There is a certain comfort in sketching the familiar. After a summer of travel it feels great to be looking at my neighbourhood with fresh eyes. Despite a chilly wind blowing off the lake and an equipment malfunction (broken tripod leg), I was happy to be back at the yacht club to sketch today. There didn’t seem to be much action at the sailing school — I guess lessons are over for the season — and before you know it the boats will be coming out of the water, so I have to make the most of the time that’s left. Painted at a picnic table on a Saunders Waterford CP block, 9″ x 12″.
There’s an interesting feature in the October issue of Watercolor magazine called “Brushing Up: five artists share their go-to brushes for achieving their signature looks.” I love reading articles like this and it made me dust off some brushes in my studio that I use infrequently. In the process I discovered a little gem — a 1″ Grumbacher Aquarelle flat that I don’t remember buying and that I haven’t used in years but that works like a gem. It’s so nice, in fact, that I had to do a little research to find out more about it. Turns out it’s a sable brush, one of the best ever made by them. I do have other flats of the same size but the secret with this one is how much wash it holds and what a sharp edge you can get with it. You can paint a whole painting with just this brush, except for possibly the tiniest of details. If you are interested in something similar (this one has been discontinued), have a look at the Richeson Series 6229. It’s the closest I could find to this one.
The desert colours are still in my brain, especially the different hues that comprise the many layers in the canyons and cliffs of Utah. I bought a poster of a geologic cross-section because I loved the names of the rock — Navaho Sandstone, Redwall Limestone, Bright Angel Shale and Carmel Formation — and because they serve as a good reminder as I finish the paintings from home. Each park was visually unique and splendid but Capitol Reef remains a favourite because I spent the longest time there and it was relatively quiet compared to the more popular parks like Bryce and Zion.
I’m just back from a full week of touring and painting in Utah’s five National Parks. I still have comments to catch up on and more sketches to post going back to day one. The start of the sketching week begins like this:
It was easier to get to southern Utah through Las Vegas, rather than fly into Salt Lake City, but that meant that last Sunday, upon arrival in Vegas, we had to drive directly to the first National Park which was almost six hours away. The start of the drive was surprisingly pleasant despite the long flight, with changing desert vistas and wide open skies. When I looked at the map I realized that before getting to Utah from Nevada, we had to cross a little corner of Arizona, so I dug out my panoramic sketchbook with the idea of capturing a bit of landscape from each state. The view of the Nevada hills was grey and dry, not a tree in sight, just low scrub and cracked ground. By the time we reached Arizona, the colours of the rock started to change. When we crossed into Utah, the setting sun lit up the red hills and green pastures.
I won’t go into too much detail about the harrowing second half of the drive — in total darkness, on switchbacks through narrow canyons and then for a long time on an open range. I’d rather forget it. But if you want more info I can put you in touch with some of the locals I met a few days later who told me that NO ONE drives on an open range at night.
It was a pleasure today to have a guide through Zion National Park — and even better that my guide is a watercolour painter. Russell Black lives not far from the park and paints here often so imagine my luck when he offered to accompany me to some favourite sketching spots of his. Zion is the greenest of Utah’s National Parks with rivers, waterfalls and hanging gardens. I guess we could have climbed to the great lookout points but it was a pleasure to sketch in the cool shade of the greenery both in the Temple of Sinawava and near the waterfalls of the Emerald Pools. Check out Russell’s wonderful watercolours of these splendid spots here.
Each of Utah’s five National Parks have vastly different rock formations and that’s what makes them so interesting and yet so difficult to capture in paint. Capitol Reef was big red canyon walls and layers of the Waterpocket Fold. Arches was monoliths. Canyonlands, which I visited yesterday but had no time to write about was, as the name suggests, vast vistas seen from above. Today’s park is Bryce Canyon. Again this is geography that you look down into from the rim. It’s a more hospitable landscape for the shade-seeking sketcher because of the pines along the edge, but it’s geology that is so foreign to my eyes that it took a while to comprehend.
Looking into the canyons of orange limestone pillars, it took some time to think about how to paint these, and I decided that it might be best to start by sketching them. The spires are vertical but the layers of colour are horizontal and mostly deepen in intensity as they move downward. It’s not necessary to paint every hoodoo, although that is what you might think upon first impression. I tried to use something I learned from Tom Hoffman. How can you say it in the least amount of paint strokes? Tomorrow I will be in Zion National Park and I suppose that will bring a whole new menu of geological formations that I will have to comprehend.
Today’s painting day started with rain and ended with rain. In the middle the sun at Arches National Park was blazing hot and that’s when I sketched the iconic Delicate Arch from a viewpoint a distance away. Painting it up close would have involved a three-mile hike of some difficulty on open slickrock, carrying 2 litres of drinking water along with my painting gear (and more water for painting!) The high desert conditions make watercolour difficult. As you can see from my sketch, the water on my brush dried before it hit the paper.
I’ve never seen anything quite like the rock formations in this park. A series of monolithic red sandstone fin formations stand out all over the park. They really need to be seen to be believed because there are no photos or sketches that can do these arches and spires justice. Despite that I keep trying.
The landscape of Capitol Reef Park is all about the backdrop of layered red rock that runs south for 100 miles, and I can’t describe it better than the tourist brochure. “A giant buckle in Earth’s crust stretches across south-central Utah. This vast warping of rock, created 65 million years ago by the same great forces later uplifting the Colorado Plateau is called the Waterpocket Fold.”
I painted two half sheets today — one of an iconic section of soaring spires called The Castle which I will post when it’s done — and this panoramic view done from, believe it or not, Panorama Point. Painting today was a challenge but not for the same reasons as yesterday. Both morning and afternoon sessions were halted due to rain and high winds. With these big Utah skies you can see the rain coming from a distance but you never know if the dark clouds will move off or rain where you are standing. In both instances I had parked close-by so was able to grab the painting and run.
I also wanted to thank everyone who commented yesterday. All your encouragement is much appreciated and although I try to respond promptly, the internet is very spotty here. One minute I’m on and the next I get booted off so even posting is a challenge.
It’s been a grand summer for travel and for my final week of summer holiday I’ve been invited to paint the five National Parks of Utah. The landscape in this part of the world is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The first park is Capitol Reef, a hidden gem from what I’ve read. Not as popular or crowded as Bryce or Zion, and that makes it the perfect place to start.
It’s a whole new ball game for me to paint in this heat and dryness, not to mention a whole new palette of colours for these red rocks. This is about as far as you can get from the colours of Newfoundland, and it make take a few more tries to get used to painting here but it is quite a thrill to try to capture this in paint!
“Newfoundland is of the sea. A mighty granite stopper thrust into the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, its coasts present more than five thousand miles of rocky headlands, bays, capes and fiords to the sweep of the Atlantic.”
Farley Mowat “Bay of Spirits”
Before I left for Newfoundland I stopped in the library and picked up a copy of Farley Mowat’s “Bay of Spirits” — the book he wrote about his time sailing around the outports along Newfoundland’s Southwest coast in the late 1950s. It was the ideal book to have along because every time I came upon a harbour I was reminded of his descriptions of schooners and skippers and steamers and a Newfoundland that mostly doesn’t exist anymore. And even though I’m not a big fan of air travel, a little part of me was happy my plane ride home today was delayed so I could enjoy the last pages of the book before landing. The perfect way to end the week.