Monday, November 23, 2015

Is That Snow?!? (Week 4 in Zion NP)

the water droplets in the clouds acted as miniature prisms, 
causing the colors of the peak to change moment by moment

Each day in Zion Canyon is filled with wondrous delights, and the first day of my final full week in the park was no exception. I awoke, as usual, before dawn and, at first light, was treated to wispy white clouds dancing about the sun-drenched canyon tops. It was amazing and continued for much of the morning!

with ever-changing views like this I'm amazed that anyone opts to drive a car in Zion

For most of my stay (in fact, until the PAAI painters arrived) I seemed to be the only painter in the park. (There's lats of space to choose from and it's easy to avoid tripping over one another.) But the same can't be said for photographers. In fact, as fall color has finally begun to appear, a daily late afternoon "feeding frenzy" has become the norm at the Canyon Junction bridge, with dozens of photographers vying for position to capture the "perfect" picture of two very iconic subjects: the Watchman and Virgin River. (Ironically, I think a much better view of the pair is to be had from one of the bridges on the Pa'rus Trail, and it's crowd-free. But that's just my personal opinion.)

my "mystery flower" and one of the Arizona Sisters I encounter along the Grotto Trail

The flora of Zion Canyon has turned out to be something of an enchanting paradox; at the very same time that fall color is beginning to appear, and mornings are often marked by frost, wildflowers are popping up along the riverbanks and butterflies are seen on the canyon floor flitting about in the midday sun. The butterflies all seem to be Arizona Sisters, but there are several species of flowers, including this mystery. (If anyone has any insight as to its identity I would be most grateful if you could leave a comment or drop me an email.)

comp sketch have proven a wonderful tool in zion, as has my 
Zion NP Green Bike "studio on wheels", and the "phase 1" results

And then there's the plein air painting. Normally I would expect to have an hour to an hour and a half to work on a panel before the light changes too much (and with some subjects in the park that has proven the case.) But -- with a canyon that runs more or less north and south, and the canyon walls so close -- the lighting on some subjects changes in mere minutes! Fortunately, as a month-long resident, I've had the luxury of being able to return to a subject on following day(s) and pick up where I left off. 

and, when exploring afoot, my lightweight 6x8 ThumBox has been perfect

And, yes, toward the end of the week we experienced yet another dip in the temperature... and snow in the higher elevations. That required that I bundle up and venture out to the (ice covered) foot bridge to photograph the west wall peaks (and a Dipper that was fishing for her breakfast) at first light. And the whole experience was so delightfully sublime. (But was it really in the mid 80s when I got here? How things do change!) 

as the sun came up those areas of snow in direct light gradually melted, 
but those areas in shadow remained all week (and resulted in a few nice oil sketches)

Then, last but certainly not least, I had a visit -- from none other than the original Guerrilla Painter himself: Carl Judson! With the Grotto House bathed in warm afternoon sunlight we chatted for several hours (about plein air painting, my residency, and how much the park has changed since Carl's last visit some tow decades ago) before he had to hit the road again. (Carl had just returned from a business trip to China and was on his way home.) 

two typical guerrilla painters (who seem to enjoy what they do)

Next week I hope you'll join me for my last few days in Zion -- and for a little surprise. Hope to see you then.



Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Autumn's Here! (Week 3 in Zion NP)

the first splashes of autumn color

Zion National Park was experiencing an Indian Summer when I first arrived, with daytime temperatures still reaching into the mid-80s and everyone enjoying shorts and t-shirts weather. Unfortunately for some, that also meant that the brilliant fall colors that sometimes paint the canyon floor as early as September hadn't even begun to make an appearance for most of October. Not so this week!

the cool weather jacket is a most welcomed addition to my AiR uniform

Nighttime temperatures have now dipped down into the nippy range (and stay that way in the canyon shadows well into mid day.) And the leaves on the cottonwood trees are finally beginning to turn golds and yellows that luminesce in the bold afternoon sun.

my workshop crew (with the afternoon sun now quickly retreating up the east wall) 

On Friday, October 30, I held my free place-based journaling workshop in the Grotto picnic area and was thrilled at the over-booked (only slightly) turnout. Everyone received a complimentary Strathmore Softcover Toned journal and Sakura Gelly Roll and Micron Pigma pens (and two lucky participants received Sakura pen sets and pen cases as "door prizes.") The introductory workshop was originally scheduled to last only one hour but everyone was having so much fun (and both the scenery and the sun's warmth were so beckoning) that everyone stayed on for an extra hour and a half (leaving then only because the shadows, and the accompanying chill, had returned.)

I have established a very enjoyable and productive work schedule (if you can call this "work"): up at 5:30; draw, paint, write and edit in the studio until the sun comes up; and then (after breakfast and two cups of tea) out! Sometimes I return home for lunch, sometimes I just eat one of the MREs my wife purchased for me. (The high dessert air may have something to do with it. The scenery and the invigorating physical activity certainly do. But the food never fails to taste stupendous.) Home in time for afternoon tea; dinner; and then abed by 8:30 (although stargazing occasionally gives me a late-night energy boost.)

the abundance and diversity of this high desert oasis' fauna is amazing

Now that I've settled in, I'm also being visited by some of my Grotto neighbors: the little Bluebird (above) popped by to say "Hi!" while I was waiting for the down-canyon shuttle this week; and on Saturday, as I walked into the kitchen for another cuppa tea, I thought to myself "That spot of dirt on my bike tire looks just like a lizard." Well.... (This is the second lizard now that has paid me a visit. I don't know what the kitchen's attraction is, but they're well behaved house guests so I don't mind.)

ten paces in hang a left and the trail comes out on the other side!

On Monday I spent some time exploring the Kayenta Trail to Lower Emerald Pool before taking the Emerald Pool Trail back to the Lodge and Grotto Trail back to the house (a leisurely 2-hour loop) -- and, of course, found some awesome subjects as the trail gradually took me above the river and tree line. Along the way I had a chat with a group of visitors from Spain, and spoke for awhile with one of the trail crews about the park's growing popularity and its impact its fragile desert eco-systems.

 one of the PAAI painters at work with an audience of visiting school kids

This week marks the annual Zion Plein Air Art Invitational and, for the first time since my arrival, I don't feel like the only painter in the park. (There have, of course, been other painters. But, in a park of this size, it has been easy to give one another plenty of working room.) The PAAI is an annual fundraising event for the Zion Natural History Association and is immensely popular with the public.

watching these clouds as they drifted along the canyon walls was mesmerizing

For a change of pace we were treated to a gentle rain and swirling clouds that obscured the peaks (very reminiscent of Chinese landscapes) on Wednesday -- perfect weather for getting lots done in the studio, and drinking more tea. But, despite the inclement weather I was very pleased to speak to a near-full house during my PAAI lecture, where I spoke about being an art adventurer and what I was achieving during my residency in Zion NP.

I was particularly pleased by the number and variety of questions following my PAAI presentation

One more week down, but I think the best one yet is still to come. So, I hope you'll join me again next time as my adventure in southern Utah continues. And, as always, thanks for letting me share it with you.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Greetings from Mukuntuweap! (Week 2 in Zion NP)

Mukuntuweap means “straight up land” and is the name given the canyon by its earliest Paiute inhabitants. It’s also the name of the National Monument first established in 1909. (The name was changed to Zion in 1918)

the view of Straight-Up-Land from partway up the Wiggles

Wow, yet another week has zipped by! Half way through my stay already but (Oh, boy!) I’ve got some delightful work done already, I’ve identified enough subject matter to keep me busy for half a dozen residencies, and (with the arrival of autumn colors) things are only getting better!

Getting About

Zion canyon is a parade of towering visual delights and, as you might imagine, the best way to explore is afoot. But, if you want to explore every nook and cranny of the canyon floor (and especially if you need to be able to reach a particular point of interest when the light is “just right”, you really need a means of transportation. The park is so popular, however, that touring the dead-ended Canyon Scenic Drive by private vehicle would be horrendous — resulting in gridlocked congestion, devastating air pollution, frayed nerves, and short tempers.

the shuttle -- the easiest, most environmentally friendly way to view the canyon

Fortunately, the Park Service has provided a brilliant alternative — free clean-burning, propane-powered shuttles that run from the Visitor Center at the South Entrance to the top of the canyon and back from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (with a new shuttle arriving at each stop every 8-15 minutes.) And Springdale operated its own free shuttles from the park’s south gate to the far end of town.

my "studio on wheels"

And, if visitors want to explore the canyon floor between shuttle stops, they can load one of the Zion Green Bikes (or their own bike) onto the shuttle’s bike rack and get off at any of the 8 stops up and down the canyon. (On my first outing I rode the shuttle to the top of the canyon, and then slowly cruise down canyon, stopping as often as a new vista caught my eye.) 

The Weekly Wrap-up

Mornings begin around 5:30. (I’ve tried sleeping in once or twice but get so excited about the trails I want to hike, and places I want to explore, that getting back to sleep just isn’t going to happen.) First light comes around 7 and the top of the west canyon wall catches the first rays of the rising sun around 8. The canyon floor remains in shadow until noon and, being high desert, the temperature can easily climb 30-40 degrees between early morning and mid-day (and then drop again as much as the canyon moves into shadow in late afternoon. Dressing in layers(and carrying plenty of water) is the norm for a day on the trails or in the backcountry.

late morning view from the Wiggles (late afternoon is even better!)

The park’s high season officially ended with my first weekend here and, accordingly, the daily shuttle service I’ve raved about was scheduled to shift to weekends-only for the winter this past Monday (Oct. 26), with the Zion Scenic Drive then opened to what has historically been a reduced number of visitors. Unfortunately, the park continues to grow in popularity and there were literally hundreds of cars waiting to turn up the road at Canyon Junction on the first day of the “off season.” I stepped out my front door and was assailed by the pungent smell of car fumes for the first time in a week and a half. And, by 10 a.m. Scenic Drive had reached its 400 car capacity (the maximum number of vehicles that can be allowed up-road and still permit emergency vehicles to respond to calls up-canyon). Park officials had to remain on the canyon floor and try to cope with the flood of would-be visitors and the parking dilemma, but I had the option to escape and headed up Walter’s Wiggles to Angels Landing for some peace and quiet and fresh air. Both the hike and the destination were sublime delights, and everyone on top seemed to be all smiles. (Why not? After all, we were among the angels.)

the west canyon wall illuminated by moonlight (go full screen and you should be able to see the stars)

moonrise over my cottage

To compound the traffic problem there was a brilliant full moon Monday night, so visitors could easily walk about the canyon floor after moonrise without the need for artificial lights. (In fact, the moonlight was so bright that everything in the canyon cast shadows and everything from the canyon walls themselves to the cottonwood leaves on the ground were clearly visible.) I blissfully recorded the amazing experience with camera and tripod, but had dozens of park visitors for company. And the Grotto parking lot (which had been empty for the past week and a half) had vehicles coming and going till midnight!

By Tuesday evening it was clear to park officials that the problem of overcrowding was not going to dissipate soon and contingency funds were found to reinstate the shuttles beginning Wednesday morning and continue the service till November 8, when it will return to weekend-only through Thanksgiving. (Hopefully, the visitor counts will be down by then.) 

New Tools 

After I’ve identified a particularly interesting subject during “scouting outings” this year I’m using a few new digital tools to help me determine the best time of day to paint or sketch it, and to enable me to navigate back to the exact vantage point when the time is right.

Theodolite -- this is the digital version of a traditional surveyor's tool; great for gathering details about subjects and vantage points. (And helpful in navigating back to them.)

GPS Essentials -- this app is chock full of useful features (but could use more tutorials for novices.) I especially like this customizable dashboard.

BackCountry Navigator -- is great for visualizing waypoints on a map (and for putting names to the landmarks you're looking at.) You can even specify which map system you wish to utilize. (I've used USGS here.) 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sunshine, Thunderstorms, and Flash Floods -- Oh My! (Week 1 in Zion)

My apologizes for the tardiness in getting my first Zion post online but, as I’m sure you can imagine, I’ve been very slow to take time away from exploring and art making to sit in front of a computer screen (and can only do it for brief periods before once again surrounding myself to the call of the wild.)

yea, I was disappointed too when they didn't give me a ranger hat 

My drive to "work" took three days and covered parts of four states... and was marvelous! 

the long drive

Day 1 was the longest, and most stressful (last minute double checking to avoid arriving at our destination only to discover something vital was left on the dining room table) although the stress usually gives way to euphoria within an hour of leaving home. The drive from Fort Worth to Albuquerque over rolling woodlands, through table-flat cotton country, and into Texas high desert scrub country. In New Mexico we passed through Billy the Kid country before we joining I-40 for the nighttime run into Albuquerque (with some very decorative lighting effects along the roadway and on overpasses.)

Day 2 had us awaking to the high desert scenery of the city... and discovering an unexpected classic car collection right across the street from our hotel.

I can imagine either one of these as a studio-on-wheels (altho' the Stutz won't carry as much)

Albuquerque to Flagstaff had us skirting the edge of the Four Corners area Indian Nations with their beautiful desert landscapes and sparsely populated vastness.

Arrival in Flagstaff was another after dark event, though much earlier than that into Albuquerque had been.

the last leg (up hill all the way)

Day 3 had us awakening in a mountain forest, descending through scrubland hills, and entering first the flat and then canyon country of the northern Arizona Navajo peoples.

my son's first cross-country drive (no extra charge for the mountain roads)

After passing through Page (and skirting briefly the edge of what I think is the most picturesque lake in America — Lake Powell) we began a series of climbs. The most notable began just after the Highway 89A turn off and was marked by a breathtaking turnout, where we stopped for the amazing views… and the kids ended up purchasing handcrafted jewelry from the four venders who maintained stalls within sight of their homes on the plain below.

shopping for jewelry on a mountainside was a delightfully serendipitous event

After the turnoff onto Route 9 at Mt. Carmel Junction we drove through rolling farm and ranch land before entering Zion NP through the east gate. Then came the amusement par ride: a mile-long tunnel that was so dark (no interior lighting) that I thought my headlights may have been burned out, followed by the most picturesque series of switchbacks I’ve ever driven in the US. Delightful!

beginning the switchback descent into the canyon

Met Gustava Hotskins, the park’s acting AiR Coordinator at the Human History Museum, received my White Pass (for driving a private car above Canyon Junction), got checked into the Grotto House, and dropped off all my gear.

At this point (thanks to the discovery of two folding cots in the house) the original plan for Misha and the kids to make the drive back to Flagstaff for the night was scrapped and we drove into Springdale for a very enjoyable patio dinner, followed by a visit to the Sol Market to stock up on provisions for my stay.

And, because the return to Flagstaff was cancelled and we found ourselves returning to the Grotto House after dark, we were able to come to the aid of a couple who were out on the no-lights Canyon Road after dark with no lights of their own… and having missed the last shuttle back into Springdale. After dropping off my groceries, wife and daughter, my son and I gave the couple a lift back to their hotel And, en route, learned that they had lost track of time during their climb to Angels Landing… when he stopped to propose to her. Thankfully, by the time we dropped them off the stress of trying to make their way in the dark had given way to relief and laughter and, hopefully, a memorable story to tell their grandchildren. (She said, “Yes.”)

our last photo together till my crew returns for me

Day 4 began with me seeing the family off to California and then I was out and about exploring — mouth agape at the shear beauty and vertical scale of my new surroundings. It seemed that, no matter which way I turned, there was a breathtaking scape to be captured on paper or panel!

the Pa'rus Trail between the Visitors Center and Canyon Junction

Day 5 — up well before dawn and work began in earnest. (What, you didn’t think I was going to work that in somewhere?) The canyons are a non-stop series of vistas. But, as a general rule, those on the west wall are going to be best lit in the morning while those on the east wall will be most dramatic in the afternoon. And some views — like the Watchman and the range south of Canyon Junction — are best during the “golden hour” just before sunset. So, I am out: identifying subjects I most want to sketch and paint, determining their compass bearing from my chosen vantage point, identifying nearby geological formations that may cast unwanted (or desirable) shadows, and determining the best time of day to capture the scene on paper or panel.

Day 6 — more scouting and mapping this morning — first on the river near the house and then up canyon. 

To minimize pollution, and curtail traffic congestion, in the canyon Zion NP and the town of Springdale have implemented two free shuttle systems — one running from the park entrance to the top end of the canyon, and one running from the bottom end of town to the park entrance. Add to that the bicycle the Park Service has provided my during my stay and I’m free to explore and discover every subject and vantage point on the canyon floor.

Popped down to the Lodge to introduce myself and to log onto their wifi (The folks at the Zion Lodge have kindly offered me VIP access to their wifi network for the duration of my stay so that I might get these weekly posts out to you.) and then hiked the half mile Grotto Trail back to the house to the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance. (It echoes majestically off the canyon walls and seems to go on forever.)

As I reached the house the sunny sky went dark and, within 10 minutes, the bottom fell out as a torrent of rain cascaded into the canyon… punctuated at the end by a hailstorm that peppered my windows and left the Grotto area carpeted in white. The surrounding canyon walls also sprang a dozen or so (in this area alone) new waterfalls with torrents cascading the 2000 feet or so to the canyon floor. It was all so exhilarating! (Of course, when a second storm struck in the middle of the night and I could hear the roar of the river — but couldn’t see the river’s edge — “exhilarating” was no longer the descriptive that came to mind.)

hard water?

Day 7 — the first week has flown by! I’ve discovered and experienced so very much already, with so much more yet to come. The summer warmth, with temperatures in the mid 80s, that greeted us has given way to fall temperatures that begin the day in the 50s. The sky alternates between brief glimpses of sunshine and overcast. But the morning is dry and OK for exploring (as long as I take my rain gear long, just in case.) And the afternoon showers are moderate. 

Up and down the canyon maintenance crews are out in force clearing the roads, trails (and lodge parking lot) of the red, clay-like residue of yesterday’s runoff. And I’m busy on yet another study, and enjoying a nice culpa tea.

Oh, PS, if any of you are going to be in Zion NP on Friday, Oct. 30, please join us at the Grotto picnic area at 3pm for a free Sketchbooking and Place-Based Journaling Workshop (Strathmore sketchbooks and Sakura pens included.) Hope to see you there!

NOTE: Future posts from Zion are likely to be briefer as I intend to spend more time afield. But I think you’ll find the content, and especially the images, interesting. Cheers!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Sunflowers, Rain Lilies and False Thistles (The Final Zion Prep Update)

8 days and counting! (In fact, between packing and traveling, things could get so busy that this may be the last prep post. 

thumbnail comp, graphite on Bloc Rhodia No. 13

Took some time out from all of the Zion prep for a week-long celebration of my daughter's sixteenth birthday. (Oh, they grow up so-o-o fast!) And then, to commemorate the momentous occasion, I knocked out an oil sketch of her tinted sunflowers as a little keepsake for her.

Kate's Sunflowers, 8"x6", Gamblin oils on Ampersand Gessobord

The weather is finally beginning to hint at autumn (at least at night, right around dawn, and in the evenings... mid-day? not so much.) And my hikes are becoming longer, and slower (which also means I'm getting to look, and perceive, more.)

Day Lilies, journal entry, w/c over pen & ink, Clairefontaine Douceur de l'ecriture

During one of these morning walks I paused to study a patch of rain lilies. At first glance I got the impression that the three-chambered seed pod grew out of the flower as both stood the same height above ground (pretty much the way a squash develops between the stem and the flower.) But, on more careful study I observed that there was a joint half way down the stem from the flower (with the upper stem segment telescoping out of the lower segment.) And, after evaluating several other flowers I reached the conclusion that -- after the flower has bloomed -- the lower stem continues to grow in height as the upper stem segment and flower begin to gradually wither and shrink. As the lower segment reaches the original height of the flower its tip begin to swell and the seed pod becomes visible. At full maturity the upper stem has dwindled to a short, string-like thread and the flower has all but disappeared. Fascinating!

False Purple Thistle (Eryngium leavenworthii) -- an indigenous plant popular with native bees,
w/c over pen & ink, Clairefontaine Douceur de l'ecriture

Then, later in the week (while out on one of my endurance hikes) I came across what I thought, at first, was some kind of purple thistle -- except it wasn't like any thistle I'd encountered before. The head was reminiscent of Scottish thistle (or, my wife said, a tiny purple pineapple) and the leaves were decidedly thistle-like. (The phrase "razor wire" comes to mind.) But the dry, woody stems were completely devoid of spines and easy to hold barehanded.

Nature is such a delight to behold when we simply learn how to slow down and open up to the wonders it offers us! I feel like a kid in the candy store (or John Muir in the mountains.)

Oh, one last note; the Park Service and I hope to offer two free journaling workshops during my residency (one toward the end of October, the other in early November.) So, if you're going to find yourself in the area and would like to join me for some nature sketching/travel journaling, check with the Zion National Park Visitor Center or stay tuned for updated details here.


Monday, September 21, 2015

Talking Rocks, Whispering Waters... and a Street View or Two (Zion Update 5.0)

(24 days and counting!)

California Coastline, 6"x8", oils on Gessobord

Some of you have noticed, no doubt, that craggy mountains and coastlines have been a recurring theme in my practice pieces during the run-up Zion. These two subjects are among my favorites -- both in landscape art, and as attractions in nature. And the link between red/orange mountains and the canyons of Zion NP isn't too hard to see. The snow, on the other hand, may simply be the wishful dreams of someone still in the firm grip of Texas summer heat -- although there is a slight possibility of snow in the high country before I leave Utah, and I want to be prepared to avail myself of the opportunity to play (um, that should probably read "paint" or "sketch") in the stuff, right?

High Sierras, 8"x6", oils on Gessobord

For anyone who has only visited Zion through images the link with water may not be so evident -- most photos, videos and paintings focus on the cliffs and desert trails, and Zion certainly doesn't offer the kind of float trips that the Grands Canyon and Big Bend NP are famed for. But it should be remembered that the tallest canyons in the US were sculpted by water, and in Zion that water is the Virgin River, and in some spots in the park the reflected blues and greens of the water team up with the reds and oranges and golds of the sandstone cliffs to present the visitor with breathtakingly sublime views. And, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, I'm going to do my best to capture them on paper, panel, still photos and video. (Wish me luck.)

A New Prep Tool --

the Grotto House, Zion NP, seen from the S side looking N

Wilderness adventures are a blast (and, yes, the canyon floor can get crowded at Zion National Park, but 90% of the park is wilderness with nary a crowd in sight.) But venturing far from home is best done with a bit of planning and preparation; after all, I don't want to get get all set up to do a light study of Angel's Landing and then discover I've left my brushes in Texas. If possible, I also want to avoid waste time during my adventure in Zion -- scouting out picturesque venues, determining compass coordinates, identifying nearby geological formations that might cast shadows (good or bad), and determining the best time(s) of day to get the most dramatic light effects.

the Grotto House -- viewed from the E looking W (above), and viewed from NNE looking SSW (below)

(I'm already thinking that, if I move a little to the right from this point, I might 
get a nice vertical image -- or two -- of house and canyon wall)

In the past, before visiting a new location, I would have read books and blog posts, looked at magazine articles and, if possible, contacted other artists who had already visited the location -- and I've done that again this year. But this year, thanks to Google, I've got a really neat new tool: Google Street Views!

Google Street View lets me "walk" the trail between Zion Lodge and the Watchman campgrounds, look in all directions, 
test potential compositions (see red box), and determine best time of day to get the optimum lighting effect 

Sure, you say, street views have been available for years on Google maps. But now there's so much more. (In fact, I don't doubt that a name change will soon be in order.) Now Google offers off-road views of trails in major parks and other sights of cultural or historical significance around the globe -- including some of the most popular trails in Zion National Park. And, thanks to the 360º feature, I can even scout for landscape subjects (try out composition options, and determine their compass heading from a particular point on the trail) before I even leave home (which, of course, means that I can start sketching and painting that much quicker once I arrive.) That's cool!

Walter's Wiggles, looking up trail (above) and, wow!, down trail (below) -- now this I'll have to draw, 
paint, video tape... or all of the above (my thanks to Ryan Allison for sharing this with the Google community)