On Location in Tuscon

87-tucson-memeories.jpgMany of us live in areas that don’t provide easy plein air experiences in the winter. The days are too short and the weather too damp for pastel work—not to mention the inhospitable temperature. It’s during these times that we all long for a painting vacation to some inspiring, warm environment.

Just as the depression of winter was starting to take hold this year, I was able to arrange a plein air workshop in southern Arizona, in the Tucson area—a place I had never visited before (see photo). The desert has always held a particular fascination for me: California’s Mojave, northern New Mexico’s Pueblo country, and eastern Oregon’s rugged high desert have provided many hours of painting inspiration. Something about the textures and rhythms of the rugged earth and industrious vegetation combine with the wide-open expanse, making for unlimited painting possibilities. So, with great eagerness, I set off for Arizona. Fortunately, I was able to connect with artist friends upon arriving in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area and they graciously showed me the sights. It is worthwhile to make contact with local plein air painters when visiting an unfamiliar area for the first time. They know where all the good painting locations are and days of aimless wandering can be avoided. This also provides artist camaraderie as so much of our time painting can be spent in isolation. It’s a pleasure to spend time with “our tribe.” After checking out the local art scene of Scottsdale (one of the major art markets in the United States), it was off to Tucson.

Upon arriving, it became clear why many artists have been drawn to this rugged and majestic landscape. The city sits at the base of the beautiful Catalina mountain range. With the intense reflected light off the desert floor, it’s a nonstop kaleidoscope of value and color variation. Dry river washes that attest to the volume of water produced during the monsoon season, and the abundant varieties of cactus and desert vegetation provide a stunning foil. But it didn’t take us long to be reminded of the dangers of extreme desert painting: cactus needles that could penetrate the strongest of shoes required pliers for removal; rattlesnakes easily blended into the terrain; and ornery wild pigs left hoof prints as a reminder they were near. Curious coyotes peaked up over the ditches as we packed in for the day. All this played a part in the experience. It was a reminder to do research in advance of wondering off towards that beautiful inspiration when visiting unfamiliar locations. We definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore!

If you love to work en plein air and winter gets you down, try visiting the Southwest. The key of light is high and the color harmony muted with a gray that threads it all together. You won’t be disappointed. Summer in this region of Arizona is another matter: I was assured that even a pastel stick could melt!

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5 thoughts on “On Location in Tuscon

  1. j.sabia

    Hi, I just purchased your DVD set and I am finding it very helpful.. One question. I like the idea of using the turpentine wash over a layer of pastel on the paper. It does seem like it takes a long time to dry. This is a problem when I am doing a pastel on location. Any advice? Thanks, Julie

  2. BlueBerry Pick'n

    I strongly recommend the views from Taliesin… & the tour is highly inspirational for those who want to remember, ‘the well-trod path isn’t always true’…

    oh yes!
    …& Camelback Mountain… really does look like a snoozing Camel!

    The light on stark rocks & the cacti in Arizona are truly stunning inspirations…

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  3. Paula


    Tucson is a lovely area – be sure to check out the area around Patagonia a little to the south. The area is so scenic, and I read after visiting that it was used for the background in old western movies. If you also like birds, it is worth a trip to Ramsey canyon in the summer to possibly see some of the most varieties of hummingbirds in North America.

  4. Richard McKinley

    Linda, I’ll gladly look you up when visiting – bet you know all the best painting locations! Never have been in Woodstock. May have been Richard McDaniel, another Richard and fine artist. Hope spring arrives soon and with it, painting motivation. Best,

  5. Linda Richichi

    As I read your blog I recall my trip last year to the Southwest with fond memories. It is cold, damp and chilly here in the Northwest today. As a professional I was feeling guilty for not being motivated to paint in the studio. It was nice to read about your adventure. Anytime you come to the Newburgh, NY area where the Hudson River School painters worked, please look me up, I’d be happy to take you to some great spots. Were you in Woodstock at one point?