Many 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!