines for color were absolutely correct — the rather even mix of warm and cool colors did not work.

So, having a violet already mixed on my palette, I turned on the porch light and smeared the titanium white/ultramarine violet over the red bits:

JOU, Painted Hills Sept 2011, 12 x 24″ draft 2, oil on Masonite

Obviously I smeared a bit elsewhere too. This is more like the effect I want, so now that I know what has to be done, perhaps on the next draft, I’ll be more successful. There was no time and no energy and no light to continue last night.

This morning we got up at the crack of dawn (did you know that dawn cracks like a rifle shot out here in Mitchell?) and drove the 45 miles east on Route 26 to Route 19, where the primary exhibit space and science labs (the Condon Center) of the Fossil Beds is located. As you approach Route 19, you drop through a canyon, Picture gorge, carved by Rock Creek. The canyon is lined with hexagonal basalt columns, leaving just room for the narrow two lane road and the stream. Route 19 goes left off Rt 26, following around the end of Picture Gorge. It was there at an interpretive pull-off that I sat up my gear.

This is the approximate scene I painted, on the largest canvas we can fit into the Honda, 30 x 40″. (Actually, if the canvas is unpainted we can squeeze in a 36 x 48, but a naked painted canvas is not allowed in the Honda, and the carrier reduces the space available. So 30 x 40 it is). It took me three hours to cover the canvas with paint. Luckily, the shapes are simple as are the colors, at least in this initial scene.

The canvas threatened to blow down the river, so I removed my camera from my belt, using the belt to anchor the canvas stretcher bars to the easel, which I snugged up against the Park Service’s railings. That held everything secure against the morning breeze, a wind which I yearned for as the sun got higher and hotter.

At the appointed time, Jer returned, and after we reinserted the canvas into its carrier and the whole package into the Honda, along with the cart and all the other gear, we checked out the book store at the Condon Center (alas, a rather meager selection), chatted with some old acquaintances from my 2006 residency there, had a picnic lunch, stopped at the Kimberly Fruit company for our farm-fresh peaches, got gas in Spray (the gas pump in Mitchell is operated erratically), ate an early dinner at Service Creek, and wound our way home over Oregon Route 207, through the Ochocos, south to Mitchell. I took a  badly needed shower and crashed on the couch. It seemed like a fruitful but exhausting day.

I forgot to take a photo of the morning’s work; I might remember tomorrow morning. We’re going back even earlier¬† so the photographer (the real photographer, I mean) can capture more spectacular scenes in a different light. And the painter can get an earlier start, when the sun won’t be quite so ferocious.

Oh yes, my favorite sign in the Park is a rattlesnake alert:

Everyone at JODA (the Fossil Beds)¬† sympathizes with the rattlers. –-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

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