Plein Air Painting in Gunnison, Colorado

This is a 6x8" color sketch that helped to get a palette that works for the area
This is a 6×8″ color sketch that helped to get a palette that works for the area

“I wish you would go with me to visit James in Gunnison for a week.”, Dad said. I’m in the middle of job hunting for a welding job, but somehow that stuck in my mind.  Eventually all the job descriptions that basically said, “must be able to work weed days, weekends, overtime, and have no life whatsoever beyond welding” convinced me that this is indeed a great time to get in a trip with Dad to Gunnison.  James, a relative through my Mom’s side, is 88 years old and has the energy and mind of a youth.  We went four-wheeling, trout fishing, site seeing where he took us on a 300 mile guided tour, eating at his favorite restaurants (everyone knew him)… it was amazing.  After 30+ years of going from Austin to Gunnison for the summer, this was his final summer trip. I thought, if there is ever a time to do plein air, this is it. I can paint something on site in his favorite spot and give this to him as a way to remember it.

In getting ready, I realized many of the colors were different from Texas, so I’d need to find the colors in my arsenal of paints to mix and match what I saw.  On one afternoon, we had a couple hours of free time and I got in the quick sketch seen at the beginning of this post with rocks, cottonwood trees, some shrubs and distant background mountains. Oddly enough, the colors of the rocks were subtle grays of orange and cobalt blue. Glad I got in this sketch before tackling a bigger plein air!

When James took us trout fishing on the Gunnison River in a canyon about 3 miles from his place, I knew this was the place to paint. It was stunning to see. In the morning the canyon lit up the walls upstream like something from a fairy tale. Coming back to paint in the afternoon, it had changed dramatically and now the view 180 degrees downstream became a fantastic scene of overlapping canyon walls I couldn’t have imagined in the earlier light.  Using the orange/cobalt blue mix I’d found earlier for the rock color, I quickly blocked in the main colors and values (about 10 min) before the light changed, like dictating notes from an oral lecture that hopefully make sense later. The next hour was spent making sure I could emphasize the depth by making the shadows darker and warmer in the foreground cliffs and lighter in the background. In four hours, the light had changed so much, I was working from memory and glancing at the scene for details.  While all this is happening, wind gusts blew so hard I had to bury my easel in river rocks. When the easel rocked and the canvas met my brush before I could lay down a stroke, I just had to go with it. There wasn’t a rock there, but now there is. Thanks wind. When the dry air dried the paint of my palette within 10 minutes, I just squeezed out a big blob twice the size and painted twice as thick.  It was infuriating at times, as if the wind and sun objected to my being there, but somewhere deep inside, it just made the journey of completing the painting that much sweeter.

16x20" acrylic "Gunnison River". This was a big plein air to attempt, but it really fit the scene.
16×20″ acrylic “Gunnison River”. This was a big plein air to attempt, but it really fit the scene.

I finally relented as the sun set over the ridge changing not only the shadows, but the colors of the rock.  I could have spent an entire second day refining details and colors, but it was as finished as time would allow and I felt like it captured the depth beyond what a camera would provide.  Presenting it to James, that smile went straight to my heart.  He even pointed to a spot where he had caught a fish in the past. This is really what art is for.

Artist Chat:

Palette: titanium white, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, cad yellow, red light hue (orange), black

The sky was a gradient from light cerulean on the horizon to cobalt up high, and this was the only area I used cerulean.  The rocks were done with cobalt blue and orange, changing values with white where it was sun-lit, and leaving variations of blue to orange shades of gray at about 60%.  The foreground cliffs on the left had a lot of indirect lighting from the grassy area in front of it, warming it up, so I mixed in some cad yellow into the shadow mix. I added some black into the mix to make some indications of dark cracks in the foreground cliff, punching it forward the sending back the cliff the right. I tried to do something with the straight roadway coming in from the right to vary the horizontal lines, but that’s the way it was (and the way James remembers it), so I left it.  I went back several times to cool down the shadows in the back cliff. This is an area I would definitely have worked if I had more time. The paint dried so quickly, it was had to soften the edges where it meets the sky. The water was tricky! It had a full spectrum of color and changed constantly with the winds, but sat for a few minutes noting the basic colors and reflections and just went with it.  It actually saves time to just sit and look!  Within 1 minute after the last brush stroke, the painting was dry, so next time, I’m going to get a big tube of Golden Open white and cad yellow to slow down the drying time in the mixes. Not too slow, but at least to a five or ten minute drying time to allow some blending.


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