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From Plein Air Studies to Studio Painting

Last week I completed a painting of the early morning light on part of the hogback [rock formation running along the front range of the Colorado Rockies] at Devil’s Backbone Open Space at Loveland, Colorado, a Larimer County Natural Resources Park. I blogged about painting en plein air there 6 weeks ago, “A Quick Trip to Colorado, Paints in Hand“.

I am a believer in painting only what you experience. There is the occasional commissioned painting of someone’s scene from their own photo, or their dog or child, but I feel more strongly about the scene if I actually was there and I think that I make a better painting when I have a memory or feelings about the scene.

This certainly was true with Devil’s Backbone First Light. I blogged about looking one whole morning for the part of the hogback formation that I had remembered from my childhood, and about going the next day to Loveland to another part of the hogback with my sister and brother-in-law to hike, and then hiking it myself with my paints the following day while the sun was coming up, painting all morning, and hiking the trails again that afternoon with both sisters and their husbands and a couple of the grandkids. I was filled with powerful memories of the scene, made more significant by spending time with family there, and I had my 3 plein air studies, and my iPhotos. Only my memory held the actual lighting I wanted to portray — the photos were much less colorful than I remembered or than my plein air paintings indicated, but they provided better value comparisons and better perspective. My plein air works provided truer color, and the time spent painting en plein air imprinted certain details on my memory. If I had merely photographed the rocks, and not painted en plein air, I would not have remembered the yellow-green of the lichen and the pinks and lavenders of the sagebrush, and the tufts of grass growing between the rocks on top of the hogback.

I was thrilled to realize just how much the process had helped to make the painting. Below is Devil’s Backbone First Light, followed by the three studies I painted en plein air.

Oil painting of first light on Devil's Backbone, Laramie County, Loveland, Colorado
Devil’s Backbone First Light, 10 x20 oils on stretched canvas (click on image for purchase info)
Oil painting (study) at Devil's Backbone Open Space, Larimer County, Colorado
6×8 study, Devil’s Backbone, Loveland, CO
Oil painting (study) at Devil's Backbone Open Space, Larimer County, Colorado
4×6 study, Devil’s Backbone, Loveland, CO
Oil painting (study) at Devil's Backbone Open Space, Larimer County, Colorado
4×6 study, Devil’s Backbone, Loveland, CO

 

 

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A Quick Trip to Colorado, Paints in Hand

My dad, Harold Vienot (98 years old!) and Ranger Tom at Barr Lake State Park, Brighton, Colorado

Study of the fountain in the courtyard at Inglenook, Brighton, COI had an unscheduled week between painting in the St. George Island Paint-Out in mid-April and the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air in early May which I attend as a spectator, so it was a perfect time to take a quick trip to Colorado for a family visit. I stayed in the guest room at the retirement home where my 98-year-old Dad has an apartment, and I accompanied him to the on-premises cafeteria for meals in the daytime, but otherwise left him to maintain his routines and nap undisturbed while I entertained myself. One day I took him to the local state park, Barr Lake, where I think he enjoyed reminiscing with the ranger about old buildings that used to be in town as much as he enjoyed the scenic outing. His eyesight is still pretty good – he could see the herd of deer and a circling hawk after I pointed them out to him.

I had packed my small Guerrilla Painter kit, so I broke it out one afternoon to study the fountain in Dad’s courtyard. The light was changing fast, so I just settled for trying to get the shapes right for the overflowing bowls.

The next morning I left at sunrise to try to fine a land formation I remembered from my childhood, a part of the Hogback that we used to drive past sometimes on our way home from family day-trips to the mountains or to visit my cousins in Golden.

Deer in front of Red Rocks

The Hogback I remembered from childhood

Sherrie and Mark

Isaac Mark Sherrie Emma Trudy Steve at the Keyhole

Joan Vienot, hiking at Devil’s Backbone Open Space

The Dakota Hogback is an outcropping of rock that lifted up at a slant all along and in front of the Rockies. The sandwiching layers of earth and softer stone eroded away, leaving dramatic formations of of exposed rock, sometimes so beautiful that they are established landmarks, like Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Boulder Flatirons. The part I was interested in just looks like the spiny bladed back of a stegosaurus, and the road ran right alongside it. I drove out on I-70 towards the mountains, and I exited on Hogback Road. I stopped every now and then to take photos, but I drove all the way down to Littleton without finding the formation I remembered. On my return trip, I had high hopes for an area called Dinosaur Ridge, but the Hogback was not visible from the road there. Finally I crossed back over to the north side of I-70, and there it was, although as with all childhood memories, I remembered it being significantly bigger and also dramatically lit by the sunset instead of the midday sun. Of course the road is now paved, and travel is at 60 mph instead of a bumpy 45 over gravel. So there it was, and then it was gone. But I was thrilled to have found it.

That weekend I drove to Greeley to visit with my sister Sherrie and her husband Mark, and we went to the Hogback west of Loveland, a county-maintained recreational area called Devil’s Backbone Open Space. We scouted the hiking trail for a place for me to paint the next day. We found a beautiful overlook, and the next morning I hiked up at sunrise with my painting gear, and I painted in bliss all morning. At noon my other sister Trudy and my brother-in-law Steve were joining us, so I went back down for lunch and then we again hiked the easy trail along the beautiful, craggy Hogback formation there.

Joan Vienot, painting at Devil’s Backbone Open Space

It was interesting painting the Hogback at sunrise. Normally, vertical shapes are darker than flat horizontal surfaces, because horizontal surfaces receive more light from the sun and the sky. But early in the morning the opposite was true, because the sun was lighting the side of the rock formations. As the morning progressed, both surfaces seemed to be equally lit, and then finally at midday, the ground colors became washed out as the vertical rocks grew darker.

I was puzzled by the receding meadows of sage and grass. The near field was a mix of dusty-green and lavender shapes, but the more distant fields seems to be a brighter yellow-green. Normally, more distant planes become bluer and lighter, and much less saturated. I decided the Colorado air was deceiving me. But later, as we hiked along the rock formation and passed beside those fields, I saw that they actually were made up not of sagebrush and grasses, but instead they were carpeted with small, bright yellow wildflowers! When I was painting, my eyes did not deceive me, I simply did not believe my eyes!

I so enjoyed painting at Devil’s Backbone Open Space that I would like to go again, and spend about a week there. As I think about my art career which only just now is really getting off the ground, now that I have fully retired from my career in swimming pool service, this would be the ideal way to travel, going to an area and instead of trying to see it all, finding something that particularly excites me, and then spending a whole week painting it.

I see and experience so much more when I paint. If I am driving, I will stop and shoot a lot of photos, but being still for several hours in one spot, painting, affords an absorption of experience that is unsurpassable. And the process also includes just getting there! On my hike I surprised a couple of deer near the trail, and also a rabbit who eyed me warily. And on the opposite cliffs, 4 deer walking the ridge were silhouetted against the sun. The day before, we watched a kestrel trying to scare away a big owl perched on a ledge in the cliff of the Hogback. And I found the most brilliant yellow in the lichen on the rocks, as bright as any wildflower! These are things you just don’t see if you are moving too quickly. I so love the Great Outdoors, and strongly feel the necessity of preserving and protecting it. So I document it, or at least my impression of it.

Yellow Lichen