Coachwhip Canyon

Painting Workshop in the Anza-Borrego Desert

I've just returned from a week of painting and teaching in California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This was the second 3-day workshop I've taught there, and was excited to return. I love this part of the desert, and this trip afforded me a little more time to explore and paint a few new locations. I also painted a few more nocturnes on location, something that has to be experienced. Even with less than a quarter moon, color temperatures and shapes are apparent, and there is also starlight to see by. NOTE: If you missed this trip, I'll be teaching another 3-day workshop in Joshua Tree next month, April 19-21, 2013.

Each day began with the importance of using your sketchbook - finding what your piece will be about, drawing thumbnail sketches and writing about them. I'm not interested in copying the landscape, but rather finding what it is that excites me about the location. I see painting as a way to dig a little deeper, to try a little harder.

I began with a demo in the morning and did another after lunch. I want everyone in the workshop to come away with a structure or process that they can use to interpret the landscape when they're working on their own. We talked about color, value, shapes, materials, umbrellas, and many other items of concern to artists working outdoors.

We started early each morning while it was still cool, painting until 1 pm or so, and then took a 2-hour lunch and siesta. After the rest, we'd get back out on location for the afternoon. For most folks who haven't painted on location before, one thing they don't realize is how physically and mentally demanding it is. This trip also sprouted a new tradition of starting the afternoon session with ice cream. At the end of a full day of painting, we'd gather for a good dinner at a local restaurant to relax and discuss painting.

I selected three different locations around the park that provided three different types of landscape, with a variety of underbrush, cacti, and change in elevation.

On the last day we created a little shade and held a critique to talk about the work everyone had produced. I'm always glad when I see such a sharp improvement over a short period of time, and there was a notable jump in seeing and painting color in each student's work over the three days. Though we were pretty tired when we departed at the end of the workshop, I think everyone seemed pleased with their efforts and had a sketchbook full of new ideas to put into practice in their own future work.

If you're interested in learning to see and paint color on location, I'll be teaching another 3-day workshop in Joshua Tree next month, April 19-21, 2013. Sign up here: http://ericmerrell.com/workshops.html

Borrego Springs Workshop and Invitational Paint-Out

I've just returned from an action-packed painting trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Up until now I'd never been to this part of the California desert, located west of the Salton Sea and on the southern side of the Santa Rosa Mountains from Palm Springs. Interestingly, I don't think that many people in Southern California have ever heard of it, despite its being the largest state park in California. It's remoteness is probably a big reason. Historically, this area was frequented by San Diego-based artists such as Marjorie Reed and Maurice Braun; for the L.A. artists, Palm Springs and the high desert was much more convenient.

Staying in Borrego Springs, a tiny desert town surrounded by the Park, I spent the first three days teaching a workshop with great attendance. Each day presented new locations to explore - and we worked only around the western side of town! Once you get in your car and drive, there are enough hidden canyons and valleys to last a lifetime. We focused on the basics of painting on location, always stressing the importance of good color relationships, emotional impact, and light. We had lots of good conversations and questions about painting, good meals, and covered lots of canvas boards with paint. I was pleased to see a jump in confidence in each person's work from one day to the next, so I think it was enjoyable for all. By the end of the workshop each individual was developing their own approach and personal sense of color.

March 8 was the full moon, so this meant perfect conditions for some moonlight painting! No wind, comfortable evening temperatures, and bright moonlight. Everyone should see the desert in moonlight at some point, it's awesome. This photo only gives a sense of what my setup looks like at night, the camera can't pick up the moonlight even from a full moon; yet it produces enough light to walk by without any other light source.

The last day of the workshop we drove up the mountains to gain some elevation. Culp Valley turned out to be a fantastic spot, with dramatic views back down to the desert floor amidst ancient boulders and forests of cholla.

After the workshop ended and everyone packed up, happily but wearily, to drive home, I had another job in town, so I stayed on. The 6th Annual Borrego Springs Plein Air Invitational began the next day, hosted by the Borrego Art Institute, and I had been invited to judge the event at the end of the week. This meant I had some time to myself to paint, and so I happily disappeared into the desert each day to explore and paint. I was enthralled by day with locations such as Coachwhip Canyon (got stuck in the sand), Earth Narrows Trail (got stuck by some cholla), Font's Point, and others; and devoured stories of desert lore by night - ghostly stagecoaches that rumble by in the dark of the new moon, mysterious ships discovered in hillsides and sand dunes, old stories of lost prospectors and lost claims, shootouts with bandits, De Anza's desert expeditions, Pegleg Smith's legendary black gold, and Indian guides with secrets.

At the end of the week, each of the 15 participating artists brought in their work to be juried. This was a tough decision to narrow down, as art is more subjective than sports, but yet there are criteria we can use to begin to judge the merit of an artwork. Saturday night was the reception for the exhibit, and the town of Borrego Springs turned out in numbers to support the Art Institute and exhibition, a wonderful sight to see. Winds and rain did finally come to town on Saturday afternoon, but the weather generously waited out the week so that everyone could get their paintings done. To me, the desert is one of the most mysterious, beautiful and difficult places to paint, so I congratulate everyone who participated in the Invitational. I came home with a dozen or more sketches, and I'm excited to get to work on larger versions of these.

*Due to the great response to the workshop, too, I'm planning to do another soon. Maybe returning to Borrego Springs, or heading up to Joshua Tree in the high desert. If you're interested in these, send me an email and I'll keep you up to date. This last one filled up quite quickly.