Sunset at El Tovar

The Grand Trip: Plein Air Out West

Along the Rim—Yavapai Point
Along the Rim —Yavapai Pont. 8 x 16, oil on linen.

This was painted on a day that I went out with Dario. Just about ten minutes from the lodge we were staying in. I started this Plein air and finished it up in the studio. I got this idea the day before while walking along the rim and noticing these beautiful cedar trees and the interesting rocks that they have in this area to define the trail. I thought a wide format would work nice with this and I brought several 8×16’s along. The strong silhouette and the diagonal from top right to bottom left just worked themselves in with this. My wife says it reminds her of Art Nouveau, I guess it’s those sinuous cedars.

Leon Holmes and Dario Falzon in the desert north of Tucson

My good friend, Australian painter Leon Holmes has visited places in the US that I have only dreamed about and this September he messaged me in FB to see if I would like to go with him to the Grand Canyon in the Spring—of course! A big red check off on my list of places to see and paint and one that all Americans should visit. We’ve all become so casual about the wonders right in our backyards, it took a bloke from Perth to put the bur under my butt and get to it. As we developed our plans, Dario Falzon, another great painter from down under was added to the mix so a trio of us was destined for an adventure out west.

I did most of the planning because of my relative nearness and we decided to stay on the South Rim inside the park at the Yavapai Lodges. This was a cheaper alternative to one of the classic lodges right on the rim and since we were to stay seven—revised to six days it was still a considerable cost for lodging. Splitting everything three ways, although complicated made it affordable for all of us. In a perfect world, or for an overnight you might splurge and stay at Bright Angel or the magnificent El Tovar Lodge right on the South rim. As it was, we spent quite a bit of time in that area and frequented the bar at El Tovar where the chili and beer are recommended!

The view at Mather Point

Back to the start though. Dario and Leon were guest demonstrators at the Plein Air Convention in Tucson so I flew in there, rented an SUV, and picked them up for the 400+ mile drive to northern Arizona and the canyon. I was too busy to attend the convention, but it certainly was in a great spot —The El Conquistador Hilton Resort just north of town. Tucson is famous for being hot, and it was that, plus the sprawling airplane graveyard at Davis Monathan AB, and the big, many armed Saguaro cactus. On the way out of town, we stopped for an hour and ran around in the desert, looking at them and all the rest of the unusual plants. This was a first for me and I was enthralled by the look of the place and the landscape—I wish we could have taken a few hours for some painting but after an hour of photos and fun we got on I-10 and headed north. Catching up with Leon, watching the cactus, and meeting Dario for the first time made the time and miles fly by. We got into the park after sundown and discovered that it was national park week so free of park fees!—almost like we planned it.

Dario at Hermit’s Rest

The next morning we were up before dawn and to the nearest rim location Mahler Point. What can you say? Just a look into that huge void with endless ridges, buttes, washes, and a cascade of color from blue to vivid reds, oranges, and pinks. It was my first introduction to what has become an intensifying quest to understand the geology and purpose for all that goes on thousands of feet below the rim. We set up right away and got to work. I brought a 12 x16 wet box with me full of linen boards plus about a half dozed 9 x 12s and a bunch of 8 x 16 mahogany ply boards—just in case!  My idea was to tape off smaller sections on the 12 x16 to different sizes but in the end, I worked mostly in 12 x 16. Capturing a bit of the rim gives images some scale but a rimless view can be more majestic. The 9x12s were almost an afterthought but in the end, they were good for quick oil sketches. Leon worked almost exclusively on 8 x16s the entire week and Dario did smaller square paintings featuring more of the rim. I leaped headfirst into the larger size and even though the proportion of the board is, to me, a bit generic they suited the landscape well allowing me to get some foreground in most of my work along with a lot of the canyon. I’m used to being out by myself and working at my own pace. Not to say I’m slow, but the boys were quicker because they were working smaller so I felt a bit rushed. Leon and Dario are world-class plein air painters and I was pleased to be in their company. I’m still working my way through issues I have with impressionism versus realism—I like the realism of Joe McGurl, Joe Paquet, and others but my skills and spontaneity give my work more of an impressionist flair. Some days I’m fine with that, other days I’m searching for a more representational look and that takes time. Let’s face it, the subject is beyond what most of us paint to the extreme and it takes a lot of resolve not to overpaint and over-explain what you are seeing. Virtually all my work, has been reworked —not unusual, but my best work I find is resolved before I leave the spot of inception. Only rarely do I achieve the results I’m going for with retouching in the studio.

Yoseminite Sam
Cahill on his way back from Horseshoe Mesa

The week is a bit of a blur to me now a month later but we were up early and painted until dusk nearly everyday so I have early and late light views from all around the south rim. We found that taking a siesta at mid day removed a lot of the flat light issues we were having and gave us energy in the afternoon. Most visitors are only at the canyon for a day or two but we had the advantage of six days of exploration—still we only scratched the surface of that fantastic place. On the day before we left I hiked down a few miles below the rim by myself. I followed the trail towards Horeshoe Mesa but never came close to getting there. It was a difficult hike with all my gear, jarring on the way down and brutal on the way back up. I did a small 9×12 about two miles below the rim that only slightly conveys the feeling of looking up at the rim instead of down from it. I wish we could have spent a few days down near the river but the time and effort are immense. As it was, I tested my 60-year-old frame cumming back up — registering 47 floors on my iPhone health app. All for one shot a trying to capture the feeling on a 9 x12 canvas board. As an American, I felt responsible for achieving something significant artistically. That’s a lot of pressure and in a way, it was entirely a wrong way of approaching it. Just go and see and paint like you would anything else—easy to say.

We cut our trip short so we could spend a lazy day driving to Las Vegas— a smart idea as it worked out. We drove West we stopped at several spots on Route 66 and the Hover dam before getting to the craziness of Vegas. Leon and I flew back to Atlanta while Dario returned home to Sidney. We attended the Olmsted Plein air the next weekend then he traveled on to Apalachicola for the Forgotten Coast gig. I stayed home and began my revisions on the work. After several weeks I’m still working my way thru, trying not to ruin the impressions but yet ad some of the drama and awe that I experienced.

Moran Pont Sunrise
Mather Point Sunrise. 12 x16″, oil on linen.

This was the first painting I did. We set up right on the south rim from this famous, and probably most viewed part of the canyon. It’s right near the main park facility and only minutes from our lodge. We were up before dawn but I don’t think we got here until a few hours after. Leon did a wonderful 8×16 here that the tourists were paying a lot of attention to. This is almost straight plein air —very little was done to this in the studio. Most notably the background darks were blued and lighted a bit. I was working almost twice the size that the boys were and I’m a bit methodical as it is—I guess this was three hours.  This is one of the few paintings I did with a tree in it—it’s called a “rim job” when you get a bit of the foreground in. The depth of a 12 x 16″ format pretty much coerced me into this formula throughout the week.  

The Desert View Watchtower. 12 x 16″ oil on linen.

The Desert View Watchtower is one of the coolest parts of the park— we drove out in the afternoon of the first day. About a week earlier I saw a FaceBook post from a fellow painter with a photo of this tower in it and I freaked out—It’s just so cool!  It’s was designed as a companion piece to the older lodges by Mary Colter. It’s pure fantasy, sort of like the Palace of Westminster – looks old, but it’s not. Built in 1932, but looks like something out of medieval Europe. It has and Native American theme to it inside but I’ve never seen anything like this. When we got there I was anticipating that the light would change dramatically and the top would darken but as the afternoon progressed the light went from left to shadows on the right. The original Plein air was pretty good but I had such a vision of what this should be that I’ve eventually changed a lot. I’m still working on it—needs a bit more atmosphere up top and I put in the ravens because they were such a big part of the experience. Everything in my left side brain said  —no, don’t do it! but I’ve just got to and still not to the point of satisfaction with it. This is at the far east end of the park and the cliffs and background, with the Painted Desert, are spectacular—a “must visit” if you’re going.    

Colorado at Desert View
Tanner Canyon. 9 x 12″ oil on linen.

 Just below the Watchtower is an impressive view of the canyon and one of the few places you can actually see the Colorado River. This was revised from a very rough version that I did in less than an hour. The scale is an issue with everything you paint at the canyon and those bushes help a bit making this rock look bigger than it did when I first painted it in. It’s about 40 feet tall. 

View from Bright Angel. 12 x 16", oil on linen.
View from Bright Angel. 12 x 16″, oil on linen.

The next morning we were up early and over to the lodge area of the park. Here are the two oldest and nicest lodges in the park: The El Tovar and Bright Angel were built in the classic style with logs—post and beam. Both have that old lodge look and feel with the El Tovar—built in 1919, being the premier spot to stay on the rim. This painting—done right from the back of the Bright Angel lodge features the enormous sandstone escarpment to the left that has a yellow tint to it, right below the rocks change to a deep red. The sandstone band of lighter rock can be seen all around the canyon. Below is a fantastic view of the washes and mesas—somewhere behind and below that first ridge is the river. I really worked on this painting, the escarpment was too yellow at first and I had problems with making the bushes look small—it throws the whole scale of it off if you get them in too big. In the background, the way the cliffs washout is typical of the canyon. Once you figure out how that works you can apply it to just about everything. It’s more of an erosion feature —each change in rock level has a different hardness and erodes more or less. Red and pink are the predominant colors and the shadows are purple but look better if they are shifted to the blue side.

The Indian Garden. 9 x 12", oil on linen.
The Indian Garden. 9 x 12″, oil on linen.

This is a view looking almost straight down from the rim onto the Indian Garden which is part of the Bright Angel Trail. I was obsessed with this mesa that is about a thousand feet below the rim and jets out toward the river. It has this trail that you can see —like a little ant trail. This is almost abstract and I was intrigued by the tonal variations of the hills and the grove of trees that follow a creek. I wanted to go down there but the hike takes four hours out and six back!  This is one of my favorites from the entire group of work.    

Grandview Sunset. 12 x 16", oil on linen.
Grandview Sunset. 12 x 16″, oil on linen.

Later in the afternoon of the second day, we drove out to what was supposed to have the best sunset in the park—Grandview Point.  It was crowded as the sunset and I did the rather dramatic view with a very dark foreground. 

Moonrise at the Canyon. 9 x 12", oil on linen.
Moonrise at the Canyon. 9 x 12″, oil on linen.

Before we left Grandview I did a small 9 x 12 on a lark of the moon rising over a very oddly tilted rock formation. I can remember that Leon was excited by this splap’n dash impression but I scraped it down after letting it dry for a few days before we left. From the stain and a photo, I was able to recreate it when I got back in the studio.

Bright Angel Sunset —12 x16 oil on linen.
Bright Angel Sunset —12 x16 oil on linen.

The next day Leon took ill and I went with Dario in the early afternoon to Yavapai for the painting at the top of the blog. Come evening, Leon felt better and we spent the time painting from the back of Bright Angel. This features the trail out to the end of the mesa and a rather unique rock outcropping that took a lot of our attention. The darker cast of this is actually accurate but the view is a bit of a mash-up with actually little detail being visible below from this vantage point just north of Bright Angel Lodge. We had huge throngs of people watching us do these.

The Trail from Hermit's Rest
The trail from Hermit’s Rest— 12 x16 oil on linen.

The next morning we were up early to catch the bus out to Hermit’s Rest at the far west of the Park. Hermits Rest is one of four Mary Jane Colter Buildings —and like the watchtower is made to look like a native North American Indian structure. We hardly looked! It was our intent to get down into the canyon for a view beneath the rim and this was supposed to be the best spot for this. We hiked down the trail and were greeted with a 40 mph wind!  Wind and pochade boxes do not mix but we struggled on to a point we thought was shielded by a cliff to our right. To be truthful, I think it was worse. I set up and started, Dario got going but Leon, still a bit under the weather decided to just sit. Dario was up ahead of me and getting the worst of it so Leon actually held on to his rig for him while he painted. I was doing alright with a 50lb. rock in my ruck attached to my tripod but it was still shaky! I pushed the contrast between the dark foreground and the very washed out background to the max. Dario was right around the bend holding on for dear life!   

Colorado Canyon
The Start of It All. 8 x16″, Oil on mahogany ply.

On the way back later in the afternoon, we stopped at Mohave Point another of the view stops on that west side of the park. I did this tall view of the canyon and the Colorado River far below. The light was rather flat but worked well in this and although it was refreshed in the studio, I believe it still has the look of the original and is one of my favorite paintings of the trip.

Sunset at El Tovar
Sunset from the El Tovar. 12 x 16′. oil on linen.

That evening we spent a few nice hours hanging around the El Tovar bar drinking beer and eating chili. I did this sunset that evening with another crowd of onlookers. Most of the magic was put in in the studio weeks after. Leon even contributed that bit of hot orange to the front bolder that I think makes it. 

Halfway to Horsehoe Mesa —9 x 12", oil on linen.
Halfway to Horsehoe Mesa —9 x 12″, oil on linen.

Little painting—huge effort! On the last day there, I spent most of it hiking down from Grandview Point towards Horseshoe Mesa. I say “towards” because I never made it! I picked this back up on my pochade box strapped to my but so I could use both hands crawling up the rocks. 

Yavapai Point
Canyon Condensed. 12 x16″, oil on linen. 

The final painting—the view off Yavapai point on the last day. A cold and windy day—the only one we had with poor weather and the only clouds we saw all week. It’s more of a graphic but explains a lot about the canyon’s colors and shapes.

Share this post