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.

Painting the Redwood Road Barn

Surprisingly I found this barn right next to a bank on a busy road. It was halfway through rush hour and I knew I would only have two, or three hours of sunlight if I was lucky. I was sure I would get much done and it would probably turn out to be one of those paintings you hide in the closet, but I had to paint it.

Redwood Road Barn Oil Painting By Brady Allen

Redwood Road Barn 12×16 Oil Painting By Brady Allen

As I was tromping through the unclaimed field in front of the barn the man and woman who owned it came out of a nearby house and stared at me. I was holding my hands up making a rectangle with my fingers as plein air painters do, when I heard the woman shout to her husband “He’s holding his arms up doing this!” as she pantomimed my actions. I guess they decided I was mostly harmless as they didn’t come over and tell me to get lost.

So, after I was set up and had a good start painting I was surprised to hear a man with an asian accent “Oh, you paint good. Me love art!” A man and his family had pulled over on the street behind me and him and his daughter had walked halfway out into the field. I smiled and thanked them, and he told me he liked my painting and had to stop and tell me. After that he said he had to go and they got back into their red minivan and drove off.

I thought it was cool that he had stopped and went back to painting, when a few minutes later a woman’s voice said “That’s nice!”. I looked to see a woman who had obviously been riding hard sitting on a bicycle on the sidewalk. I thanked her and she told me how she thought it was neat that I found something beautiful in the middle of the city. She had a few miles left to get home and asked for my business card before riding off.

Evening was coming on, and I was deciding whether to pack up or paint a few minutes more, when I heard a third voice. “You’re awesome, man!”

Behind me decked out in red riding leathers was a kid on a red bullet bike.

“That’s a cool painting” he said.

I said “Thanks. Do you paint?”

He said, “I do a little art. You’re awesome, man! See ya!” and drove off.

I knew at that point that it was time to pack up and go. It’s always nice to get a boost from others when out painting, and who knows, maybe it helps make better paintings too?

Plein Air Painting Contests Utah 2012

Plein air painting competitions are a great way to view and buy art while enjoying the outdoor setting where the art was made. And if you’ve even been reluctant to speak to an artist, the open atmosphere makes it easy to say hello.

For artists, the benefits include getting out of the studio, meeting fellow artists, and possibly making a sale, or wining a prize.

If you know of any competitions I missed please let me know by leaving a comment.

Please check out the links for full details.

Ogden Arts Festival Plein Air Competition, Ogden, Utah June1-5. Artist’s fee $25 professional, $15 Amateur Quick Draw June 9th fee $25

Summerfest Art Faire, Logan, Utah June 14-16. Registration June 11th

Wasatch Plein Air Paradise, Midway, Utah June 27-30. Artist’s fee $10 before June 15
Heber City Paint Out, Heber, Utah July 2. Artist’s fee $10
Midway Paint Out, Midway, Utah July 3. Artist’s fee $10
Midway Quick Draw, Midway, Utah July 4. Artist’s fee $10

Helper Plein Air Competition, Helper, Utah August 16-19 Details Pending

Spring City Plein Air Painting Competition, Spring City, Utah August 29-September 1. Artist’s fee $10 per surface

Escalante Canyons Art Festival, Escalante and Boulder, Utah September 21-27. Fee $35 for artists $20 for art students

Plein Air Moab, Moab, Utah October 5-13. Registration October 5-6
Artist’s fee $45 before Sept 5

Plein Air Artist Invitational at Zion National Park, Zion National Park Utah, November 5-12 (invitation only)

Distinguish Your Art

Albion Plein Air
Plein air painting in Albion Basin

Whoa! Looks like I missed last week’s post. I’ll blame it on my cousin’s wedding on the weekend and leave it at that. Now back to our regular program.

I was with a group painting in the Albion Basin last Wednesday while the sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds. The photo above shows the study I was working on at about the halfway point.

I was pretty satisfied with the direction it was taking as the values were working and the general colors weren’t too far off, but I’ve been reading several books on painting recently and I’ve been playing around with how to finish a painting. This has me thinking about how one artist distinguishes his art from another’s.

I hate to bring up a time honored and time reviled (at least by me) phrase but I think it’s something that needs to be gotten out of the way. Just be yourself is advice I feel that is often used as a catch all statement when the person giving the advice actually doesn’t have any real answers. So, I’m going to break it down for you, and show you how it relates to distinguishing your art.

Ask yourself this, does an onion know it’s an onion?

The obvious answer is no, but what if the onion became self aware. Would the onion knowing it was an onion make it anymore oniony (trademark pending)? I don’t believe it would, but I think if an onion was self aware it could possibly make the onion less of an onion. So, if an onion tried to be itself, it might end up questioning what an onion was and if it was good enough to be an onion, and maybe it didn’t want to be an onion and instead thought that being a carrot would be better.

Just like the self aware onion, by trying to be yourself you might end up not being yourself.

The only way to be yourself is to stop trying to be yourself.

So, to distinguish your art, you have to stop trying to distinguish your art.

But, this is not an excuse to not improve your art.

You are not like the unchanging pyramids of Egypt. Part of who you are is the ability to improve, and to become better and greater than you are right now. Despite the League of Pigeonholers’s (also pending trademark) mandate to the contrary, you are an extremely complex and ever changing being and that is part of what makes you, you.

So, study other artists, do a few copies, draw more often, train your eye, and forget about being yourself. Yourself will always be there, and one day someone will say “I can always spot one of your artworks from across the room.”