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.


Daisy Church said...

beautiful work- so inspiring! Love your attention to the detail in color and light in your work and the way you write about it as well, esp with details like the time of day and what you found easy/hard about each piece... great blog- always enjoy your posts!

Jared Shear said...

Fabulous pastel work! Sounds like such a fun trip. Thanks for sharing these

As for the bluer light during the midday.....I would think that drier air of the mountains as opposed to the coast would lend to a more intense blue sky, causing everything else to be bathed in a slightly cooler light??? Also you could have reflected light bouncing off of the cool blues and grays of the lake and surrounding granite??? Just a guess.

RAWLS said...

Fabulous work my friend!! Very beautiful indeed. Love how you handle the rocks in the water. Wonderful details. Great work!!!

Robin Purcell said...

Bill, these look wonderful, I know what you mean about rock fissures, if you put them all in it's too much, trying to figure out which ones to leave in or out is an art unto itself. Are you all going to put on a group exhibt of these? I would love to see it!

Gabe Fullilove said...

Wow, what a great set of paintings!

These make me want to go out and paint in our local hill country area.

I had a question for you. How do you keep the pastels preserved on the paper? Is there a special spray you can use to keep the pages from smearing against each other? Do you separate the pages in your sketchbook?

Also, on a side note, I was just re-reading the Art of Cars book, and your color scripts continue to amaze and inspire.

XaviC said...

I have just started painting in pastels the beatiful landscapes in where I live, in the European Pyrenees. But I have to practie a lot. I started few months ago, inspired in what you do with this techinque. Really inspiring. I'll post some of them wehn they'll have a highest painting level.

Hope you'll continue posting this amazing pieces of great art very soon!

stephen erik schirle said...

great, inspiring work. think i'll have to get back to the mountains pretty soon after seeing this!

Bill Cone said...

Daisy- Thanks for stopping by, and the kind words.

Jared- Regarding the bluer light conundrum, I think your suggestion of the ambient sky color making a stronger contribution at higher elevations may very well be a part of
the effect. Maybe also less 'warming' of the
key from dust in the air. It's probably more than one variable.

Rawls- Thanks!

Robin- Rock fissures are a challenge to me, as my eye reads them as much darker than they really are in terms of how they sit in a painting. Plus, I can't effectively draw them as narrow and small, most of the time, as they really are. The method I used on the last painting was to
knock back their value, and not necessarily draw them completely end to end.
If I have a show of my Sierra work, I'll certainly let you know.

Gabe- I currently don't fix my work, as it alters the color range of what I am doing.
I work on separate pieces of canson paper, and store them, when I am outside, between sheets of a pad of tracing paper. When I get them home, I used to just pin them up, but my display area was taken over by a television! For long term storage, I put them under glassine, taped to foam core.

Xavic- You live near the Pyrenees, eh? You must have some interesting locations to
paint. Regardless of where one lives, there is usually something worth painting.

Stephen- Thanks for the comments. The high mountains are an inspiring place to work, I think, in part, because you can only be there a relatively short time, so one is motivated to try and get it down. We're perhaps a bit more complacent in our ordinary surroundings. Maybe I'm just a bit lazy in that regard.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Bill you have been so prolific lately and with such stunning results. Man do I need to get back out.

C.B. Canga said...

amazing work.

Hoon said...

I don't know how I can describe my feeling right now. When I went and see here at the first by chance, I soon realized that I've felt this incredible impression before. It was some art books from Pixar. Your works blow my mind.

abhishek singh said...

whenever i'm scrollin through ur paintings .i get transported to all those beautiful locations .ur work is truely beautiful .i really liked the "iceberg 3" loved the way u can see through the water.
wonderful paintings


Dear Bill,

Nice to see your latest work.
I'm back in Canada now, but not near any mountains. I do miss being able to get see and sketch in such country.
Is there anywhere one can obtain/buy a piece of your art?

viince said...

amazing stuff!

Brenda Boylan said...

Incredible work!
I put you on my blogroll!
Thanks for sharing your insights on the scenery, challenges, and just the beautiful outdoors.

Sylvia Jenstad said...

Beautiful ... just beautiful... I agree these are amazing paintings... really cool

Andrea Blasich said...

Ciao Bill,
Great work " Maestro"! We miss you at the studio!!!
I hope to see you soon !

Nathan Fowkes said...


Unknown said...

beautiful paintings!

Jed said...

Could you ever walk us through one of your sketches? They're just so great.

Also, could you show us what kind of pastels you're using?


TJ said...

Again, more beautiful paintings!

Had to backtrack - I always hope to learn from your paintings. I am particularly impressed with Iceberg 3 - those submerged rocks are a hard thing for me to paint - yours are PERFECT! Thanks for putting so much work into blogging. A joy to look at an read.

HERVE said...


Just amazing!!!Like a kick in my face!Well!!!!j
You are a real big gifted and talented artist...
The picture with the lake and the stones into the water...Wooow!Really amazing!!!!
I like one great western artist named Howard Terpning and you are his follower for me...

Thank you for that sharing!

Good evening to you!Thank you for beautifull work!

Best regards!

Hervé (from France)

Diane Lightsey-Velasco said...

I just love the color palette of your paintings and the peaceful feeling they evoke - keep up the beautiful work. I am also a landscape pastel artist and work plein air as often as I can. Your art is very inspiring.

You are such a talent in all that you do. My pastels have a way to go yet but if you get a chance... (Tell Kevin O'Brien that Diane Lightsey said hi - we were good friends at Pratt).

Sue Marquez said...

Stunning work, as usual. I loved your blog account of painting in the Sonoma mist accompanied by your works. The tree/trunks are wonderful. Sorry I missed your gallery show. Thanks for sharing.

Sue Marquez
Huntington Beach, CA