Short Story: Two Artists Search for Someplace Better

Two lanes and no shoulder, the wet asphalt slithers before us like squid ink linguine fresh from some giant cauldron of boiling water. It was the wettest summer in decades and afternoon storms had become a not surprising bane of our efforts to paint outside every week. Rowena was at the controls of her burnt orange Honda Element, The Pumpkin she called it. It was styled like a hollow box on wheels, but it was terribly convenient for hastily and easily packing whatever inside, as our only slightly damp mound of plein air gear attested to. We were ostensibly scouting new locations for future painting trips, but the hilly country covered in Dijon mustard hued grass kept rambling on as the miles passed beneath our tires.

Photograph of a black top road going into the distance amisdst a green and brown grassy western landscape.

“Do you see any place you want to stop?” She asked.

I let spots of grey green sage brush and dark rain soaked wooden fence posts flash by on both sides for a moment before I answered.

“Let’s keep going.” I finally said.

I was in a languid mood, and I hated it, but things weren’t right. We had one rule on these trips, if one of us saw something we wanted to paint we just had to mention it and we would stop. But why couldn’t I open my mouth? Over there, next to the lake that was a brighter shade of celadon, was a knoll of a hill. I reasoned it had been left behind by an Everest sized glacier from the last ice age, or maybe it was the remnant of a sandbar from ancient Lake Bonneville. Either way, the clouds had broken, and a window of light was illuminating the top of the knoll with a color the exact shade of a bottle of 1605 recipe Chartreuse. It was beautiful, but was it worthy of a painting? What would the background look like? Didn’t the top of the hill create a tangent with the mountain across the lake? Maybe if we drove a little farther we would find someplace better.

It was another day and we were driving again. We were heading up Emigration Canyon, a place neither of us had been before. But we realized that wasn’t entirely true. At the mouth of the canyon Rowena stopped The Pumpkin to let a woman with perfectly coiffed blonde hair, and her three straggling children cross the road in front of us. Their destination, Hogle Zoo, was on the other side of the road. The first time I went to the zoo I was twelve. It was a field trip with my school. When we boarded the bus to leave, I heard other kids talking about seeing tigers and wolves. I realized I had missed half of the animals. The woman and children finished buying their tickets and disappeared between the totem-like pillars of the entrance. Rowena and I looked at each other. Should we paint at the zoo? I had seen the tigers and wolves since, but the road that went beyond the zoo was fresh.

Spindly branches with the look of desperate growth and unbelief in predictions of continued summer rain formed tunnels of cadmium green. I imagined The Pumpkin was the only thing not green for miles, except for the wool grey of the pavement, but it was clearly losing the battle in keeping the vegetation at bay. To a high desert dweller’s senses the verdant land was unexpected and joyful at the time of year when brown was the expected dominant color. But there was too much of it. Sightlines and open space that let a painting breathe were non-existent. That was the excuse we exploited to keep on driving. If we kept looking, there would be someplace better just up ahead.

The road finally crested. Before us was a hill-ringed reservoir with a single miniature boat speeding at the rate of a cooling lava flow across the water. A hot reflection from the surface stabbed at the eye. The rain must have skipped this part of the landscape. Crackly yellow grasses and tan-grey weeds dominated the undulations. There wasn’t a spot of green or even a single tree within throwing distance of the water’s edge. It was the surroundings of a typical Utah lake.

“Do you want to go check it out?” She asked.

I was silent. The only sound came from the idling engine and the blowing of the air conditioning as the Honda paused where the road split. Left led down to the lake. Right followed the ridge out of the canyon. There had to be someplace better, more exciting subject matter to paint, farther on.

“No, go right.” I replied.

We were at a different fork in a different canyon. One hundred foot tall pines cast the pavement in shadow, and like a slot canyon the only way to see the sky was to look straight up.  It didn’t appear promising for a painting, but we were thirsty and Rowena remembered there was a spring in this canyon and thought this might be the spot. She parked The Pumpkin just around the bend on the left fork.

Even before we opened our doors the rumble and hiss of falling water permeated through the car walls. Only thirty feet from the road, water from a bulging creek rolled down the mountain and into a culvert under the road before it continued its gravity powered journey. The earthy smell of the forest floor and the acidic spike of pine clutched at the nose. A fallen tree hovered above the waterfall, the banks on either side providing just enough clearance to keep it from becoming a dam. Fresh summer greenery flecked with white and yellow flowers made the foreground, and a small ravine, obscured into mystery by the low boughs of the pines, twisted behind the creek. This unsought place was someplace better. It was time to set up our easels and paint.

Heirloom Tomatoes Still Life Painting

When it comes to painting there are artists that have a plan and those who don’t. I’m more of a don’t have a plan kind of guy. It probably stems from my inherit dislike of painting or drawing something more than once. In fact it’s rare that I will repeat a subject, except for maybe people, but that’s another post.

My plan for the heirloom tomatoes, if you can call it a plan, was, “Those suckers are going to rot, so I better paint them first.”

With such a detailed plan it was clear that I was going to have to paint in a window-blind fashion. But instead of a normal window-blind method where you start at one side and work your way to the other side rendering everything as you go, (like watching a scroll unreel) I thought I’d paint each individual tomato and throw in just enough background to help me find the values.

With my highly refined charcoal under drawing to guide me, I started to throw paint until I had something that resembled a tomato. Well, I wasn’t actually throwing paint, but I tend to practice what I call brute force painting where I just keep putting paint on the panel until what I’m painting looks like what I want it to look like.

I find it much easier to not have a plan while painting still life, since it’s easy enough to just move one of the objects if you discover your design for the painting looks like a crazed Capuchin monkey half way through lobotomy surgery directed the arrangement.

Painting Outside Hawk Edition

When you spend a lot of time outside sitting in the same place I’ve come to the conclusion that nature sees you as either a meal or a non threatening part of the landscape.

Mosquitoes and insects of all sorts usually take the meal approach and have a tendency to fly into any opening, ears, nose, eyes, that they can find. But when you aren’t fighting the insect kingdom, you sometimes get to see other creatures, such as the hawk in this video.

Or is it an eagle? My friend I was painting with thought it might be a golden eagle. I wasn’t sure.

The hawk must have gotten too close to another bird’s nest, as a few minutes later this small bird attacked the hawk, latching on to the feathers behind the hawk’s head and mercilessly pecking at the top of the its skull. The hawk wasn’t having too much of that and tried to escape, but the other bird kept at it until the hawk got the message and flew away.

Plein Air Painting an American Fork Canyon Waterfall

American Fork Falls Setting
American Fork Falls Plein Air Setting

Last Friday a friend and I went up American Fork Canyon and found this spot to paint. Everything was green, which is unusual for Utah since it’s considered a high desert.

Most painters lament the green this time of year since it can make for an all green painting, and try to escape to the beach or someplace with more variety. I didn’t mind since brown is the norm for Utah during summer, and this brought back memories of driving to the Oregon coast.

This waterfall was a deceptively complex scene. There is a lot more going on than you can take in at a glance so I tried to simplify it with the drawing.

American Fork Falls Plein Air 1

I didn’t spend a lot of time on the lay in since I knew that I would have to leave out a lot of stuff and until I started putting down paint I wouldn’t know what or how much. After the drawing my main concern was getting the values right. This meant blocking in large shapes at first.

American Fork Falls Plein Air 2

There is a drawback to all the rain and green, and in between colors I fenced with mosquitoes who didn’t understand that bug spray was supposed to keep them away.

American Fork Falls Plein Air 3

We had gotten a late start since we drove around a bit before deciding that this was the place to paint, so at this point the light had changed completely and there was no point on continuing. This was fine with me since I was not happy with the values anyway.

American Fork Falls Plein Air 4

A few days later we made it back to paint and I had figured out the values at this point. The problem was that the background was nearly as dark as the darkest dark in the foreground, and the usual way of thinking of a scene is the opposite, where the background gets lighter.

This sped things up and I was able to start dropping in the shapes of trees, leaves, and the small waterfall behind the fallen log.

American Fork Falls Plein Air 5
This far along I started getting more concerned about the design, and I realized why there aren’t a lot of paintings of fallen logs. The barkless trunk of the tree makes a very dramatic contrast to everything else, which is nice, but it also leads the viewer’s eye straight out of the painting like a big arrow.

While I was pondering my options the light changed again, and that meant I would have to come back at least one more day.

The next day I really wanted to finish and thought I knew how to handle the design problem, but it was overcast and the bugs were going crazy so there wasn’t much progress.

Then it began to thunder.

I gave the weather guessers the benefit of the doubt that it wouldn’t rain while listening to several peals, but then the bugs went away, and I knew a storm was coming.

American Fork Falls before rain

The picture above is about two minutes before the rain and hail hit. Luckily I had the painting in a box and was almost to the car when it struck. The painting survived but I got soaked packing everything up. But, I did learn a new appreciation for my hat as hail stones bounced off of it, and not my skull.

American Fork Falls oil painting by Brady Allen
American Fork Waterfall oil painting on panel 11×14

The next day I was not in any mood to go back up the canyon, and I had been staring at the view for three days, so I was confident I could finish it in the studio.

Getting away from the actual scene proved to be a benefit as I noticed the close bank of the river funneled the shape of the water down in an awkward way. It didn’t need much change to fix it, but I might not have caught it in the field until too late.