Journal of Michael Baum / Travels of an Artist

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Painting the Desert

Arizona Highway


Sketching Sabino Canyon

Wednesday, 1/16/08
We just returned from a quick road trip to Arizona. We dropped off a few paintings at Wilde Meyer Gallery in Scottsdale and attended an opening at their gallery in Tucson. We had a great time looking at art and chatting with fellow gallery artists, staff, and collectors.

The rest of our time we spent contemplating the Sonoran desert. We've visited the desert many times over the years, exploring its mountains and basins, its bajadas and washes. We've chased rattlesnakes armed only with a camera and hunted scorpions at night with black light. They glow ghostly white under a black light. And from time to time, I've attempted painting the desert.

I've had mixed results. The desert is a different sort of place for a painter accustomed to the mountains and prairies of Colorado. The light is different. The mountains are different, the plants are different. Everything is different. It's been a challenge to say the least. So here I am once again roaming the hills and washes of Sabino Canyon trying to understand it. Trying to feel it. Trying to see it.

A luminous haze hugs the ground under a deep winter sky. The flanks of the Catalina Mountains fade from deep indigo to palest blue as they recede into the distance. The riot of desert flora, palo verde, mesquite, and cactus, all so individual up close, resolve into a desert-green carpet as they climb the bajada. 

(continued below)


Catalina Mountains from Sabino Canyon

View from the Catalina Foothills, watercolor

I wander the hillside taking it in, drinking from the proverbial fire hose. I take photo after photo, burning through a thousand megabytes, even though the photos don't really get it.

I forget to look down, a dangerous mistake in the desert where sticks can  transform into snakes. Luckily, I don't step on a rattlesnake. Instead, I blunder into a cactus hidden in the brush. Searing pain jolts up my leg. I look down and see large spines protruding from my jeans and quickly pull them out. But the big spines aren't the ones that do the damage. It's those little hair-like spines that you can barely see that cause all the grief. I try to lift my jeans to see the little devils. Another jolt of fire.  I let out an involuntary groan. In the fading light, I can't even see the spines let alone pull them out. I'll have to do that when I get home. For now I will have to live with it. It's another case of suffering for art. At least I'm getting the feel of the place.

Back at our home away from home, a  house nestled in the Catalina foothills, I try a few watercolors and think about how I'm going to paint what I've experienced. I have some good photos to work with and some "searing" impressions of the landscape.

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