When venturing into unknown territory it’s best to be prepared, or so I told myself when I was invited to paint Utah’s National Parks this past August. I looked at many images of the parks before leaving and tried my best to bring along a palette of colours that would help me capture the reds, pinks and greens of the rock layers. I even made a colour chart and carried it in my bag. It seems like overkill when I look at the chart now because many of the colours are so similar, but as I said, better to be prepared. In hindsight, the colours were the least of my problems. The bigger challenges were the ones I hadn’t anticipated, like trying to cover 1,400 miles in one week, or painting a scene where I could see 150 miles into the distance, or looking down into a vast canyon that was shrouded in cloud, or painting in 100°F heat. And there is nothing that can prepare you for the incredible beauty of these five parks, no matter how many images you look at. Below is the palette I used and following that are the ten painting I did of the parks, some done on location and others painted in studio from my sketches and reference photos. All are half sheets (15″ x 22″) of Arches 140 lb. cold-pressed watercolour paper.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef was the first park I visited and perhaps my favourite because I spent the most time there and got to see more of the sights. “Grand Wash Trail” and “The Waterpocket Fold” were both painted on location, although a storm blew in while I was painting the latter and the final details were added from the car.
Arches National Park
There was a lot of pressure to get Delicate Arch right because, after all, it is Utah’s most recognizable landmark and is even pictured on the state’s license plate. I arrived at the park at midday, in extreme heat, humidity and rain. My attempts to paint on location were thwarted by storms, so I sketched, drank lots of water, took lots of photos and painted both “Delicate Arch” and “Park Avenue” in studio.
Canyonlands National Park
Nothing prepared me for the strange beauty of Canyonlands. This part of the park — which is the least accessible of the five parks — is called Island in the Sky. To get there you drive 30 miles in from Moab and see the park from a series of overlooks. That is, if there are no clouds. “Green River Overlook” was painted on location and “Island in the Sky” was painted in studio. Both of these were painted wet-in-wet.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is another park that is first admired from a series of overlooks, although there are trails that allow you to descend into the hoodoos. The pines around the perimeter of the canyon provide great shade for sketching, which is what I did, since my time in the park was very limited. Both “Thor’s Hammer” and “Inspiration Point” were painted in studio.
Zion National Park
Of all the parks, Zion seems to be the most crowded — and for good reason. The only way through the park is by shuttle bus, which made it impossible to carry all my painting gear. I sketched at various stops along the route and painted “The Virgin River” and “The Cottonwoods” in studio. One of my only regrets about my week in Utah is that I had no time to hike the trails, especially the spectacular ones at Zion. Truthfully, I would have had to spend a week in each park to see them properly as well as to paint many of the famous viewpoints. I hope I’ll get back there one day to see them again.
It’s that time in the season when I start looking for indoor locations to sketch. The greenhouse in Westmount is always a good spot because there are café tables and chairs among the plants, and even though they usually need to be dried off, they provide a good place to set up. If you close your eyes — in that humid environment, filled with the sound of dripping water and the scent of warm vegetation — you might imagine yourself in a tropical setting. That also means that it takes forever for a wash to lose its sheen, so come prepared to spend a bit of time and smell the roses while your paper dries.
I had an “aha” moment last night while reading “What I talk about when I talk about running,” by Haruki Murakami. Not because I’m a runner, but because in the foreword of the book, Murakami mentions that he never realized what running meant to him until he started writing about it. And it made me realize that over the course of the past three years, I’ve only acknowledged the value of sketching every day, but I haven’t given much thought to writing every day. I’m afraid I’ve been neglectful. Or oblivious. Writing about the things I think about when I sketch has been equally if not more important to me. It’s helped me focus, have direction and, hopefully, be a more thoughtful painter. Because if you know you are going to write about the work, you also spend more time thinking about the process and sometimes (but not always) making better decisions because of that. Now that I don’t post my work quite as often, I’ve come to realize that it’s not only the drawing that I miss but the writing too.
As for my little sketch today… even after 1,000 posts I am still discovering new places to paint in my neighbourhood. There are two cemeteries not five minutes drive from my house that I explored for the first time this morning. The one in the sketch has rolling hills, grand old trees and even a military cemetery complete with cannons. And if I find myself with a bit of time this week I hope to turn the sketch into a painting.