Painting in the Canyon Lands of Utah

I was invited to do some painting in the canyon lands of Utah. Driving around the most remote part of southeast Utah is a journey that leads one through Navajo reservation lands.  I know very little about the Navajo culture. What I discovered was beautiful.

In a town called Tuba City, Utah, there is a display that explains the dwellings the Navajo use(d) called, a Hogan. As a tourist, I learned the dwellings traditionally have male or female connotations. The female Hogan is, among other things, a place of welcome.  But it also seems to represent a state of departure. A display sign suggesting that as visitors, we are invited to choose our next steps as we go on our way from this place.

That last part resonated with me.  I liked the idea of being ‘blessed’, if you will, by the gesture of gratitude and hospitality a visitor receives. That ‘blessing’ can be carried forward by the choice of the traveler’s next steps.  It made me consider that the traveler can pass the graciousness to others and be mindful of how one interacts moment by moment with the world around us from that point on. 

Just Scrolling Along

Later in the day, I was mindlessly scrolling through some old posts and found a quote that I used in one of them.  It said, “A painting, is a creation made from love, care, courage, a lifetime expressed in a few strokes.”  I thought, that is rather good.  Then I wondered who it was that said that.  It turned out to be me.  Apparently, I came up with that.

Could I be noticing a remote but possible relationship between that idea in painting and what the Hogan apparently represents?

Processing the View

I was asked to do a painting at a place called Dead Horse Point.  The display of natural wonder there is immense.  Overhearing comments from fellow visitors, I realized I was not the only person feeling the need to “process” the view.  I wandered to this place and now I felt as though I were the guest here.  Insignificant, humbling, pacifying, are some feelings that can come around if one is open to those considerations.

Setting up to paint the view was going to take a little time to understand the enormity of the canyon landscape.  Little by little I continued with what I knew how to do as far as setting up my palette and easel.  Then I was ready to begin.  But, where and how?  There is so much to take in!

Start by Feeling

At a moment when I was standing before my blank canvas with my brush and paint ready, I remembered the Hogan and how we can choose our next steps.  It is often said that a journey begins with the first step.  In a way, that is what I did by pushing some paint all over the canvas, looking and learning the gestures of the canyon, “feeling” the forms that were in the foreground compared to the patterns and layers in the distance.  One gesture with the brush laid in the space where the main formation would be placed on the canvas. The painting went on from there.

Each step, or rather, decision was guided by that principle of purposefully choosing the next step in the drawing and painting of the scene.  It was as if I was in a dialogue with the landscape, as if it were telling me a story and I was writing it down in bits of color and light. 

Oil Painting of Dead Horse Point by Curtis Green. Painting in the Canyon Lands of Utah
“View from Dead Horse Point”, by Curtis Green; Oil on Board; 2021 (private collection)

Learning the Visual Language

I have not before painted in the southwest canyon lands of the United States.  The painting took me about two and half hours.  That is longer than I usually work on a plein air painting at one time.  The colors were analogous and value ranges were not far apart, except in shadows.  This was new to me, so in a way, I needed to slow down and let the landscape reveal itself as I slowly picked up on its unique visual language.  

For example, mixing an orange for a cliff facing the sun was a new challenge while being unfamiliar with how the light works here. The value of that color might be high, but its hue intensity was still saturated, so adding white to make the color brighter was not the only answer to raise the color’s key. There was a need to ‘declare the color’ but be subtle at the same time.  Like footsteps, each mark on the canvas was a decision guided first by an observation, then an offering of a mark, then a decision to modify it or to leave it as such.

I Think You Got It!

After a while, the painting seemed to say that it was done.  Other visitors made their way by me as I was finishing.  One person said, “I think you got it!”.  I agreed and thought it would be best to stop.  Some painters say that while working they are “in” the painting.  I can understand that because I often feel that way.  When I was done, I felt as though I was departing from my conversation with the landscape, the story- teller, and my visit to the visual particulars of that place.  I was “coming back” to the tasks of cleaning up, packing my gear, and loading the car. 

Order My Steps

Remembering the Hogan, I learned briefly, it is a structure built in part by observing how the animals live and how it should be oriented in the environment.  The door faces east to greet the sun.  The octagon shape is inspired by the bird nest.  The roof is the sky, the walls are the cliffs. Each pole represents a prayer or a song. All these things I just learned by some quick reading, and I am not an expert on Navajo tradition.  Rather, I was a guest that day and I was treated to the hospitality of the landscape.  But the ideas are edifying, and I consider them a gift I get to keep and share.

When I was ready to throw my stuff over my shoulder and walk away, I remembered that from this point, I am invited to choose my steps.  There was a feeling of proceeding to the car with a little more consideration of my movements than usual.  Perhaps I was just taking it all in.  With each step I felt the roll of my foot over the ground. I realized it put me in a different place physically. I was moving forward, and away from where I was, but closer to where I am going.

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