The following article on plein air painting first appeared in Pastel Journal (June 2016)
by Aaron Schuerr
To step from pavement onto dusty trail is to cross an invisible line into the present. The idea becomes the act. After months of planning and preparing, this first step feels strangely improbable. The central question is this: Can I paint my way across the Grand Canyon?
Rim to rim, the trail is 23 miles long. A hiker loses about a mile of elevation before crossing the Colorado River on a suspension bridge and ascending to the opposite rim. The trail follows perennial tributaries so water is not an issue. Heat is.
My first attempt to paint the Grand Canyon literally brought me to my knees. I was so overwhelmed with the challenge of painting that although I stayed hydrated, I forgot to eat. Unbeknownst to me, the desert sun was leaching essential electrolytes from my system. The next morning, I awoke with what felt like the worst hangover of my life. I learned that I suffered from hyponatremia, colloquially known as water intoxication. The remedy was simple: Pringles and Gatorade. I learned to take the canyon seriously.
Every time I paint those distant landforms, I cannot help but wonder what the canyon is like up close.
I am too restless to stay at the rim; I need to go down. I have allotted six days for this traverse and need to carry everything on my back—tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, water bottles, clothes, first aid kit, stove, cook kit, food and outdoor painting gear. I carry nearly 60 pounds.
In cool predawn light, I descend through a mixed forest of aspen, pine and Gambel oak, stopping the moment the sunlight first touches the cliffs. It is my signal to paint. I begin with a stroke of dark green to indicate a pine tree, and then add a few touches of red for the cliffs. So it begins.
Plein Air Painting in the Grand Canyon: Day Two
Already I have passed through a land full of surprises, simultaneously vast and intimate, lush and austere. In the morning I hike the spur trail to Ribbon Falls, a hidden gem of a waterfall accessed through a narrow side canyon. On the way, I stop to pick prickly pear fruit, violet bulbs that grow like fat bruised thumbs along the edges of cactus paddles. I carefully break the fruit off and scrape it on a boulder to remove the needles before peeling its leathery skin. The flavor is subtle, but the flesh is juicy. The simple joy of fresh fruit in the desert is worth the effort.
Ribbon Falls is tucked in a grotto of overhanging red quartzite. An elegant wisp of a thing, it cascades from the lip and splashes down an oversized mound of moss-covered travertine. For the Zuni tribe, Ribbon Falls is a sacred place of pilgrimage; it is the womb from which they were born, rescued by the sun from the dark underground depths. Told to look the sun full in the face, the people cried in pain, and where their tears fell flowers grew. Cleaned and sculpted into human form, the Zuni people traveled forth into the world.
Viewed from any angle—geologic, religious or artistic—Ribbon Falls is singularly unique: a lush, sheltered oasis in the desert. To cool off, I periodically leave the easel and take a dip in the creek. Here I discover a trio of surprises: a dipper napping only a few feet away in an alcove, a pair of frogs that look like they have been spray painted silvery-gray, and fresh mint growing along the creek.
Outdoor Painting Adventure: Day Three
At sunrise, the clouds part, and the fin of a towering butte is bathed in a tangerine glow. At the rim, I have had the luxury to return to a spot two or three days in a row at the same time to finish painting. Here I have one shot before shouldering my pack and covering a half-dozen miles to the next camp. I have to make it count, to trust my instinct and not fuss over details. My limited pastel selection forces me to think of color in relative terms, not for how accurately it matches the subject, but for how it functions in concert on the page.
In the early afternoon light, showers bring welcome relief from the heat. I enter “The Box,” a dark and narrow winding gorge of 2-billion-year-old basement rock. To descend the canyon is to read from back to front, from younger rock at the rim to the bones of the earth at the bottom. I imagine time itself struggling to escape its primordial austerity.
Suddenly, I emerge into Eden, a lush riparian habitat interspersed with willow and cottonwood groves. Cliffs rise in impossible terraces up to the distant south rim. As if on cue, the clouds part. A half-mile more, and I pass the cabins of Phantom Ranch. After days of solitude, I feel like I have entered the big city. As the only lodging below the rim, Phantom Ranch is a nexus for hikers, mule trip riders and river floaters. Just past the ranch, I cross a bridge to Bright Angel Campground.
Painting Outside in the Grand Canyon: Day Four
A group of about 30 hikers gathers in a small outdoor amphitheater at Phantom Ranch where I have been asked to talk about my trip. “We are all moved and inspired by the scenery,” I say. “The only real difference between you, the hiker, and me, the artist, is that I ask myself what it is that makes a scene beautiful. Something about it stops me dead in my tracks. As an artist, I try to understand what that is.”
I encourage the group to see the canyon through the eyes of an artist—to look for shapes, for the intersection of light and shadow, for a surprising color, for the glow of reflected light bounced into desert shadows. These are the ingredients for art. Later in the evening, two women run up to me, grinning and talking over each other in their enthusiasm. They had spent the evening “just looking, like you told us to,” and had seen the landscape afresh. “Everything looked different,” they said. “Everything looked new.”
Plein Air Painting: Day Five
From Indian Garden, I follow a spur trail to Plateau Point, overlooking Granite Gorge, with the Colorado River 1,300 feet below. The wind roars and light rolls like liquid mercury across the broad shoulder of Buddha Temple. Colors shift in chameleon fashion, and cloud shadows play hide-and-seek with Isis Temple and Cheops Pyramid. Painting this is jazz—improvisational and instinctual.
I strike up a conversation with a hiking guide who cooks dinner on a backpacking stove. He tells me of the interaction of man with the canyon, of archeological sites hidden throughout. As I pack up in the waning light, he offers me dinner. “We have more than enough,” he says. I wipe the pastel dust off of my hands and eagerly accept.
We hike back to Indian Garden under the bright arc of the Milky Way. Tomorrow I will ascend the final stretch to the South Rim. But for now, I gaze up at the impossible stars. Life below the rim moves to a slow, sacred rhythm, to the muffled beat of footfall on dusty trail in a vast wilderness.
From the easel, I have heard an even greater music, a song without words, a sweet harmony blending space, time and sensation. It is the music of the heart, the experience of gratitude.
Bio: Aaron Schuerr (aaronschuerr.com) is a plein air artist based in Livingston, Mont. Visit North Light Shop for his pastel painting workshops, available as DVDs and/or downloads!