Recently my family and I took the road trip of a lifetime through the American Southwest where I tried my hand at painting America. Painting and exploring the desert country of Australia has always been a passion of mine. It’s where I go to feel grounded and have a sense of belonging. I was excited to see if the high desert country in America would inspire me in the same way that the Australian desert does. Logistically as I was travelling with family, painting time would be at a premium along with the space in my luggage. I decided I would have to be content with doing small watercolour sketches on location and save any larger acrylic works for my return to the studio.
Acrylics vs Watercolour
Whilst I was packing I was tormented by my decision not to take my acrylic paints and my plein air easel. Although I am a competent watercolour artist, I switched to acrylics so I could paint bigger, brighter and with less planning than I did in watercolour. I had fallen in love with acrylics whilst painting the Australian desert and assumed I would need the same equipment to capture the colours of the American deserts. Every part of me itched to pack more gear.
In hindsight I don’t think I was ready to jump in and produce larger scale paintings. I found the American landscape completely overwhelming. I needed time to process it. Doing the little watercolour sketches and taking notes allowed me to assimilate the jumble of information and emotions that came with each new vista. I quickly realised that I had made the right decisions when packing.
Balancing the needs of family with the urge to paint !
Combining a family holiday with painting requires a bit of give and take from both sides. Hubby has often complained that we never take holidays…only painting trips. Over the years he has come to understand my passion for painting is an essential part of my existence. The drive to create is not something I can switch on and off.
Where possible we booked accommodation with a view so I could sneak out in the early hours of the morning to paint. Most of our meals involved finding a table with a view so I could paint while everyone ate. Of course there were times where, despite being desperate to paint, I had to be content with snapping a few photos and focus on spending time with the family. Luckily they were just as moved by the landscapes as I was and we were all keen to talk about our experiences and reactions to it.
My Watercolour Travel Kit
My travel painting kit included my 21 x 13 cm watercolour journal made by Hand Book which features a good quality 200 gsm watercolour paper, a mechanical pencil, an erasure pen, 3 aqua brushes from Derivan, some waterproof black pens, my X press IT fine mist sprayer, a packet of tissues and my Van Gough watercolour travel palette from Royal Talens.
Prior to leaving I had completely filled the paint wells with my favourite colours and had left the lid open until they had thoroughly dried out. This can take up to a week and is important to prevent leakage during travel. I then packed this palette into a snap lock bag along with my aqua brushes and other tools. I placed my journal in a separate snap lock bag to protect it as well. The whole kit then fits into a large pencil case that I can easily carry anywhere.
Each night I refilled the aqua brushes and the spray bottle and replenished my tissues. Despite painting every day for 3 weeks, I had more than enough paint to last the entire trip.
While I preferred to finish the whole painting plein air it was not always possible. I quickly got into the rhythm of making a small quick sketch on location, putting down some initial washes, writing some notes and then taking a photograph so that I could finish the details off later. This way I managed to capture my impression of the landscape in a very limited amount of time.
Surprisingly I did a fair bit of painting in the car. Most of the highways were smooth. The scenery is supersized like everything else in America so you can see it from many miles away. I found I had plenty of time to get down a quick impression. My initial washes dried almost immediately on the car dashboard enabling me to complete the details before the next incredible vista appeared.
We began our journey in Los Angeles where we headed straight from the airport to Venice Beach and worked our way up the coast to Malibu. It seemed every destination was already a familiar part of my psyche…a song title, a movie or television show. From Malibu it was up to the hills to see the Hollywood sign and then into Beverley Hills to shop with my teenager. Whilst LA was a popular culture immersion experience, I was itching to get out of the city…after all landscape is my passion.
After a night in San Monica we navigated yet another mammoth 12 lane freeway and headed for Joshua Tree National Park….a surreal, otherworldly landscape. At times as an artist you feel outdone by nature. How do you do justice to a landscape which encapsulates the very essence of creation in its’ own unique beauty? Here each tree appeared to have been shaped by a bonsai master, a sculptural work in its own right. The rocks looked as if they had been carved by a sculptor and then carefully arranged by a landscape gardener. The changing colours seemed to be choreographed like a light show. Needless to say my small watercolour sketches did not seem to capture the essence of this extraordinary location. I felt I needed a week long immersion to really understand the complexity of this place.
We picked up my adult daughter in Palm Springs and then headed off to Sedona in Arizona. We expected to see extraordinary landscapes in the National Parks but nothing prepared us for the expansive vistas that fringed the highways. It seemed like eroded mesas, distant hazy mountains and broad sweeping skies where a feature of every route. We would leave one spectacular view, wind our way through a mountain pass and emerge into another incredible panorama. It was if the whole journey was like a string of pearls with one awe inspiring sight after another.
Sedona lived up to its reputation as being a truly breathtaking location. There was a painting everywhere you looked. Even the car parks had views to die for. The sunset and sunrise transformed the soft pinks into glowing reds and golds. I painted every moment I was not hiking with the family in Sedona and would travel back to this gorgeous town in a heartbeat. We were fortunate to see the last of the fall colours but I am guessing this town would be equally beautiful in any season.
We left Sedona via Oak Canyon where the fall colours gave way to forests of pine trees before opening out to a sweeping plateau of dry grassland suspended beneath expansive skies. It is within these broad horizons that you find the Grand Canyon.
I have seen many photographs and paintings of the Grand Canyon but I felt totally unprepared for the vastness of the canyon. Gazing from the rim down into the canyon we felt strangely removed from the landscape. Both simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. It was as if we were observing a diorama at a museum rather that standing on the precipice of the Grand Canyon. We felt like observers and somewhat removed from the environment. On reflection we all wondered if we had descended into the canyon itself would we have felt less like spectators and more immersed in the experience.
As an artist I felt daunted by the sheer scale of the landscape. On the first day I felt totally paralysed as I struggled to decide on a working method that what would best encapsulate the experience. I wanted to paint the whole view but realised I had to break it down into smaller bite sized pieces in order to produce a composition that made sense.
After a good night sleep it seemed possible to begin to draw the canyon although I have to confess to completing the painting at a later date. It was only once I was removed from the awe inspiring reality of the canyon and looking at my photographs, that I was able to edit and simplify the drawing and begin to work in colour.
From the Grand Canyon we headed into Utah. The desert is my church but nothing compared me to the unbelievable grandeur of Utah. Utah is the kind of place that makes you believe in god. The landscapes are so stupendous and unique that that it is possible to believe they were in fact created by a master artisan. It seemed every national park had an aptly named Cathedral Rock.
We visited Horseshoe Bend and then Antelope Canyon. The surrounding countryside was majestic with towering buttes and softer rocks that had been eroded to resemble soft serve ice cream. An ugly power station stood opposite the entrance to Antelope Canyon in juxtaposition to the beautiful landscape. The tension between these elements are a consistent theme in my work and of course I had to paint it. I guess in a landscape that awe inspiring there is no good place to locate a power station.
I had seen photos of Antelope canyon online and just knew I had to go there. Walking through the canyon you are immersed in sensuous waves of colour, form and texture. It’s a photographers dream. The canyon is only accessible via a guided tour and there is one every 10 minutes with a limit of 12 people per tour. What we did not realise it that there were 3 tours in our 10 minute slot and while the guides did an amazing job of moving everyone along we shuffled through this incredible canyon in a crowd. There was no time to paint or sketch and I did the painting in my book back at the hotel from a photograph. Despite the crowd it was still a highlight of the trip.
Monument Valley was something straight out of a cowboy and western with many well know films shot amongst the towering buttes. We stayed in a small cabin perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking this majestic valley. The wind howled like a demon outside and a choking dust storm prevented me from doing any outdoor painting. I was grateful for the sweeping views from inside the cabin and was able to paint a larger scale work. Later we relocated to the restaurant where I was able to do more painting during our meal.
Sunrise bought with it calm, clear skies and I painted the view from the cabin once again. While the clear skies looked inviting the temperature had plummeted below zero and the windows were framed with a lacework of dust encrusted ice crystals.
After breakfast we set off along the Forest Gump Drive…dodging busloads of tourists who were taking photographs of this iconic location from the middle of the road which steadily climbs out of the valley floor. We were excited to see snow on the distant mountains as we journeyed towards Moab. As with the other highways this journey was full of weird and interesting rock formations including the Mexican Hat, Wilson Arch and the Twin Rocks at Cottonwood.
Moab, it seems is the action capital of Utah. Everyone appeared to be dressed as it they were straight out of an adventure store catalouge. ATV’s reign on the roads and the bike riders looked like storm troopers. You have got to love the American approach to hiking…to me it seems as if it is all about the gear….bandanas, camel backs, gators, carabiners and hiking poles were standard wear and that’s just to the shops.
Venturing out to the National Parks meant you met with 2 totally different types of hikers….those with serious gear and international tourists who were dressed as if they were heading out for a night at a trendy club. Both styles seemed inappropriate and excessive for us Aussies.
Keen to paint all day I persuaded my long suffering hubby to arrive at the National Park well before sunrise. The temperature upon our arrival at the La Sal lookout in Arches National Park was minus 7 degrees. With my thermal mug of tea in hand and my multiple layers of snow gear on I felt exhilarated and ready to capture the sunrise in watercolour. I got the shock of my life when my first wash froze on the page. It was so unexpected that it took me a few minutes to really understand what was happening.
Unable to paint I turned my hand to sketching with my fine liner pen with the intention of adding some watercolour washes over the top once the temperature was above freezing point. It was only later that I realised that my pen was not as waterproof as I had hoped and had started to bleed. It was frustrating but these challenges keep you growing as an artist and sometimes are the most exciting part of travel.
I could have spent longer in Moab. The Colorado River was stunning as was Arches National Park. I think the most amazing features of Arches National Park were not the arches themselves but all the unique rock formations that surrounded them.
We headed out from Moab via Canyonlands National park which is often referred to as the Island in the Sky. From there we drove through Grand Escalante National Park and Capitol Reef National Park on our way to Bryce Canyon. There were times when it was so barren and surreal that it was possible to believe you had landed on another planet. It felt like we travelled through both time and space with the environment completely changing every hour or so. We passed though areas of desert that looked like tailings dumps, magnificent mountains, red rocks, pine forests, birch forests and snowfields. . I struggled to paint the changing landscapes along the journey.
Bryce Canyon was a standout for us all. The colours were reminiscent of Sedona with creamy whites, soft pinks, deep reds and purples banded across the eerie hoodoos. Towering pines provided a sharp contrast in tones and completed the otherworldly landscape. Again with so much visual information to take in I made the mistake of trying to paint a sweeping view rather than a section of the view.
We were all keen to really explore the canyon and set out the following day on a long and arduous hike. It was one of the most scenic hikes we had done with the Peekaboo trail threading its way among the towering hoodoos, providing breathtaking views from every turn. The climb back up to the canyon rim was challenging to say the least but at the end of the day we felt we had experienced the canyon in a more satisfying way that that of the Grand Canyon.
It was at Bryce that we all discovered American donuts. My favourite were these delicious crunchy maple glazed, cinnamon crumble ones. Of course after a huge hike I managed to justify eating more than one. American donuts are nothing like their Australian counterparts and we each settled on a different favourite. From this day on we stopped at a donut shop in every town.
Throughout the trip we enjoyed trying out all types of typical American and Mexican food. Some was fantastic and some was terrible. I think the thing I missed most was just a plain cup of tea…served in china with real milk…and of course good old Melbourne coffee.
Constant crowds were a feature of our trip. With a population 15 times that of Australia, everywhere we went was always crowded. Australia has some of the most remote roads in the world and what often looks like a good road on the map is often little more than a track in the outback. In America those small roads where actually 4 lane divided highways. Arriving at any National Park, even in the off season often meant first cruising for a parking spot….hiking with lots of other people and then waiting in line to take a photograph at the premier locations. Off season just seemed to mean that half the facilities were closed.
I think the craziest was Zion National Park at Thanksgiving. The road in through Mt Carmel was incredible but once we arrived we had to catch the shuttle bus to different locations though out the park. It was standing room only.
We naively decided to do the Emerald Pool hike. It was rated difficult with steep accents and a rocky unformed track. It was painfully slow going with hundreds of hikers inching along the single lane track. We were itching to get around the slower hikers but there was simply no space to overtake due to the constant flow of descending hikers. It felt like being stuck on the freeway during peak hour.
For our family who spent many years travelling in some remote parts of Western Australia it seemed surreal. On the positive side however a larger population means a larger variety of options for shopping and I took the opportunity to buy some interesting new art materials. I purchased a new easel from En Plein Air Pro, an EasyL painting umbrella along with an assortment of brushes and watercolour diaries. I will let you know how they all perform it the field when I get a chance to try them out.
After our Zion experience we headed to the craziness of Las Vegas. They say you have to go there once and we did that. Our night on the strip was absolutely packed and we shuffled with the crowd from one ginormous flashy casino to another. The next day we explored Piedmont St which was the older more hip and arty part of Vegas. We instantly felt more at home among the kitsch old signs.
By this time I was feeling both fatigued and unwell. I contracted a bad cold in the US and this had progressed to a bacterial throat infection. Death Valley was challenging with our car breaking down and the hire company taking 28 hours to replace it. We ended up stranded, stressed and stuck in yet another wild dust storm. Eventually our hire car was replaced and I have to say we were fairly compensated for our adventure but I felt exhausted and painted out. All I wanted to do was stay indoors and sleep. Hubby of course was keen to see the sights and we headed to San Francisco which my daughter now calls home.
San Francisco is beautiful and we loved visiting this harbour city with its unique architecture and diverse subcultures. My daughter has lots of Silicone Valley connections so our days were spent exploring and our nights were spent meeting lots of young entrepreneurs dedicated to changing the world through Effective Altruism. I think this all just increased my exhaustion and again I found it hard to paint despite the fabulous locations.
Walking the streets of San Francisco was challenging. We all found the sheer number of homeless people both confronting and uncomfortable. There is no pleasure in going out to eat in a nice restaurant when that involves navigating your way around the homeless person living in the doorway. I am not sure how you catch a bus when the shelters have been transformed into someone’s bedroom. I spoke to a town planner who told me that part of the way they address the problem is by removing the benches in the shelter. We read that many different solutions that had been tried to address the problems over the years without making much impact.
From our observations in this brief trip, America appears to be a throwaway society. It seemed everywhere we travelled new buildings were being constructed next to abandoned ones. Every motel provided disposable cups rather than glasses. The sheer amount of packaging and waste everywhere we went weighed on my mind. It seemed that people were equally disposable. The beaches of LA were littered with the homeless, tent communities cling to the underside of the freeways and the streets are filled with dishevelled individuals pushing trolleys or prams piled high with the trash bags within which they have packed with their entire lives. Many of the homeless people were engaged in loud monologues….the incessant babble of those who are alone in the crowd. It all felt like too much to deal with.
Back in Australia in our beautiful bushland suburb it is easy to be green and socially responsible. I suppose we are not confronted daily with people for whom there is no safety net. Certainly there was evidence of just how hard the GFC had hit many Americans. Many of the rural cities we passed though looked desolate. Retail seems to be struggling. The couple of malls we went to were virtually empty of shoppers. It seems if you wanted to buy something it’s best to shop on line.
We finished our journey by travelling down the coast back to LA. The last few days were very hazy with the much hyped coastal scenery barely visible. A huge landslide had closed the road so we found ourselves back on the inland road travelling through a seemingly endless prefab suburbia. From here we flew out.
Arriving back home after a trip always involves catching up on lots of mundane tasks. For me it also involved a large dose of antibiotics and lots of sleep.
Painting in America vs painting in Australia
So how did the experience of painting and travelling in the Australian outback compare to that of doing the same kind of trip in America? It gave me some insight into some of the things American tourists say about our country. I had always felt a little defensive when they say there is “nothing here”….. but compared to America they are right. The sheer size of everything in America made the Australian counterparts look small and underwhelming.
In America you whizz by incredible rock formations and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes on your way to the National Parks which are often rightly called National Monuments as they are monumental in both beauty and scale. In Australia you have to have a practiced eye to see the changes in topography and subtle variations in vegetation.
In the parts of America that we visited it was easy to find a good composition. Every view has variations of colour, tone and shape, atmospheric perspective and an abundance of interlocking or overlapping planes. In a way it is a rather formulaic look. In Australia I have to work a little harder to find a good composition….our light is harsh and sometimes finding a point of interest for the foreground is a little challenging. As a result my Australian compositions require a lot more artistic licence and perhaps that gives them a more unique flavour.
In America everywhere is crowded and you have to share the wilderness experience with others. In the background there is a constant soundtrack of humanity, occupying part of your awareness. Our outback is truly wild, remote and sparsely populated. We are an ancient continent that has been flattened by erosion over the millennia. Many of our rocks predate fossil history and in the quiet and isolation it is possible to feel connected to the entire universe through both time and space.
In both places I felt an equal sense of awe. Although the American landscape bought with it a whole load of new artistic challenges, the experience of painting was similar to that of painting in Australia. Painting is just a process by which you observe and interpret the environment around you. On reflection the whole trip was an incredible experience. We would all go back in a heartbeat and plans are already being discussed. Personally I would like to do the trip again with my acrylic paints now that I have had some time to process and digest the landscape. I guess for now I will just have to be content with producing some studio works from my notes, sketches and photographs.