Outdoor Painting by the Grand Canyon

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Outdoor Painting by the Grand Canyon. From edge to edge, the trail is 23 miles. A hiker loses height about a mile before crossing the Colorado River on a suspension bridge and climbing to the opposite edge. The trail serves permanent rivers, so water is not a problem. My first attempt at painting the Grand Canyon brought me to my knees. I was so shocked by the challenge of painting that I forgot to eat even though I stayed hydrated. Unnoticed by me, the desert sun has drained important electrolytes from my system. The next day I shook up with the most serious illness of my life. I learned that I was suffering from hypernatremia, known colloquially as water intoxication. The remedy was simple: Pringles and Gatorade. I’ve learned to take the canyon seriously.

Whenever I paint these distant landscapes, I can’t help but wonder what the canyon looks like up close. I’m too restless to be marginalized; a tent, sleeping bag, mat, water bottles, clothes, first aid kit, stove, kitchen kit, food, and outdoor painting equipment. In the cool morning light, I descend through a mixed forest of aspen pine and stop the moment the sunlight hits the cliffs for the first time. It is my signal to paint another masterpiece in the form of a cute girl drawing. I’ll start with a dark green stroke to indicate a pine tree, then add a few pops of red color for the cliffs. It is how it begins.

Painting in the Grand Canyon

I have already crossed a land full of surprises, large and intimate at the same time, lush and strict. On the way, I stand to pick sharp pears, purple onions that grow like large, dented thumbs on the edges of the cactus leaves. I carefully break the fruit apart and scrape it on a boulder to remove the needles before peeling off the leathery skin. The taste is complex, but the muscle is exciting. The single joy of good products in the sand is well worth the effort.

Ribbon Falls is hidden in an overhanging red quartzite cave. An elegant lump of thing cascades from the lip and splashes down a huge hill of moss-covered travertine. For the Zuni family, Ribbon Falls is a holy place of the journey; it is the organ from which they are born, saved from the sun from the dark depths of the earth. They told to look the sun in the face, people wept in pain, and where the tears fell, flowers grew. Purified and shaped into human form, the Zuni have traveled the world. Ribbon Falls is unique from every angle, geological, religious, or artistic angle: a lush, sheltered oasis in the desert. To cool off, I regularly leave the booth and dive into the stream

Here I discover a trio of surprises:

  • A dipper is dozing in a niche a few meters away.
  • A couple of frogs look alike. They have been painted with silver-gray spray.
  • Fresh mint that grows along the creek.

Outdoor Painting Adventure

Outdoor Painting

At dawn, the clouds part, and the fin of an imposing tower is bathed in a tangerine-colored glow. On the fringes, I had the luxury of going back to a place for two or three days in a row to paint. I have a shot here before shouldering my backpack and driving a half-dozen miles to the next camp. I have to count it, trust my instincts and not worry about the details. My limited choice of pastels forces me to think about color in relative terms, not in terms of how it relates to the subject, but how it interacts on the page.

In the early afternoon light, showers are a welcome relief from the heat. I step into The Box, a dark, narrow, winding canyon made of 2 billion years old bedrock. Coming out of the canyon means reading back to front, from the youngest rock on edge to the earth’s bones below. I imagine that time itself is struggling to escape its original austerity.

Suddenly I emerge in Eden, a lush riparian habitat interspersed with willow and poplar thickets. The cliffs rise in impossible terraces to the extreme southern edge. As if on a signal, the clouds part. Half a mile further and past the cabins at Phantom Ranch. After days of loneliness, I feel like I’m in the big city. As the only accommodation below the edge, the Phantom Ranch is a nexus for hikers, riders, and river swimmers. Right behind the ranch, over a bridge to Bright Angel Campground.

Outdoor painting in the Grand Canyon

A group of about 30 hikers gathered in a small outdoor amphitheater at Phantom Ranch, where I was asked to speak about my trip. We are all moved and inspired by the scenario. The only real difference between you, the wanderer, and me, the artist, is that I wonder what makes a scene so beautiful. Something suddenly stops me. As an artist, I try to understand what it is.

I encourage the group to see the canyon through the eyes of an artist, to look for shapes, for the intersection of light and shadow, a striking color, the glow of the reflected light reflected from the desert shadows. These are the ingredients for art. Later that evening, two women ran up to me, smiling and talking enthusiastically. They had spent the evening just watching as you told us and seeing the landscape all over again. Everything looked different. Everything looked new.

Exterior painting

From Indian Garden, I follow a branch path to Plateau Point, overlooking Granite Gorge and the Colorado River, 1,300 feet below. The wind rustles, and the light rolls like liquid mercury over the broad shoulder of the Buddha temple. The colors change chameleonic ally, and the shadows of the clouds play hide and seek with the Temple of Isis and the Pyramid of Cheops. The painting is jazz, improvisation, and instinct. I start a conversation with a hiking guide who is cooking dinner on a backpacking stove. It tells me about the human interaction with the gorge. About the archaeological sites are hidden everywhere. As I pack my bags in the fading light, it offers me dinner. We have more than enough. I wipe the pastel dust off my hands and enthusiastically accept.

Let’s go back to the Indian Garden under the glowing arch of the Milky Way. Tomorrow I will climb the last section of the South Rim. But right now, I’m looking at the impossible stars. Life below the edge moves at a slow and sacred pace, with the subdued rhythm of footsteps on a dusty path in a vast desert. From the stands, I heard even better music, a song without words, a sweet harmony that mixes space, time, and sensation. It is the spirit of the soul, the thought of honor.

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Suddenly I emerge in Eden, a lush riparian habitat interspersed with willow and poplar thickets. The cliffs rise in impossible terraces to the extreme southern edge. As if on a signal, the clouds part. Half a mile further and past the cabins at Phantom Ranch. After days of loneliness, I feel like I’m in the big city. As the only accommodation below the edge, the Phantom Ranch is a nexus for hikers, riders, and river swimmers. Right behind the ranch, over a bridge to Bright Angel Campground.

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