The Painted Desert and Other Adventures

Day 169, Staying at Home

Monday, Sept. 7, 2020; Santa Fe, New Mexico

When I pictured myself in Santa Fe, I envisioned following in the footsteps of Georgia O’Keeffe. I would hike into the southwest desert landscape, set up my easel, sit on my stool and spend my days painting.

Reality is different. I have no idea what routine Georgia (if I may call her that) followed when she lived in nearby Abiquiu. In fact, I couldn’t find any photographs online of her painting en plein air, as the French say for painting in open air.

Despite having modified my camera tripod into a painting easel, I have yet to lug it out on location. The best desert light and shadows are in the early morning, when I’m drawn instead to my morning coffee on the shaded patio with the hummingbirds. While portable, it’s still a bit bulky to carry. Unless I head for the mountains, there’s not much shade from the brilliant sun of midday.

My painting setup, yet to be in the field.

It sounds like a bunch of excuses, I know. But as someone who recently came to painting, I realize at this stage I am more of a sketcher than a fine artist. So as long as I have my sketchpad and an ink pen, I’m ready to go.

I last wrote extensively about painting while still on the world cruise in early March. In fact, my first exposure to painting (perhaps since kindergarten) was on an Asia cruise in 2017. I spent our sea days in the watercolor class and came home wanting to learn more. I was beginning to understand that there are two basic skills involved – drawing, whether with pencil or pen, and painting. In the case of watercolor, that means learn to manage the water as well as the paint.

Enter Urban Sketching. I discovered the Chicago chapter the next summer. Urban Sketchers live by the manifesto that “We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.” So I put a small sketchbook and pen in my purse and began sketching whenever I had a few minutes – on the bus, waiting at the car wash, and in front of that famous Chicago skyline.

During the pandemic, we’ve been sketching to prompts, such as Sunday’s direction to paint in monotones. I worked from my patio, and it was my first experiment in using ink in place of paint.

During my next three long cruises, I mostly followed the manifesto to sketch on site. I usually added watercolor later, as I didn’t have the luxury of time on shore to paint my sketchbook entries. Other times I worked instead from photographs, figuring that not following the “rule” is like painting outside the lines – something I literally seem to do more than I want.

Sketching on site and painting later continues to be my routine when sightseeing, such as during my sister’s recent visit and our explorations through the area.

In Taos, I spent 30 minutes or so sketching the Hotel La Fonda while she shopped in the galleries around the plaza. I also sketched the Santuario de Chimayo while my friend Connie wisely waited in the shade. I added paint later.

Hotel La Fonda in Taos
Santuario de Chimayo

But other times I suffice with photographs of the desert mesas and cliffs for later reference. Back in the condo, I perch myself on a bar stool and sketch from those photographs. It gives me more time to work on perspective and add details. I also have “graduated” to a larger sketchbook – 8.5×11 inches instead of 5×8 inches. I even sometimes start sketching with a pencil, something I don’t allow myself to do on site. Other times I go straight to the paint with no pencil or ink.

Creek near Santa Fe Ski Area

Perhaps the results lack the spontaneity and realism of sketching on location, but I am finding that it encourages me to paint looser and not try to make an exact replication – after all, a photograph would do that just fine.

Originally I hoped to take a painting class or two here in Santa Fe – after all, it’s a mecca for artists. But due to the pandemic I’ve found none.

Santo Tomas El Apostol, in Abiquiu, in progress.
Abandoned building in Abiquiu, to be painted.

Starting tomorrow, I’m doing the next best thing – a three-day online class through the Southwestern Watercolor Society. Our instructor Steve Rogers appears to have some boat scenes on the agenda, which will make me eager to get back on the water, I’m sure.

He also is challenging us to paint BIG – like maybe even 22×30 inches big. I’m heading out today in search of an artist board large enough for the paper.

And you didn’t think I would post without mentioning my still distant luggage from the world cruise, did you? I’ve had to stock up on more paint and supplies for this class because my stash is in my bag somewhere in Florida between customs and shipping on to me. In the pool of fellow cruisers, I picked Sept. 16 as its arrival date in Dallas.

Replacement paint tubes

I’m down to the last few weeks of my three-month sojourn here in Santa Fe and still have hopes that I’ll spend at least one day painting in the desert. Regardless, I’ll come home with lots of photographs waiting for many painting sessions over the winter.