Bombay Beach

Desert Wanderings

The Call of the Desert (Box Canyon), 12" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

The lure of the desert recently bit me again and so I went out to the Coachella Valley to paint with Andrew Dickson, Joe Forkan, Yu Ji and Larry Groff at the Salton Sea and some other great spots in the area. We explored some places I haven't been yet, like Box Canyon and Painted Canyon, hiked to the Dos Palmas Adobe and Oasis, once the home of artist John W. Hilton (who lead quite an interesting life: he was a friend of President Eisenhower, James Cagney, Howard Hughes, and the early desert artists including Nicolai Fechin and Maynard Dixon used to gather at his place for parties - more info on Hilton here and here). We also spent some time painting the surreal landscape of Bombay Beach.

The Solid Becomes Light (Painted Canyon), 9" x 12" sketch, Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

In Hilton's words, the desert ". . . is a land of peace, silence and boundless skies …It is as if nature herself set aside these vast areas …so that thinking men might have a place where they go to regain their perspective and find themselves and their true meaning.” From what I understand, the Dos Palmas Adobe has been designated a Historical Monument and is no longer in danger of demolition.

In the top painting above I was interested in the composition - the focus on the deep shadow on the left that then moved across the calligraphy of the face of the cliff in sunlight. After I sketched it and made some notes in my sketchbook,  the color harmonies brought it all together. The painting below that was a fun challenge - frontally lit with almost no shade save under a bush or two - I had to use subtle temperature shifts to suggest some of the form changes on the hills.

If you're in Mecca, make sure to eat at Plaza Garibaldi Restaurant, 91275 66th Avenue, Mecca, CA 92254, 760/396-1500. Some of the best Mexican food I've had in California - you can get a good idea of the quality of a place by their chips and salsa, and these were amazing! Also, homemade tortillas!

Beware of Fish Scapulas, etc.

salton-sea_s Spaceship Landing, 10" x 10", Oil on board, © Eric Merrell

I recently took a trip out to the Salton Sea to explore and paint with my friends Andrew Dickson and Samantha. Man, what a gorgeous place - but so inhospitable. Not the people, though; we met some very nice folks, including Leonard Knight who built Salvation Mountain. We checked out some of the small "towns" like Bombay Beach and Niland, really more like clusterings of houses and trailers, though Niland does have a Chinese restaurant. Quite a few abandoned places that have seen a lot of weather.

The Salton Sea is a very austere place, with no real amenities around. I wanted to paint something that spoke of the simple beauty and the harsh life that residents of the area endure and become a part of. 

The beaches are mostly made of old coral and fish bones, at least from what I saw there was hardly any sand, and the water doesn't look very inviting. Not the kind of beach you'd want to frolic at on the weekend (though it was a hugely popular destination in the 1950's.) We did hear a rumor that there may be a new attempt to fix up the sea, but the odds seem to be against that type of endeavor...