I’m not sure how I became an ocean painter. Maybe it all started with the charcoal drawing I did of a metal bucket in Drawing I. Before anyone ever told me that reflective surfaces are hard to render, I was in love. Drawings of glass followed. Then water sucked me in. I’ve never even been that attracted to the coast or the ocean, and somehow I found myself gravitating to the water and honing my skills on waves and beaches, and now it’s sortof a comfort zone. A challenging comfort zone, and one I don’t always render accurately, but a comfort zone nonetheless. So much so that most of my painting trips have been to coastal locations, and I can never seem to bring myself to head East.
Last weekend I toodled through Arizona in search of much different vistas. Sedona was my destination, but I booked one night in Phoenix so that I could paint saguaros. White Tank Mountain Regional Park looked perfect on google street view, and it did not disappoint in-person. It was the most incredible place to paint. The weather was perfect and hardly a soul was at the end of the road where I parked. Although as I hunted for the perfect saguaro I noticed that it kindof looks like they’re all flipping us off, it didn’t take me long to find the perfect specimen to paint, with a beautiful southwestern mountain backdrop in the afternoon sun. That painting turned out better than I expected, despite my running out of daylight to complete it in. I left feeling optimistic about Sedona’s red rocks.
Sedona was overwhelming. It is a beautiful place, but translating it to a painting is a daunting prospect. I still felt optimistic as I started my first one, in my usual little 9×12″ size, but within about 15 minutes I felt like the painting was failing. It was a feeling I wouldn’t shake the whole time I was there. I haven’t felt so stressed or so demoralized about my paintings in a long time. I had to keep reminding myself that all my paintings used to feel this way, I think, and the process is worth it just for the practice if nothing else. I was also pushing myself to work in a bigger size, which I find challenging even in my usual scenes. Except for one 9×12, I worked in 11×14 the rest of the time.
So what, exactly, was so hard? Getting that red just right. In the sun it’s much lighter than you’d think. But if you go too light you lose the red. Light red is pink and those rocks aren’t pink. But they aren’t light orange either and don’t put too much yellow in or you’ll have to add more orange and then you’ll need more white but then it’s not red enough. OMG the mixing, trying to get to THAT red made me crazy. In the shadows, that red is much more purple or blue, but there’s still that red-ness to convey. And then there’s all these conifers that grow all over the red rocks, and their blue-green color in light and shadow. Then there’s some not-red mountains around, and other types of shrubbery, and sometimes a river and let’s not forget the perfectly blue sky that is somehow too blue to actually be that value. Add in painting wet-into-wet so you make mud when your red rocks mix with your green conifers, your purple shadows with your golden highlights. All while accurately rendering the shapes of some very complex rocks. It was maddening.
I usually tone my canvases, because it’s easier than painting on a white surface and because the underlying tone can influence the painting in wonderful ways. My typical tone is anywhere from a muted golden tan to a brick red, and it does magical things to an ocean scene. I wasn’t sure how to tone my canvases for Sedona’s red rocks, so I brought a few of my usual, plus some done in a turquoise blue. Along the way I learned that none of these tones are right, and if I could do it again I would probably go with a very light golden yellow.
Sedona is supposed to be a magical, healing, energetic place. I spent most of my time cursing it and swearing that I’d never return. But my painting locations were amazing. It’s easy to get off the trails in Sedona and find secluded spots with views, where nobody will ever find you much less disturb you. It wasn’t even that hard to find little shady spots here and there under a pine or cottonwood, and I haven’t painted in such ideal weather in a very long time.
When I got home I went out to my studio and breathed a sigh of relief to see all my recent ocean scenes that make me feel like a proper painter. Then I propped my recent red rock paintings up on shelves in my studio, next to those beach scenes, and started to feel better about them. For some reason they fit in with all the others. The vibrant red and starkly different scenes feel good mixed into my stacks of unfinished work. I started to see some redeemable qualities in a couple of them. I started to think I might keep them in the “finish these” stack rather than the “just practice” stack. And then I started to think about going back.