I’ve been part of a little group of artists that head down to the Big Bend National Park area to paint each February now for 3 years. Nothing more than a few like minded souls getting together and doing what we come to do best.
If you’ve not been to this area along the Rio Grande River, I tell you you are missing out on something. It is simply spectacular. It is one of the largest National Parks in America and at the same time the least used. That’s okay with me because the influx of folks to this area by the millions would totally ruin it’s nature. Kind of what it’s done to Yellowstone, or Zion.
Sure, it’s people that needs to come appreciate and enjoy what this wonderful land before us, but at the same time, it’s people that totally ruins it. Tourists in general think much only of themselves and their conviences and do not consider what their actions do to the land around them. Not all, but more often than not it seems.
Enough of my little soapbox, let me step down and get back to our trip.
I look forward to this trip with these fellow artists, Dick Sneery originally asked me to go about 4 years ago on an Outdoor Painter Society trip to Big Bend but I didn’t because of I have no idea why, but the very next year after seeing all the paintings and photos that Dick had returned with, I had to find out for myself. I jumped on the chance and the two of us rode down together stopping for Tim Oliver in Lubbock Texas along the way.
What an unbelievable place this was, completely different than what I had expected. A spectacular array of mountains, desert, river canyons, ghost towns. A painters treasure trove all wrapped into one area. Mind you the area is VERY big, and it takes hours to drive from one end of the park to the other, but in between those ends are vistas and painting opportunities gallore.
Each year our group seems to add a few more artists, and have affectionetly become known as the “Rattlesnake Gang”. And luckily our encounters with said critters have been to a minimum, but just in case high top boots and gaiters are a pretty darn good idea.
I have never really gone to the area with any other goal than to just paint, and paint some more. As my Dad says, “from can see, to can’t see”. That was always my goal, but this year I thought to go a little differently.
That was to have a plan besides just painting. I always try to improve on what I do, I find nothing easy to paint, and have rarely done anything that is completely to my satisfaction. Probably never will, but this time to have a little bit of direction to what I’m doing.
This year was, “paint objects, not scenes”.
Painting a lot with Lon Brauer last year I got a good chance to banter things back and forth quite a bit, and one of those was things was painting objects. I love Lon’s work, it’s amazing, and he’s brave as hell, always pushing himself, experimenting with materials, with process, with subjects. I love it, and I am envious.
Lon in the desert
Me? I’m a little chicken.
I tell myself I’m pushing myself, trying new things, but not to the extremes that I want to, or need to. I can’t even add another color to my palette I’m so darn comfy with the 4 that I’m using!
But small steps, I can do that. I have another color in my pack, not used it yet, but I will put it on my palette this next trip. The other thing was working on objects.
One of the biggest things I noticed when I began painting outdoors was the amount of information out there. It was everywhere, in the darks, in the lights, it was information overload, and I never had this problem painting from photos. There, you had never enough info, or the wrong info. So when I began outside I tried to paint it all, and it took forever. I came back to the same spot for weeks painting on the canvas and painting and painting some more and I just couldn’t get it all.
I’ve cut that down to being able to paint the same thing in one session of about 2 hours, but I find myself many times painting “scenes”. Sure that’s okay, and I love scenes. I grew up loving the Hudson Valley painters work, and what better scene painters are there than them? But I found that when I zoomed in on a subject, grabbed one thing and focused on it, that’s when my paintings became stronger.
It is harder for me to make a good painting of a scene than it is to find a simple object, break it down to simple elements, and make a winner out of it. If I were to go back and look at all the awards over the years, the majority have gone to simpler subjects. Not always the case, but I know I do have to work harder when painting a view of the river valley than I do when I paint just a boat on that river.
So my goal this trip was to paint more objects, less panoramic time consuming views.
Not that you can’t spend the same amount of time painting a simple subject, and I have. I love simplifying anymore, and it’s those type of paintings that really attract my attention at the galleries. Those wonderful abstract shapes that are strong and dynamic. I want this, and it’s only pushing oneself that you can do this. But I need to push harder, get out of that comfort zone and push my boundaries. I have set up these barriers myself, no one else has told me to stay where I am. I won’t grow if I don’t.
If you can’t do it yourself, find someone to tell you what to do. That’s why we take workshops from others. To see and feel how they do it, and learn their approach. Is it better, is it faster? Is it for you? We don’t know if we don’t try, and if we can’t physically push ourselves, find someone to help. Don’t just listen and say, “okay, I will”. Go that extra step or two.
Doesn’t work, what have you lost? But you’ll never know if you don’t try.
I did do more simple subjects this trip, trying to focus on objects. I painted a total of 15 paintings in the 5 days along the Rio. For the most part I’m happy with what I created. They can use some tweaking here and there, some I would like to make into larger studio pieces. Out of those 15, 8 were focused more on a subject than a scene. That’s not 100% but small steps like I said are better than no steps at all.
I love the hanging with other artists at these events and especially here at Big Bend, talking art till late in the night as we stare into the vast depths of the winter sky above. Sharing stories of there exploits during the day over an evening meal at the local dinner. Each one of us with our own agenda and our own direction in life, but for these few days in the West Texas winter we are bonded by the rawness in this land that is as hard and sharp as bones of those that came before us.
Johnny Cash wrote about this area along the Rio Grande in his song “Mean as Hell”, kind of describes things nicely…
It’s a hell of a place that he has for hell
The heat in the summers are hundred and ten
Too hot for the devil, too hot for menThe red pepper grows upon the banks of the brook
The Mexican use it in all that he cook
Just dine in with one of ’em and you’re bound to shout
I’ve hell on the inside as well as it out
If you want fine dining and fancy beds, then maybe you might find a group further North to paint with, cause if you’re wanting to join the Rattlesnake Gang, and we’re happy to have you.
Just check your pedigree at the door
The Rattlesnake Gang, 2019