Dear Reader, This will be an extensive project that includes a preliminary painting for the sole purpose of practicing and studying the values, colors and problems in this panorama. The Grand Canyon is very difficult to paint as its geology and geometry defy logical surface modeling.
Here is the goal. This is a slightly posterized version of a photo I took during a recent vacation to the north rim in September
during Fall colors. There are some bright yellow-gold Aspens on the canyon edge.
The San Francisco Peaks, where I live, are visible in the background. Even this far away I remain personally connected.
Each panel of the final painting will be 12" wide x 18" high. Overall width will be over four feet. This will require a lot of color correction and value work. Here goes!
Part One... The Preliminary Study
10/06/03... the beginning
As I've indicated many times I do most of my paintings on masonite panels. In these photos you can see how I build an attached frame on the backside, quite similar to a canvas frame. It gets sanded and spackled and sanded again. I then glue the paper drawing to the rough surface of the masonite. Here you can see these steps. You can also see my pencil drawing of the canyon panorama, or at least a chunk of the final painting, for practice. I often do not use a drawing but the canyon is so specific it must be recognizable. I am forced to "paint within the lines." This practice panel is 26" x 16".
When the above process is dry I do two things. On top of the paper drawing I paint a clear coat of acrylic gel to both seal the surface and to provide a nice brush stroke texture.
Then I paint several coats of black paint on the sides. While this is drying I began to do some color sketching.
I want to soften and simplify this palette to create a more pleasing finished piece, something easier to live with over time. On a small panel previously painted solid with Burnt Umber I painted this extremely simply sketch. I'm not interested in accuracy of the drawing at this point, just the color, the simplest color possible. I've reduced my sketch to about six colors to see if it works. Any experienced painter will tell you of the freedom within a limited palette. It's a start.
Preliminary study... just getting started. As I've mentioned I want to do this practice painting before I tackle the whole thing. This represent a portion of the final four panel mural.
I've blocked in the shadows portion of the drawing. The process is very much like carving or sculpting in that the shadows reveal the most basic form. Even though it is extreme it does help it look like buttes with form.
What I'm Thinking
I'll share with you what is in my mind throughout this painting, the "big shapes" and the color perspective that makes it work. Every color I mix and its placement will always be influenced by these dynamics that make color perspective work. As my teacher from Italy used to say, paint what you know, not what you see. The camera has only one eye and doesn't record reality. And the purpose of this preliminary painting is to study what's happening with color, shape and distance.
In Photoshop I've created this simple sketch to explain what I see as the big dynamics underneath the painting. There are large planes beneath all landscapes that make things work. The great paintings all follow these rules.
In this picture the first large plane is the sky, with the darker color above and the lighter color below, as with every sky. The second largest shape in this painting is the far south rim of the Grand Canyon. Although lacking much contrast it remains true that the left side of the rim is further away and therefore a bit lighter. This also verifies that the light is coming from the west, or the right, as we're looking south. The third largest shape in the scene is the huge butte which dominates the picture. There are blends within the details we must keep in mind. These blends are more apparent in real life, where we can look with two eyes. The camera doesn't do this as well. The camera also turns the distance more blue than it really is, this manufactures false dark values. Copying a photograph is an amateur's mistake.
As always the greatest fidelity, contrast of color and value, is right in your face, up close. All color and value becomes lighter and grayer, absence of yellow, as it gets further away. All of the secondary shapes fall into their respective places within this formula. This will be apparent as we build the additional buttes and other details.
The underpainting is complete here. The simplicity itself is attractive. Reminds me of Ed Mell's work.
In this brief session, following my own intentions explained above, I've begun blocking some of the distant shapes while also building the subtle blend of the far south rim wall. I've also begun developing the sky blend. Each one of the "big" dynamics builds the great panorama and largeness of the atmosphere.
Here I've done some more work on the south rim. This area is so easy to over work. Time to complete the sky blend.
Here, the distance portion of this study is complete. I've repainted the sky, realizing that it needed to be lighter. This also meant making the mountain range lighter, including the small blend from right to left. Next I will begin work on the butte in the foreground.
Continuing to develop the "skin" color and texture of the form of the butte.
You'll notice that I'm intentionally working only in the areas in the sunlight, ignoring the shadows at this time. It is also a "technique" or "device" in oil painting to leave shadows more void of detail and to add more detail where the light is bright or brittle. This enhances the whole affect. Many times while doing a painting I've made the mistake of over working the shadows and spoiling the focus. Remember, painting is the process of simplification, capturing the elements that make it work, ONLY.
Otherwise it provides no experience beyond what a photograph can do.
Finally, some actual detailed work on the butte formation. Here you see my color palette and a close up of a portion of the Coconino Sandstone chunks which still sit over the great Supai Group within this butte just off the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The work on the Supai Group is very early in development.
Paint colors used, and seen here, are titanium white, naples yellow, permanent sap green, cobalt blue, indian red and black. The mixed puddles were all created from these raw tube colors.
Today I took the time to paint most of the Supai Group formation. I realize again the value of doing a practice painting. What I've learned will be invaluable on the final mural.
In this brief painting session I blocked in the under color of the fall aspens in the lower left corner.
In this painting session I had the pleasure of painting in the areas in shadow. This is always exciting as it finishes the statement and lets me know how much more light and fidelity is needed in the areas in the bright light, which I've also increased in this picture. Detail and contrast have been understated for the sake of the painting's intent, to create excitement over the part of the butte in afternoon sunlight. This is where one artistically "edits" what a camera sees. Discretion becomes the greater skill. In my posterized photo at the top of this page you see how dark and blue the shadows become in a photo. Scanning through copies of Arizona Highways magazines you'll see this over and over, particularly where the photographer used a polarizing filter to add contrast. When you stand there in real life it doesn't look like that.
The "painter" must bring skill and discretion to the problem by using a controlled and mellow palette. This is even more true when using photos for your reference.
I managed to complete this "practice" study over the four day Thanksgiving weekend. So here it is.