Over the Cliff with Georgia O’Keeffe

KitchenMesaphoto“The cliffs over there, you look at it and it’s almost painted for you, you think until you try”. Georgia O’Keeffe’s beautifully strange formations aren’t necessarily the subjective stylings of a modern artist. I drove past a few round-headed, gray-striped Abiquiu buttes this fall and nearly sheered off the road in a sudden downburst of meme recognition. While not setting out to copy what she saw, Georgia O’Keeffe was, to my mind, a realist. She just worked in a freakish landscape. “One paints what is around”, as she put it.

Kitchen Mesa, located, behind the Ghost Ranch kitchen. Watercolor over pencil, 6 1/2" x 5", in Stillman & Birn sketchbook
Kitchen Mesa, located conveniently behind the Ghost Ranch kitchen. Fantastic bit of planning. Watercolor over pencil, 6 1/2″ x 5″, in Stillman & Birn sketchbook

This September I took a mentorship program with artist Janet Palin at Ghost Ranch in the O’Keeffe landscape near Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Ghost Ranch has its own colorful history. It’s been, at different times, a cattle-rustler’s hideout, dude ranch, Georgia O’Keeffe’s backyard, and a movie set (City Slickers, No Country for Old Men, and the new Lone Ranger). It now serves as an institute for study and retreat. My visit coincided with gatherings of artists, photographers, writers, hikers, archaeology students and sixty-five Shamans.

Chimney Rock. As far as I know, no connection. Watercolor over pencil, 5 1/2" x 61/2, sketchbook.
Chimney Rock. As far as I know, no actual, pinyon-burning, chimney here. Watercolor over pencil, 5 1/2″ x 61/2.

Class titles from the Ghost Ranch catalog show a range of what’s possible to learn in a week. For starters…  Interior Landscapes: Ecology of Creativity; Food, Glorious Food: The Eucharist & Your Foodshed; Jewelry & Lapidary Arts; Fantasy Birdhouses; Hiking Ghost Ranch: The Land & The Legends; The Art of Blacksmithing, and, most intriguingly, Tiny Writing (a course in creating miniature books). The fall cottonwood leaves glowed so awesomely I had to go buy brighter yellow pastels.

Chama River panorama, being drawn in pastels. 27" x 19
Chama River panorama in progress, pastels. 27″ x 19

This place had an aura, even for a doubter like me. A huge harvest moon bulged over the horizon every night. At dawn it touched down on Chimney Rock and slid into the notch at the very moment the sun hit the back of Kitchen Mesa to the east. I stood bundled up on a mesa in the middle and started my day with this cosmic dance; that, and the songs of sleepy bluebirds in the junipers.

Done. Chama River winding through the mesas and cliffs of Abiquiu, fall cottonwoods, and way in back, lush irrigated farm fields growing who knows what.
Chama River winding through the mesas and cliffs of Abiquiu, fall cottonwoods, and way in back, irrigated farm fields growing who knows what. Pastel on royal blue Colorfix sanded paper, 27″ x 19″.

Three of us worked with Janet to learn her basic, structured approach- how to compose with mat-corners and make useful thumbnail sketches- just a few strokes of heavy pencil to capture the scene as it first appeared. The strong starts gave us confidence and a map to follow as we crossed the plein air minefield.

Janet Palin, working her magic. Chama River overlook, Abiquiu, NM.
Janet Palin, working her magic. Chama River overlook, Abiquiu, NM.
Chama River, another view. This is my thumbnail, drawn very quickly first thing on setting things up. 4" x 6 1/2" in sketchbook.
Chama River #2, vertical format. This is the thumbnail, drawn first thing on setting up from the bluff overlooking the river. We worked at a pullout on the the highway with cars, vans, trucks and buzzards whizzing by.  4″ x 6 1/2″ pencil.

 I graphed a thumbnail into thirds and transferred the design onto a larger sheet of dark blue pastel paper in vine charcoal.

Chama River- this is the beginning of the painting, with the thumbnail enlarged (with the help of a little graphing) onto a bigger sheet of Colorfix pastel paper, Royal Blue. Next step: add pastel.
Chama River- beginning of the painting, the thumbnail enlarged onto a bigger sheet. Next step: add pastel.

By working directly from the thumbnail, I was spared the hassle of recomposing. The raked morning light in the scribbled thumbnail was a good capture, too, since the sun traveled as we worked. Clouds had come and gone and come again. The view changed radically in the course of a few hours, but I still had the thumbnail to refer to.

Chama River, with a nicely shaped butte in the background. Pastel on royal blue Colorfix sanded pastel paper, 19" x 12".
Chama River, with a nicely shaped butte in the background. Pastel on royal blue Colorfix sanded pastel paper, 19″ x 12″.

“All the colors of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of bad lands. The light Naples yellow through the ochres—orange and red and purple earth—even the soft earth greens”

Heading home, my eyes opened to a landscape suddenly broken into bands of color, like a brand-new box of pastels unwrapped, full of rosy-reds, sage grays, and much, much brighter yellows.

Kitchen Mesa, another view; pencil in sketchbook. 8 1/2" x 6"
Kitchen Mesa, pencil in sketchbook. 8 1/2″ x 6″

12 thoughts on “Over the Cliff with Georgia O’Keeffe

  1. Sherrie York says:

    Just a few days ago I was poking around the Ghost Ranch website, imagining a few days with sketchbook and self. You’ve succeeded in making me twitchy for sunlight, pencils, and red, red dirt.

  2. Marc Calvo Armengol says:

    In Spain there are a similar dried steppe environments like this,combined with this kind of cliffs and plateaus,like for example “Los Monegros”,”Las Bardenas reales”.these ecosistems contain a peculiar and unique animal and plant comunities,with much endemisms.

    1. zeladoniac says:

      Marc, I just looked these up. You’ve given me a renewed desire to go to Spain (I wanted to go anyway). Beautiful landscapes. I bet the flora and fauna are fantastic, too. Thanks!

    1. zeladoniac says:

      Thanks, Ken- very glad you’re here. And as my Latin teacher used to say: Sentio aliquos togatos contra me conspirare*

      *I think some people in togas are plotting against me.

      p.s. I couldn’t resist putting that in- and I didn’t actually take Latin, so mea culpa…

  3. David Yeamans says:

    I live within 20 miles of the most painted landscape in the USA. I’ve seen and harvested quite a few birds here. Unless you live in these parts it’s hard to understand that this scenery is real.

    Going to Jekyll Island this weekend for a change from Kaua’i and Abiquiu.

  4. Lesley says:

    Oh, you’re back! I hardly dared hope, but I just thought I’d check, and here you are! You have no idea how happy I am to see new posts from you. Now I’m going to read everything I missed.

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