Thursday, June 24, 2010


Mt. McKinley from the south

To make a great understatement, Alaska's amazing. We, myself and three friends, two of whom are also painters, rented an RV in Anchorage and set off to see Alaska. In ten days we drove from Anchorage to Denali National Park, from there up to Fairbanks, and then down the eastern loop of the highway through Paxton, down all the way to Seward, from Seward to Homer, and from Homer back again to Anchorage, stopping along the way as the fancy, or more like the vista, took us. We covered nearly 1500 miles, most of which were vast expanses of wilderness with only a highway cutting through it. And, as we were there during the summer solstice, we had near endless daylight with which to work. Tonight will be the first time in two weeks I've seen the sky grow truly dark; it seems almost unnatural. Overall I did twelve painting sketches. The number seems small to me after all I saw, but it is more because there was too much to look at and choose from than too little to paint. But from the twelve, and the hundreds of photos I took along the way, I have plenty of material to develop larger and more finished paintings in the coming months.

Here are some pictures from the first half of the trip:

My easel set up in the brush at Denali National Park.

This is the first quick study I did at a river at the fifteen mile mark in the park, as far as you can drive a private vehicle without special permission. It was at this point I realized how long it'd been since I last did proper plein air painting, and just began to realize the learning curve involved in painting rocky mountains (later I would discover the even larger curve for painting snow capped ones), and how dozens of paintings of the nice rolling Tuscan hills and English countryside do not quite prepare for the raw intensity of Alaska.

Here is our RV. My friend, Barbara, is sitting on the back bumper painting the view down the road.

We were amazingly lucky and saw Mt McKinley three days in row. Apparently, as many people who failed to see it informed us, it is only visible sixty days of the year. I did this sketch of it on the second day, after realizing the rarity of the sight. It is an amazing subject to paint; its colors and values change so rapidly with the shifting clouds. I discovered, at the Anchorage Museum, the works of the painter Sydney Laurence who spent years painting McKinley. His paintings blow me out of the water. For that matter, just blow my mind. After seeing his work, I feel like I know at least what I'm lacking. I mean to spend many months studying him before returning to try again, hopefully next year.

Here is Kelly, another fellow painter, painting a view down a river bed in Denali on our second day. We stood back to back on the bank here where we were, mostly because we each liked the opposite view, but it gave us the added bonus of knowing a grizzly wasn't going to wander up behind us.

This is the study I did from that vantage point.

As we didn't see any bears, our biggest problem at Denali was the wind, which left us all sorely windburned and knocked over my easel frequently. It seemed particularly to like to wait until I had turned my back for a moment so I couldn't catch the falling easel, or, even better, would get a wet painting in the shoulder. Here is the best solution I had to the problem: big rocks.

This is the last study I did in Denali. I was struggling to remember that distance makes things blue/purple, no matter how colorful they look. With this painting I finally realized just how tricky it is to paint glowing white snow on dark gray rocks with a light sky and get the values right. I'm not sure I ever nailed it on the trip, but I learned so much trying!

Last but not least, the road from Denali. Long and deserted, seemingly. I did take this picture standing in the middle of the highway.

The second half of the trip will have to wait for tomorrow, I haven't yet recovered from the overnight flight back to Chicago that robbed me of a night of sleep.

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