Monday, September 1, 2008

Painting in the Sierras

This year marks the 4th year of an annual Sierra backpacking/painting trip that I have put together with the help of artist and friend Paul Kratter. The basic goal is to be high in the mountains with the freedom to focus on painting, in the company of other artists. Towards that end we hire a pack station that provides mules to haul our gear up, and a cook to keep us well fed. It is not by any means 'roughing it.' One just has to be fit enough to hike about 8 miles at altitude to get to the spot, willing to sleep in a tent, put up with the occasional bear, and deal with the possibility of daily thundershowers. This year we had clear skies and a few bear visits, but Penny, our excellent cook, has a dog, "Nowena", who did a great job of driving them out of our camp.

Our destination this year was Lake Ediza, on the East side of the Sierras in the Ansel Adams wilderness. We hiked in from the Agnew Meadows trailhead, at a packstation run by Reds Meadow. 9 painters and one photographer made the trip this year: Sharon Calahan, Kevin Courter , Tim Horn, Greg LaRock, Paul Kratter, Kim Lordier, Clark Mitchell , Terry Miura, and Bob Watters were the folks.

For other reports on the trip, check out the 'Studio Notes' on Terry's website, and Sharon's blog.

Our camp was on the North side of the lake, on a slight bluff, so we had good views across the water into the granite slopes and boulders, as well as the towering Minaret peaks to the Southwest. I painted a few studies almost every morning, using my tent as shade from the rising sun.

The color range of the light throughout the day provoked a discussion amongst us about the cool nature of the midday light. From about 10-4, the brightest light on surfaces appeared a light shade of blue, lemon yellow, or even a light green to my eyes. Only in the mornings and late afternoon did the light have a characteristic warmth with accompanying blue shadows. Was it the intense blue of the sky coloring the same surfaces as the sun? Was it an increase in the blue end of the spectrum towards ultraviolet that high altitude exposes one too? I am curious to know the cause.

A few days into our trip, a group of us hiked up another 500 ft. to Iceberg Lake, which sits at the end of a long, narrow meadow at the foot of the Minarets. In 2005, Paul and Bob hiked to this lake and observed small icebergs floating in the water, broken off from a large snow patch across the lake. This year, the snow had retreated, and the lake was berg free. The feature that struck me most was the extraordinary range of turquoise and blue in the water, along with it's great clarity. I spent 2 days up there painting.

Iceberg 1
Pastel on Canson Paper
I was geeking out on the color of the water at the outlet of the lake, about to commit to painting there when Paul convinced me to walk a bit further, where a large boulder sat, surrounded by the same range of colors. I immediately set up and went to work. Within minutes, a hiker walked past us, marched out to the rock and climbed upon it. After awhile she started doing yoga-like poses and stretches in full view of us painters, perhaps hoping we would include her in our work. No dice!

The cool nature of the midday light is evident in this painting. The color range and transparency of the water was a big hook for me. It was fun to decode the relationships of form and color in the depths. There were numerous views of water with interesting rock forms at this location. I hope to do a few studio pieces based on the pictures and studies I did.

Iceberg 2
Pastel on Canson Paper
This is a late afternoon view across the right side of the lake. The slopes were very steep, littered with boulders and carpeted with vegetation ranging from a bright green to an orange/ochre color. The verticality of the trees really showed how steep the angle of the slopes were. The light is clearly warming up again.

Iceberg 3
Pastel on Canson Paper
Another water view with a rock 'foil', painted the next day, during the 'blue' hours. Ironically, I spent most of my time painting, and re-painting, the rocks and vegetation, which were giving me the fits. It was a relief to finally get into the water and submerged rocks, and not be so confined by specific, contrasting forms.

Iceberg 4
Pastel on Canson Paper
Late afternoon across the lake with a pronounced atmosphere and glare towards the sun.

The Blue Egg
Pastel on Canson Paper
This is a small, white boulder nestled under a massive, dark-toned boulder, which reminded me of a large goose egg my daughter, Julia, once found on a shady creek bottom many years ago. I had seen this view on the first hike up to Iceberg, and started talking about it to my companions, and finally made it back to paint it on the 5th day of the trip.

Above Ediza
Pastel on Canson Paper
This is a typical mix of fractured granite forms and grasses one could find in almost any hike out of camp. Painted in the late afternoon, looking into a shadowed wall over a mile beyond the foreground. The light values of the granite allowed brilliant colors to reflect and fill into the shadows

Ediza Shore
Pastel on Canson Paper
My last piece before the hike out. Kim Lordier and I had been puzzling over how best to indicate the numerous rock cracks and fissures one found everywhere, and this painting gave me some clues.

On our last evening in camp, we held an exhibit, placing our work, weighted down by rocks, all across a curving granite bluff. Then we walked all around, discussing each other's work. It was surprising and delightful to see the diverse choices, as well as similar views painted by different artists. Get thee to the mountains and paint! It's inspiring and a load of fun.