Field Notes

Wasatch Mountains, Charcoal on Paper, Central Utah 5/2/19 Viewpoint: From Strawberry Peak looking Southwest. The Wasatch Mountain Range experienced a record breaking winter in 2019, with a series of consistent and repeated storms bringing 626” of snowfall to central Utah. In the fall of 2018, just six months prior, the state was in severe drought, the result of the driest year in recorded history. I watched the portion of the Wasatch Range shown in this drawing during all the various states of weather and light in 2018 and 2019. It remained beautiful each day, throughout the drought as well as in the deep snow of winter.

To my eye, this section of the Wasatch is perhaps the most beautiful mountain sequence I know of. The arrangement and rhythm of shapes, ridgelines and peaks, elegant and full of rich passages of contrast, strong and subtle shadow, balance complex asymmetry of rugged and soft. This solid mountain range turns any season, weather, or time of day into a stunning scene. My particular preference is the snow, and I have an affinity for a long ski to a good sketch location, as well as for the way paper-white snow receives a simple shadow cast from a tree, a single gesture that simultaneously clarifies the shape and location of both the tree and the land. I find this effortless clarity compelling. The hot drought was less pleasant to work in, although the range still performed, especially when the black twilight ridgeline was offset by some stunning sunset made more radiant by wildfire smoke.

The dramatic swings in our climate have become noticeable now, even without research reports or news stories. Our bare skin and open eyes are enough to detect it. Today more heat, today more rain, today more fire than before. I remember reading a global warming packet from a 1990’s Earth Science class, an addendum to the text. I wondered then if I’d be able to feel the difference in 2020, the year the addendum used to indicate the future. What does 3 degrees more feel like? (more)

Peterson Arch, Charcoal on Paper, Southern Utah 5/2/18 Viewpoint: From base of rockface looking Northeast. Charcoal on Paper. I was introduced to Peterson Arch by a biologist working for the National Forest Inventory and Analysis, a continuous forest census initiated by an act of Congress in 1928. The ongoing project keeps a running account of growth in thousands of remote wilderness plots throughout the country. Katrina, the biologist, is the 5th generation of scientist keeping the record for the region south of Moab. Peterson Arch, unknown to the public, is not among the plots studied, but Katrina’s regional knowledge is deep and opened my eyes to the significance of this location.

The drawing contains three focal points: a large Juniper tree, an arch, and a balanced rock: this is a treasure trove of rare natural wonders left wild and undocumented, a secret magical cove in the desert. The scene’s real impact emerged after sunset when the vast desert became lit by ethereal moonlight. The elegant arrangement in silver seemed almost (more)

Wasatch Mountains, Charcoal on Paper, Summit County, Utah 3/5/18  Viewpoint: From Parley’s Canyon Summit looking Westward. The rhythm in this drawing is created by the geological movements in the land, the alternating black and white of snow and trees, and the play of light and shadow made spectacular by the presence of Cumulus congestus clouds and new snow.   The Wasatch Mountain Range has been growing at a rate of 1.5 ft per 1000 years (0.4mm per year) for the last three million years, and water drainages and weather have continued to erode the valleys downward even as the mountains continue their upward thrust. The folds of land shown on the right are a part of the Kelvin Formation that occurred during the Cretaceous Period over 66 million years ago. 

Like many artists I am captivated by the behaviors of light, including its absence (shadow). There are two types of shadow in the scene: light which has been absorbed by a dark object, such as a tree, and light which has not arrived because it has been blocked. The distinction between these two shadow states is easiest to see in the mountain left of center in the drawing. The cloud above blocks light from the sun and casts a shadow onto the mountainside. This causes a cool area, both in mood and in temperature. The trees growing here - Spruce, Douglas Fir, and Gamble Oak - are dark in color and absorb light, rather than having never gotten it. The charcoal mark too, like the shadow it represents, absorbs all wavelengths of light.  (more)


Wasatch Mountains & Cascade Peak, Charcoal on Paper, Wasatch County, Utah  1/14/18 Viewpoint: From Guardsman Pass looking South. Charcoal on Paper. In 2017 I spent several months living in a primitive cabin tucked between the Wasatch State Park and what is now the Bonanza Flats Conservation Area. My daily interactions were with turkey, elk, two moose, a family of golden eagles, and a chipmunk who would perch in a window of the cabin and, I imagined, comment on the progress of my drawings.  

In the evening I would walk through an old aspen grove out to an overlook and watch the day end. The southernmost ledge of the rocky peninsula offered a long view south, over the varied terrain of the Wasatch Mountain Range’s back side, known locally as the Wasatch Back. The endpoint of the view is a relatively unknown peak in the Southern Wasatch known as Cascade Mountain, a grand form at 10,908 ft.  

This view covers 20 miles as the crow flies and lines up along several protected wilderness areas that will remain undeveloped into perpetuity. It is the result of a key principle of land conservation: to link preserved acreages together to create networks rather than islands of wilderness. (more)


TBT Wyoming 2/08/18


Winter Bridger-Teton National Forest 1/15/18   If roads were books US 189 north of Evanston, WY would have been authored by Cormac McCarthy. The vast swaths of light are both terrifying and serene. In contrast to towns like Jackson Hole, which are busy entry points, the towns here are adjacent to the wilderness and share its lonely qualities. Smoot, WY, population 32, is one of these. I always think everyone in Smoot must have a horse.


In Retreat Wasatch Mountains 8/22/17    I have extended my stay at the cabin until winter.  The sound of wind in the Aspen grove is enough for a thousand contented hours and the colors change radically every day. The meadow began this week dressed in mauve with yellow bursts but I arrived this evening to find those colors replaced entirely with a wispy grey and purple wash. The Timothy grass has headed out. Winter is not far off. We’re at 9000 ft above sea level and snow will finally block the road access sometime in early October. I anticipate this cascade of changing color will accelerate through September. An extravaganza. Just one month left - I know it will go fast.


Hummingbird (not shown) Wasatch Mountains 8/4/17    I am working this month in the Wasatch Mountains, with the luxury of a cabin for a base camp. The wildflowers are abundant and indian paint brush and butter cup float in the under-canopy like grounded clouds. I brought some back to the cabin yesterday, confounding a humming bird who lives here. He has visited this arrangement often today. I would love to open the window to see what happens but I won’t. Probably. I won’t. But I do want to. Like with the Cheetos mouse in Joshua Tree, I’m both dismayed and delighted at the idea of feeding a wild animal. He’s been too quick to get a photo of so far. Stay tuned.

*Superthanks to Christian for the use of the retreat. It is magical.

avocado death valley.jpg

Avocado Death Valley Death Valley 2/10/17     This has been a totally weird trip. The silence is incredible. Everything is made of minerals and nothing seems provided for. For two days I considered returning to town to get some salt which I had forgotten. I could HEAR the idea approach. Avocados are so bland. I wish I had salt. Is it worth the trip back? No. Too far. Avocados are nice. They are nice with salt. Its funny that these rocks are made of salt. Salt is salt. Is this salt salt? That would be funny. Wait. Is this salt salt? I felt so happy. Salt! Salt, at least, is provided for in Death Valley.

joshua tree america haiku

The Kangaroo Mouse Who Ate Cheetos Joshua Tree 9/24/16     Food manufacturers regard Cheetos as the “most perfectly engineered junk food” for its blissful combination of sweetness, saltiness and fat. In accord, I was eating Cheetos while reading the park’s educational flyer camped out on the desert last night when I felt a tiny tickling on my fingertip. My headlamp showed a cute creature, quietly sneaking orange Cheetos dust from my finger with its teeny paws. He hopped off quickly but I recognized him right away from my park flyer: Kangaroo Mouse (Dipodomys merriami). I was simultaneously delighted and dismayed at having fed the wildlife. I wonder how long he waited after smelling the world’s most perfect junk food, before sneaking over. I bet he didn’t pause at all actually, just like I didn’t when I’d spotted the bag in the last gas station before the park.

joshua tree national park

The Safety of Discipline Joshua Tree 9/22/16     Working on color studies in Joshua Tree National Park today. The color changes in the light here baffled me after location scouting yesterday. I retreated to Albers' Interaction of Color exercises - to the safety of discipline. It helped and the group of small color studies might be the best work from the project yet. What a teacher.

"In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually." Josef Albers in Faber Birren (1976) Color Perception in Art. p. 20

"Anxiety is dead." Josef Albers in Robert Rauschenberg, Works, Writings and Interviews Sam Hunter, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain 2006, p. 10

Grand Canyon

Project Origin Grand Canyon 9/19/16    In the winter of 1999 I lived in the Mission district of San Fransisco and worked at a flower shop in Noe Valley. The walk to work was long and I used it to try and memorize Bob Dylan's farewell poem to Woody Guthrie, written as Woody lay dying in Brooklyn State Hospital. I hoped to impress people one day by reciting it by a campfire or on a road trip. I'm still working on that. Last night, 17 years later, I still had to look it up on my phone to contribute it to the campfire entertainment. Its a 4 page poem so I'll skip to the best part at the end.

... You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Bob Dylan - April 12, 1963

This week I get to sit each day to paint in Grand Canyon at sundown. There are quite a few others here each night, and Woody might really be, too. If you are inclined to follow the link, it is worth reading the poem all the way through.


Divine Grace RV

Where We Live Grand Canyon 9/18/16    Jewels, my travel partner, named her RV Divine Grace. Before getting out of bed each morning she lists things she is grateful for. I heard her laughing from her bed the first morning we woke up in the RV, in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.  "I am thankful to live in Divine Grace!" she called out. 

Now, a few weeks later we are set up here, about half a mile from the rim of the Grand Canyon. The rabbit bush is in bloom. and its tiny yellow flower causes the air to smell of warm honey. It has been raining today and a neon green is lighting up the desert. A rare time in a rare place to call home. Divine Grace.

Westbound Oklahoma 9/16/16

Great Smoky Mountains

Visitors Great Smoky Mountains 9/14/16     My favorite part of this process is talking with people in the parks while working. The reverence and respect for the wild natural world is so present in each person. I am already working when visitors arrive so I think I become a bit of park in their minds and some respect falls to me by association. I have to imagine that the National Parks love to be National Parks and receive that appreciation. I have been lucky to have some of it get on me. 

One Perspective Great Smoky Mountains 9/13/16   There is an old house painter named Carlyle in northern Vermont who I worked on a few jobs with in the early 2000's. He was a slight man, with gray skin and a constant frown, about 80 years old. In both work and words he was spare. He smoked cigarettes inside of the house and ashed into his shirt pocket.

One morning I spilled a cut bucket of paint onto a hardwood floor near a ladder Carlyle was seated on. It was the first time I heard him speak. "Ain't nothin' a blind man wouldn't be happy to see," he said, somewhat cheerfully. That has echoed in my mind and counters other more judgemental voices. I try to keep it close at hand when working plein air.

Canyonlands Cryptobiotic Crust

Conservation Tip for Desert Plein Air Canyonlands 8/28/16    Katrina Lund lives in Moab, Ut and served as community artist for Arches National Park last year. Her works are ethereal washes of color that describe the rock here with tranquility. She spent some time schooling me in leave no trace techniques for painting in deserts. Turns out the desert surface is not sand at all, but rather a crusty bacterial nursery. It stores nutrients and water that incubate life in its earliest form.  The crust forms over centuries, but becomes loose sand in an instant when crushed under foot or tire.  The wind in Telluride Co, 100 miles to the east, now contains fine red sand picked up over the destroyed desert crust of the Canyonlands area.  The dust reddens the snow, which then absorbs extra heat, and results in premature midwinter melts.

Katrina's recommendation is to paint from the pavement pull offs rather than venture off trail for more remote views. The solitude of the back country is a short lived singular benefit, attractive but not worth the risk of damaging the centuries old crust. Plus, the pavement pulls offs provide stunning views and park visitors are excellent company.

Click here for additional tips on "leave no trace" practices.