Pastel Pointers | Places That Inspire Plein Air Painting

When the word “inspire” is used as a verb, it describes filling someone with the urge or ability to feel something, especially to do something creative. Painters are visual beings. They communicate their feelings with pigment on a surface. The subjects they choose to portray are rooted in their histories and perceptions. What serves as motivation and inspiration to one, may not to another. This is what makes artists individuals. While landscape artists have found inspiration in a variety of scenic locations, from the sublime to the commonplace, there are a handful of destinations that seem to hold special visual powers. Once visited, it is easy to see why artists hold them dear, even sacred at times. One such location situated in the northern reaches of New Mexico in the Piedra Lumbre basin is Ghost Ranch, the fabled love of artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s life.

The Piedra Lumbre is the gateway to the great Colorado Plateau. Everything that is found in the Four Corners region to the northwest is represented there in a smaller scale. While the Four Corners region is filled with spectacular untouched places that are mostly inaccessible, Ghost Ranch, which encompasses the northern third of the Piedra Lumbre, provides an intimate intensity within easy reach of the modern traveling artist. Initially the ranch was the hideout for legendary cattle thieves and called “el Rancho de los Brujos (the Ranch of the Witches)” but transformed into a dude ranch in the 1930s. The Presbyterian Church today operates it as a multiuse educational center. Lodging and meals can be arranged in various casitas in the heart of the ranch, or artists can pay a daily fee to paint within the bounds of the property. The charming village of Abiquiu, where O’Keeffe’s main home is run as a museum, is an easy 15 miles to the south along the Chama River.

artists plein air painting at Ghost Ranch, NM | painting landscapes

An artist group painting within Ghost Ranch, NM

Having briefly visited Ghost Ranch in the past and witnessing firsthand the diverse beauty it had to offer, I have longed to return for an extended painting adventure. Recently, I was fortunate to do so while instructing a workshop group based in Abiquiu, N.M. Like most locations, no matter how inspiring they are, it took time to acclimate to the terrain and lighting. Many of us traveled from locations covered in spring green that are near sea level. Saturated in terra colors of yellow and red, and bathed in intense clear light due to the near 6,500 feet elevation, Ghost Ranch took some getting used to.

As we departed near sunset at the end of the third day just west of the ranch along the Chama River, I couldn’t help but be awestruck by the light striking the earthen cliffs. It became clear to me why the region was referred to as “The Valley of the Shining Stone.” Haunted all night by the image, I couldn’t wait to return the next evening in hopes of capturing a bit of the sense of it all. As a group of us gathered early in the evening after a long day of painting adventures within the boundaries of the magical place, the sun was not to be found. Clouds had pushed their way into the region and the light was flat. Anticipating that as the sun lowered into the western sky it would potentially break through, we went about working out compositions and getting ready. Right on cue, it did. There was no time for analytical thought. It was time for intuitive, plein air painting!

painting completed at Ghost Ranch | painting landscapes

Valley of the Shining Stone (pastel, 12x16)

As the sun quietly set, we packed our gear and headed back for an evening of nourishment and camaraderie in Abiquiu. I now understood part of what had inspired O’Keeffe and so many other painters about this area. My time may have been but a tease compared to hers, but the inspiration still lingers, waiting for my return.


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3 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers | Places That Inspire Plein Air Painting

  1. MarshaSavage

    Richard, thanks for your post. I enjoyed painting at Ghost Ranch with Ann Templeton in the fall of 2010. It was the last time I spent time with Ann… and in such a beautiful location. It is a special place and I hope to return sometime to paint there. I was able to create quite a few special paintings from that week. Your painting above is stunning and captures it beautifully!

  2. Willo Balfrey

    Having grown up in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico – and had the joy of seeing the Ghost Ranch area – your description made my heart beat faster. I wanted to be there and experience that color and mood all over again. Thank you for sharing your feelings and the inspiration of the area with us Richard.