A little over a year ago I had one of the most frustrating and stressful painting trips of my life when I visited Sedona for the first time. After experiencing the technical challenges of painting scenery that I was completely unfamiliar with, along with the feeling of ineptitude from trying to capture Sedona’s overwhelming beauty in 11×14 format, I swore I would never go back.
And then I did.
Despite some of the same technical challenges and feelings of inadequacy, and the addition of some severe weather, it was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. I feel like I’m finally privy to the magic of Sedona.
On the first day I was a little late getting into town so I decided to go to a spot where I’d painted before. The convenience of knowing the location and the scenery would afford me more time to concentrate on the painting. This painting in particular presents a great opportunity for me to show how far I’ve come over the last year. The one I did at this location during my last visit is one of the few that I haven’t worked on in the studio at all. And since I haven’t had a chance to work on the new one in the studio yet, you can see side-by-side what I was able to produce on-location a year ago vs what I’m able to do now. One was done in the morning and the other the afternoon, and one is a bit zoomed in on the same scene, but otherwise the days were pretty much the same. You can see how in the more recent one I did a better job of atmospheric perspective, and captured the feeling of foreground vs. distant trees. It’s still in need of a lot of work, but I’m getting farther along in the 2-3 hours I spend on-location than I did before.
The weather was pretty brutal on this trip, with highs well above 100, dry air and wind, and intense sun. Standing in the shade was a must. On the second day I found the most luxurious spot, right outside my motel room, in the full shade of the building for the morning. I was standing on a sidewalk, next to a little ledge where I could put my coffee. Compared to the rough wilderness spots I’m usually painting in, where I deal with severe weather, dust and dirt and miscellaneous bugs, and strange lighting situations, this felt like a spa day. I like the composition and promise of this one, and I thoroughly enjoyed the colors of this scene, although I can see where I made a few mistakes. I ran out of time when the sun encroached on my spot and beat me back inside for a siesta.
Those two paintings left me feeling pretty confident. And then everything went off the rails from there.
It was so hot that I couldn’t paint at all between about noon and 4pm. So I used that time to explore a few potential painting spots for the afternoon. I was trying to take the afternoon light into account, along with parking, finding a spot in the shade with a good view, trying to avoid the tourists, and limiting the amount of hiking I’d have to do. I thought I had found a perfect spot, but when I came back at 4pm it turned out I had horribly misjudged the lighting. I found my subject basked in direct light, with almost no shadows. In this scenery that’s a huge challenge to capture. It becomes about conveying all of the really subtle changes in the red of the rocks, playing up the differences in the different planes. But keeping it from becoming a flat painting is really hard, and not what I had in mind while also standing in a hot blow-dryer with cactus spines in my shoes. I was so frustrated after about an hour and a half that I just quit.
The next day I needed to get out of town by about noon to get home at a reasonable hour, but that left me able to do one painting in the morning. I found the most ideal spot, which I had seen on my run the night before, at the edge of a public park in dappled shade that would last all day, with a magnificent view. But a few minutes in I found myself struggling to make the paint work the way I’m used to. I think the humidity must have dropped significantly that day, since the paint was drying like acrylics. Acrylics are fine, but they’re a whole different animal, and I’m not used to working that way. If I had known, I would have brought a medium that slows down the drying process. This one too made me so frustrated I had to just quit. It’s one of the worst paintings I’ve done in years, which is doubly frustrating because the scene was so gorgeous and I was just so darn proud of the pleasant, peaceful little shady spot I found.
So two paintings show promise, and two I’m not sure I’ll finish. Compared to the feeling I had last time I was in Sedona, this is a huge improvement. Overall I didn’t feel that same stress that I felt last time. I approached the whole trip with more confidence and a more relaxed attitude, allowing myself the leeway to make mistakes and even to quit. After painting each day I took myself out to my favorite wine bar and enjoyed some live music and local beer, and then went for a late night run around the neighborhood where I was staying. The motel and neighborhood I stayed in was actually a mistake on my part, since I thought I had booked a place in West Sedona, but Oak Creek turned out to be peaceful and charming, ever so slightly less touristy, and there were some more secluded painting spots nearby. It was a happy accident, as so much of plein air painting is.
I think I left a little piece of my heart in Sedona this time. Even though it kicks my butt, it’s now on my list with San Simeon as one of my favorite places in the world to paint. I can’t wait to go back.