Learning how to paint (red rock)

Every day here in still-new-to-me southern Utah I feel a little dazed.

Do I really need to drink this much water to survive? Is that red rock fake, or is that truly its glowing color? How does this one city have so much ice cream (not complaining)?

After years of painting mostly snow and the jagged, glacially carved mountain landscapes of Alaska, I’m currently intrigued by what’s all around me: sandstone. I want to paint hoodoos. There are so many new flowers. The textures are so varied.

With all this newness, I get excited to sit down and paint. While I’m out doing whatever ridiculous and, for me, bucket-list level excursion I enjoy it, take lots of pictures, and think about how I might translate what I’ve experienced to canvas.

Later, I choose one photo reference to hone in on. I study it carefully, and then get my whole painting kit set up in the Mobile Studio – easel, paints, water, brushes, palette knives, and the tupperware I use as a palette (the lid helps me retain the mixed colors longer in this dry climate). 

And then, brush hovering above the blank canvas, I remember: I’m learning how to paint something entirely new.

One of the things I love and hate most about painting is, like life, it keeps me on my toes. No two paintings are alike. I never sit down to paint and think, aha, I know exactly how I’ll do this. Think art, not science. 

While that keeps painting exciting, it also can give me enormous anxiety. I have to do a lot of self-coaching around taking deep breaths and backing away from fear, or at least refocusing. I can hold respect both for what I know and what I don’t, and trust that I can and will figure it out. But it takes consistent work to maintain that perspective, especially when I’m not yet familiar with the subject.

When, mid-painting, the colors don’t look right, or the contrast is too brutal, or the texture isn’t quite how I want it, I have to talk myself down. See what you see, I remind myself. Try something new. Or, keep going with what you decided and see where it takes you.

Play. Breathe. Enjoy it. You’ll get there.

I took on not one, but two red-rock inspired paintings recently. I started with hoodoos, such a fascinating and otherworldly geologic formation. Scrutinizing my progress, I found the knife edge between uncanny vs glowing and vibrant narrow, and I had to keep playing with the colors to get the balance right.

Similarly, painting tafoni (which is the most exciting word I’ve learned in a while!) taught me patience and trust with layering yellows, indigo/purples, and pink/red hues until the balance finally (finally!) came together.

It turns out, this perspective of coolly managing uncertainty with patience and play is a good approach for approaching new things, generally. I still make it to my end point. I like the results of the two paintings I completed. But I’m working on, and in some ways painting difficult and new subjects teaches me, enjoying the process itself more, even and especially when I’m creating and learning as I go.

Photos from my recent paintings, including progress pictures along the way, below!

2 Comments on “Learning how to paint (red rock)

  1. I love the brilliant blue in contrast with the soft tones of the rocks!

    • Sylvia, thank you! I’m so glad that comes through in the paintings.

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