Saturday, June 28, 2008

Painting in The Grand Canyon

I recently spent 7 days rafting down the Colorado River with family, through all of Marble, and a good chunk of the Grand Canyon. We put in at Lee's Ferry (mile 0), about 17 miles below the Glen Canyon Dam, and took out at Whitmore Wash (mile 188). We ran rapids, got soaked and bruised, hiked up slot canyons to waterfalls, slept under the stars, and ate like kings. As one of our guides put it, you're on river time. That meant coffee at 5:15 am, breakfast at 5:45, and on the river by 7. We'd have a stop for lunch, maybe another stop for a hike up a tributary or side canyon, and then pull in to a beach in the late afternoon for the night, waiting for the shadows to come across the water.

It was easily in the 95-100+ degree range every day, Hot winds would blow up the canyon, drying you out in minutes. The water of the Colorado is around 47 degrees, so you don't really want to swim in it, though getting soaked repeatedly is more than welcome. The tributaries, such as the Little Colorado, Havasu, and the many waterfalls we hiked to, were much warmer. If I had done no painting at all, it would still rank as one of the best journeys/vacations of my life. To share so much beauty and crazy adventure with family was a real treat. But this is more or less a blog about painting, so here is my deft segue into shoptalk.

As the summer solstice ocurred during our trip, we had light from 4:30 am until after 9 pm. I put together a slightly smaller kit of supplies, mainly cutting down my paper size, and drawing surface, which was a piece of foam core with
canson taped to one side. I would clip my paper to this when I worked. I stored my paper and finished paintings in a pad of tracing paper, cut down to the same size as my drawing board. I've been having good results with Terry Ludwig Pastels, both at Pixar, and working outside, so I ordered a set of 'Southwest Canyon' colors, which contains 60 rectangular sticks. I probably used every color in it by the end of the trip. I did miss a range of some greens and less saturated violets, but overall, the colors provided worked well for more than 90% of what I was looking at. For a commercial set that is an excellent score. To allay fears of soaking all my supplies and paintings during the trip, I purchased my own dry bag from REI that would fit all my art supplies and paintings. This worked out great, as I could just clip it onto the central lashings on the raft, and not worry about it through the rapids, then easily grab it if we went off on a hike, or at the end of the day.

One thing I would do differently would be to purchase a waterproof camera. I found myself in the ongoing dilemna of seeing something we would be drifting by, scrambling to get my camera out of my dry bag, taking the shot, then packing it up before the next rapid. I got so tired of this routine, that I moved to the ziplock baggie-in-my-shirt method, which worked fine until I forgot to put the camera in the bag through one of the rapids. Well, at least the memory card and battery survived. 2 other cameras on the boat met a similar fate, so I didn't feel too dumb. If you're going on a river trip, I highly recommend a waterproof camera for all the point and shoot stuff you encounter on the water.

I painted in camp in the evenings, once in the morning, and on a few of the hikes, where there was enough time to work, getting 1-3 pieces done every day. The range of local color and the intensity of reflected light into shadows was sort of a 15 on a 10 point scale. I simply wasn't prepared for the scope of it, and was constantly gawking and pointing out 'extreme' examples of this to my raftmates. Of course, I've been doing this for years, so I was tolerated.

Upstream from Redwall Cavern
Pastel on Canson paper

Pastel on Canson paper
~10 x 10.5"

It really was that saturated in the shadows. Scary...

Little Colorado
Pastel on Canson Paper

The confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado rivers marks the official beginning of the Grand Canyon, and the end of Marble Canyon. What is extraordinary and unique about the Little Colorado is its color. When the floodwaters end, the river's water supply is maintained by a travertine spring which deposits a white blanket of calcium carbonate on the bottom, turning the whole river into the color of a radiant turquoise swimming pool. Google "Little Colorado river" and see for yourself.

I found some of my work to be indecipherable, or confusing, in absence of the context where it was painted, as illustrated in the 3 pieces above. It wasn't until the second or third day, that I started consciously working smaller, and simplifying shapes. As the canyon grew deeper, stepping back and up, more atmosphere came into play, which was a welcome ally. I found myself looking towards the sun to get the break into the distance, as many of the views had no sky in them, just wall after wall of rock, and triangular talus slope.

I came to appreciate some of the abstract qualities of what I was looking at, and felt that if I could anchor an image with something recognizable, like a cast shadow, or water, that it might just hold up outisde of the context in which it was created.

Above the Inner Gorge
Pastel on Canson Paper

Done at camp, the same evening as the shadows on the water posted above. A few miles below this point the river moves into the inner gorge, a narrow slot of Vishnu Schist, some of the oldest exposed rock on the planet, at over 2 billion years of age. Hard, glistening black, melted, twisted like taffy, and shot through with pink quartz 'snakes' of Zoroaster granite.The river moves fast, and there are a lot of rapids. No place to stop, no time to paint!

Above Blacktail
Pastel on Canson Paper

Looking downstream from camp. Sometimes we all sat in folding chairs
in the shallows of the river, cooling our feet, and drinking beer.

Deer Creek
Pastel on Canson Paper
~10 x 10.5"

This was a grotto of pink sandstone slabs into which a waterfall was pouring it's contents just to the left of this image. I felt the water below, and the cast shadows on the wall could tie this one together. I jumped into this pool and swam for awhile to cool down before picking a spot to paint, wedged into an essential sliver of shade between two dozing raftmates on a rock ledge. It was warm in the shade, and got downright sweltering when a blast of heated air blew in from the canyon. Interestingly, the waterfall generated its own substantial cool wind, so if one stood against the pink rock on the right side of this image, it became uncomfortably cold after about 30 seconds. Akin to wearing a t-shirt on a foggy, windy, San Francisco

Havasu Creek
Pastel on Canson Paper

We spent several hours here, tying off in swift current, and hiking narrow sandstone ledges up into this canyon paradise of
many pools and small waterfalls. I followed my usual pattern of swimming and jumping off of boulders to cool down, then finding a piece of shade to work in, while others hiked, rested, or swam. One could paint in this one canyon alone for a week. The color range in the water was fascinating to witness.

Bar Ten View
Pastel on Canson Paper

This was above the takeout point at Whitmore wash. We were choppered out in groups of 6, and spent several hours at the Bar Ten Ranch on the North side of the river waiting for a plane to take us to Las Vegas. That is a runway in the middle ground of the image, and the South side of the canyon is visible in the distance. It's 3 more days of floating to get to Lake Mead. I would have been happy to keep going.

Anyone interested in an Artist's raft trip down the Grand Canyon, email me. Even a 3 day float from where we took out to Lake Mead would be a great immersion into this extraordinary chasm of light and color. This is all theory right now, just looking at possibilities.


Mike Dutton said...

I'm simply overwhelmed by the scope of it all and your ability to lay it down on paper. And as always, I enjoyed reading the accompanying text. And consider me interested in the theoretical artists' rafting trip in the future. I've only ever seen the Canyon from the top, and can only imagine how much bigger it seems from the inside.

Robin Purcell said...

Brilliant. It looks like a good trip and your colors are wonderful. Great job at keeping your values accurate. Look forward to seeingmore of your work on the blog or in person. Do you have any shows coming up?

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying the visit of your blog like a kid in from of the xmas tree
what a talent you have with pastels

Francis said...

These are amazing paintings, Bill. And the scenery in your trip looks beautiful. I would love to go on an artist trip like this sometime!

Benjamin Plouffe said...

yeah pretty amazing pastels in here!

Anonymous said...


These painting are very beautiful. They are so different from Somona paintings where the contrasts are between shadow and light clearly differentiated and images likes rocks are sharp and vivid. Paintings from both locations are beautiful but different. The tones of these paintings are soft. Cars like :)

I went on hike in my neighborhood by Coyote Hills in Fremont and too my surprise, rocks against golden grass is indeed sharp and vivid.

Beautiful paintings. Very inspiring for these ones as well as Sonoma.



PS. What is the name of John Singer Sargent watercolor book that you mentioned? said...

These are all so fresh, and alive. Very inspiring. You've taken all of us on a trip through the canyon with you. Really wonderful work.

samacleod said...

These are really beautiful. It makes me want to go there even more. Thanks for sharing. So inspiring.

Kate said...

60 sticks of canyon color?! The only pastels I've ever had were those 24 color kiddy-packs... Wow, I'm blown away by your work and your dedication to it. I just got back from a summer rafting trip with my company and I fell in love with rafting. A painting and rafting trip sounds heavenly.

Craig Mackay said...

Breathtaking! I'm just awestruck by your pastels. Beautiful work. Sounds like it was a great trip.

Marco Bucci said...

now I want to go on a trip like this just to be able to paint this kind of subject matter. Thanks a lot for posting. This is great work!

JimmyG said...

It's already been said, but 'BREATHTAKING' it IS. That and 'inspirational'. Not only for the sheer beauty of the work itself, but for the ammount of work you were able to cram into such little time on a family vacation, on the water no less! That's dedication and discipline. Bravo Bill.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

These are gorgeous paintings, Bill. Too bad about your camera, but we're all really glad your paintings survived to tell the tale!

These images plus your travelogue would make a really nice short book.

timwootton said...

Exhilerating paintings and erudite commentary - left me breathless.
I would like to add your blog to my links, please.
I'll be dropping by - regularly!

Kei Acedera said...

OMG WOW. Those are just tooooo good. Your control is amazing, the rocks really look and feel like rocks! These are better than pictures.

Bill Cone said...

Thank you everyone, for your kind comments. I'll try and answer some of the individual comments and questions in the reply.

Mike D. said " (I) can only imagine how much bigger it seems from the inside."
It changes by the mile, and, ironically, it keeps getting 'Grander' for lack of a better word. When you start, you're only a couple of hundred feet below the rim, and eventually you are several thousand feet below it.

Robin P- I'm in the "Local Voices" show at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek (and so are you!), and I'll be in the
Laguna Plein Air Invitational in October.

Charles- The book is called 'The watercolors of John Singer Sargent" by Tim Little. Sargent was fearless at painting complexity in nature, and could nail the most subtle value and temperature shifts.

Michael C.J.- I became very protective of my paintings once my camera got soaked. The dry bag worked perfectly though.

Thanks again to all for your comments. Very much appreciated.


Anonymous said...

awesome, boy that looks like a lot of fun. It makes me want to get out even more. Stunning work all around, but I love the water fall into the pool.

TJ said...

Thank you so much for sharing these with us. How nice for us to stay dry and enjoy the trip with you and especially through your beautiful paintings.


Nathan Fowkes said...

you've got some serious hits here. Well done.

Sharon Calahan said...

Absolutely breathtaking! Yes, I'd love to do a trip like this sometime.

Lovelace said...

Absolutely gorgeous!

Jared Shear said...

WOW.....great paintings from the canyon. You command of those pastels is breathtaking and inspiring!

Craig Mackay said...

Amazing color and light studies! You really captured the feeling of being there.

Francis Vallejo said...

humbling, nice work!

Cynthea said...

These paintings are breathtakingly beautiful.
On a side note, I recently purchased a cheap waterproof case( DiCAPac WP-410) for my digital camera. I was nervous about using it, but it survived ocean kayaking and snorkeling.

Christopher Denise said...

Amazing stuff! Thanks for sharing!. I can't help but think of Sargent's painting and studies of water.

Nan said...

I went on a 6 day GC trip with 7 friends in memory of our parents (we all met as caregivers). I would love to have some of your work to give these great friends as a gift. Much of your work looks just like some of our photos! PS- get a waterproof camera, strap it to your lifejacket and you have no worries!

Marian Fortunati said...

These are just gorgeous!!
Ann Malmund suggested that I look you up and I'm glad that she did!!

Wonderful work..