How can so many artist friends, who live within five hours’ drive of Death Valley, have failed to see one of my favorite places in the world? Even after twenty visits during the past forty years and sharing its marvels with friends and relatives, it’s always exciting to return to this magnificent place of legend and lore. Boasting over three million acres, it is the largest National Park. When I began painting its amazing beauty in watercolor ten years ago, I gained a completely new set of eyes accompanied by new discoveries, intensifying my love of this magical place of contradictions. Amazingly, in all those visits have I never encountered other artists. A Google search for Death Valley artists turns up a meager two or three, even though the park service offers an artist-in-residence program. http://www.escapetodeathvalley.com/artist-in-residence . The Fall 2011 issue of American Artist magazine calls Death Valley the national park least discovered by artists.
In January 2012, I yielded to the desire to share my experience of Death Valley and see if artist friends would develop the same passions as mine. How would they paint this magnificent place? After emailing a preliminary plan for a four-day paint-out to 20 friends, accompanied by my own write up about painting in Death Valley, a dozen responses were enthusiastic. ( http://www.worldsworsttourist.com/art/PaintingDeathValley_files/DeathValley.htm ) On March 16, 2012, around 9 A.M., 8 artists (5 female and 3 male), and two companions braved the five hour drive, in six cars, to Death Valley. To my amazement, only one of these widely traveled adventurers had seen Death Valley, and that was many years ago. None of them had thought of Death Valley as a good choice for plein air painting.
Everyone, including Pauline and me, followed our recommended route along the hundred mile single-lane stretch of highway 395 through the Mojave Desert, a choice that always drives my navigator crazy. “Recalculating! Make a legal U-turn.” For some reason, navigators are terrified of this route and persist for much of the drive on trying to return to the freeway for the longer route through Baker.
The only change in the 395 stretch in forty years occurs shortly after the exit from Interstate 15 onto 395, where an infinity of new homes created during the housing bubble stretch as far as the eye can see. A signpost for Adelanto, a town that exploded during the bubble, boasts ominously, “A city with unlimited possibilities,” while seemingly more in danger of achieving ghost town status. Ubiquitous for-sale signs offer empty homes for $89,000 and up, homes that originally started at $500,000. After Adelanto, the desert regains its timeless beauty with painting scenes in the form of mountains, ghost towns, clouds, and Joshua trees in all directions. We made our traditional stop at the Roadhouse restaurant at Kramer’s Junction for home made cinnamon buns and coffee served by an unusually friendly staff.
Refreshed and ready for another hundred miles of desert highway, I was delighted to discover T-Mobile still provided a signal, so I checked in to see if my artist friend, Zeke, was on schedule. I could tell from the background noise that he was driving.
“Hey, Zeke, where the hell are you?”
“A while back I passed a signpost that says Trona and Furnace Creek,” he replied. “So I must be coming into Trona.”
“You are about an hour ahead of us, so we’ll see you in Furnace Creek, and remember to gas up in Trona to avoid the expensive Death Valley gas prices, usually the highest in the country.”
Just northwest of Red Mountain, the ghost town of Randsburg presents the first major temptation, http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/ca/randsburg.html, to divert for a while, but not this time; I’m on a tight schedule as a tour guide, and must meet my gang of artist friends by 4 PM in Furnace Creek. After a turn east on Trona Road, traffic virtually disappears, the colors get more intense, and my excitement for painting this scenery explodes. For the next 100 miles, I could count the cars I see on one hand, and just as I was enjoying my own endless, empty, straight highway, T-Mobile beckoned (still have service!).
Since I am a dangerous man when driving and talking on a cell phone, I passed the phone to Pauline. It was Zeke, marveling at Trona. “There’s nothing here but a big refinery,” he laughed, “and if you need gas, you ain’t going to find it in Trona.” Even though I didn’t need gas, I usually fill up in Trona because of Death Valley prices. Surely Zeke is mistaken, and I imagined the laugh I would have when gassing up in Trona, which is a good sized town with a high school, Trona Bulldogs football team, and at least five gas stations.
How could anyone make Trona a less desirable place to live? With all five gas stations in Trona out of business they just did. Stopping to see, with my own eyes, what was going on, a local informed me that Tronians have to drive to Ridgecrest, 20 miles away, to get gas. Consideration of the scarcity of cars on the way to Trona, supplemented with a bit of mental mathematics, led me to conclude that a Tronian populace fill-up would hardly support a gas station attendant, since there is nothing worth driving to in Trona before the next fill-up.
After Trona, we passed the ghost town of Ballarat, where the Charles Manson gang holed up after the murders in Los Angeles, then along winding mountain roads, overlooking vast breathtaking views of dry lakes and the distant Panamint chain, where gold and silver miners once dreamed of striking it rich.
Nearing Death Valley National Park, one faces a choice to take the main highway 91 straight up the Panamint Range to Stovepipe Wells or to drive the rugged, often non-existent, road through Wildrose Canyon. The choice depends on how big a rush you are in to get to Furnace Creek or maybe how crazy you are. Being on a schedule this time, we chose the former. Three reasons for taking the Wildrose Canyon Road are Aguberry Point, the ghost town of Skidoo, http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/ca/skidoo.html, and the charcoal kilns, once used to produce charcoal for Skidoo, all of which are both hard on a car and a challenge to visit.
The highway rises quickly to nearly 5000 feet altitude before heading down a few thousand to the village of Stovepipe Wells, where we made a picnic stop, broke out our chips and sandwiches, and watched a lizard sun lazily on a rock. Half way through lunch a voice called out from behind, “Jim Trolinger, I presume.” It was Ruth, one of our painters traveling with artist friend, Marianne, fortuitously having chosen the same spot to stop. Their obvious excitement over the scenery so far was cause for considerable relief on my part.
As we were preparing to leave, a van rolled up and another excited artist, Jesse, having seen us from the highway greeted us with already clear signs of enthusiasm over what he was seeing.
After Stovepipe Wells we passed the Mesquite Sand Dunes and observed that the park service had installed a parking lot and toilets since our last trip. This would certainly be appreciated by the less flexible plein air painters, who always have to deal with the need for such facilities.
Just short of five hours driving time, we pulled up to the Furnace Creek Visitors’ Center with time to register and check on potential flower locations. “We have had no rain this year,” the ranger told us. “The only flowers around are in our garden out front.”
Then I put $75 dollars worth of $6.00 per gallon gas in my Lexus.
By 4:30 PM eight artists were present, registered in the Ranch, and raring to go for our first painting venue, Artist Drive and Artist Palette.
Sundown favors many good venues, but my favorite is Artist Palette half way along the 7 mile one way Artist Drive that leaves the Valley floor. Good painting venues are everywhere along Artist Drive. After the 2005 flash flood that washed out the road, the park service paved the road, and this has become a favored tourist route. My chosen venue for our first stop was Artist Palette, where different minerals in the soil make the landscape appear like an artist palette with reds, purples, greens, and yellows.
We set up easels at Artist Palette about an hour and a half before sunset, with some artists peering towards and some away from the palette itself.
In the absence of clouds the sun is so bright that the colors appear very subtle, almost bleached on one’s retina. As the sun begins its descent behind the mountains on the west side of the valley, a shadow moves slowly up the field of view. As the shadow covers more and more of the field of view, eyes gain sensitivity to color, and rich colors begin to develop in the darkened foreground. Suddenly, shadows that were very subtle explode with contrast, and the lighting becomes very dynamic and dramatic. Finally, when all but the last peak is in shadow, that peak becomes an intense gold cone behind saturated colors in the foreground. One’s brain oscillates between the desire to stare in awe and ecstasy and the desire to paint it. I could hear our artists delight and agonize over the rapidly changing color and shadow combinations, “You start painting something and when you have the colors just right, the entire color scheme changes!”
Because today the sun was intermittent between clouds, the lighting was diffused much of the time, so artists chose widely varying directions to paint. Even without the normal sunset, all views were artistically appealing, and I realized for the first time how good the other views could be. He experiences of Artist Palette cannot be photographed, and artists rediscover the magic of plein air painting. Seeing that every single artist appeared as excited with the surroundings as I was, and seeing beautiful paintings emerging filled me with joy and raised my own excitement to yet a new level.
Without much surprise, I faced the trip’s first peril of plein air painting. A gust of wind lifted my favorite hat and took it over the ledge to a spot that I was not able to reach. Jesse, painting nearby, lost a painting rag in the same gust. After climbing up and sliding down a few times, I began working on a towel/rope tossing retriever system to see if I could retrieve it without climbing. Jesse, being a few years younger, wearing better climbing shoes, and possibly a bit crazier than me, took a running start and made it up the cliff far enough to retrieve both my hat and his rag. That feat earned him a margarita later in the Corkscrew saloon.
Back at the ranch, we had our first pseudo critique in the Corkscrew over margaritas by herding up enough tables to display our paintings for all to see. It was interesting to hear conversations about the challenge of painting Artist Palette. “I just discovered how varied and beautiful the color brown can be.” Those who had only one brown hue on their palette had to relearn quickly how to mix a dozen variations. Others dug deep in their supplies to find hues they rarely use in other places. After several attempts, I am still trying to figure out how to capture Artist Palette.
Some of us joined for dinner in the next door Wrangler Steak House before heading to our rooms.
In another eight hours the plan was to be painting on the sand dunes. The weather forecast was ominous, and I began to worry. My worst case interpretation of the forecasts was that Death Valley was about to get its entire annual rainfall over the next three days. I remembered with some dread being here shortly after the flash flood a few years back when roadways disappeared, people drowned, and Lake Badwater was formed over night. Had I brought a caravan of artists into a desert storm?
My normal procedure for the sand dunes begins one hour before sunrise when I walk outside to check for stars. A sky full of stars portends a clear morning, so I pack an artist bag, a jug of water, thermos of coffee, and an apple and set off. A cloudy sky permits me to return for a few hours sleep before finding a more appropriate painting spot. What was predicted this weekend was not normal. Wakened from a restless sleep at 3 AM by banging and slapping noises outside our room, I stepped onto the patio to discover that not only was it raining, but a gale was blowing everything in sight including rocking chairs on the patio, trees, and a nearby flag slapping wildly in a 50 mile per hour wind. The sand dunes would be the last place in California that an artist would want to be in these conditions.
By five A.M. the rain had stopped, and the winds seemed worse, but to my great relief, a bright moon smiled down from a clear, star-filled sky. Pauline and I agonized with the thoughts of calling off the trip to the sand dunes. Finally, we decided to proceed cautiously and at least look. If it was really awful, we could always go back to bed and try a different painting venue. A part of me would have loved to crawl back into bed after a night of tossing and turning.
Stepping into the hall at 6 A.M. I was greeted by six enthusiastic artists, gung ho people, with painting gear in hand, raring to go. (The two remaining had camped.) I sheepishly commented, “Okay, the wind is blowing like hell, but we will go take a look and play the day by ear.” Ruth’s enthusiastic reply, “I want to watch the sun rise in this beautiful place,” was music to my ears. Leaving the ranch in the dark, we drove into a virtual wind storm with clouds of sand and desert debris gusting across the road. The rapidly increasing light in the east began painting its own canvas, an amazingly beautiful, cloud smeared sky, that I‘d be willing to paint from the safety of a car if need be.
Upon arriving at the new Mesquite Sand Dunes parking lot, the universe gave us a gift for which I am still grateful, an eerie morning calm. The surroundings were quiet, still, and beautiful with just light enough to make walking on the sand easy. Jesse, having fought much of the night to keep his tent from blowing away, was already there, waiting patiently. I thought surely I must be dreaming all of this. The sky over the east mountains was lighting up with a magnificent display of colorful clouds. We couldn’t have asked for a better morning at this point.
As painters searched out a good spot, Pauline began recording the event with photographs, some of which are included here. I could hear excited voices on all sides, amazed at the sky, the emerging mountain ranges, the sand dunes themselves. I reminded a few artists to notice how the high things light up first and to enjoy the virgin sand, untainted with tourist footprints, but covered with the tracks of critters’ overnight activities. Jesse, who had spent a sleepless night in a windblown tent, immediately fell in love with a mesquite tree before we even got to the sand dunes. Artists were incredulous with the amazing lighting effects. Within a few minutes easels went up in front of a variety of scenes, ready for the sun, which now was peeking over the mountains to the east and casting long shadows everywhere. The decision of what to paint is agonizing and has to be made quickly. Jesse and I forged further into the dunes after he promised himself he would return and paint the mesquite later.
I found a good dune with an orientation that favored the fast forming shadow and many dunes in a background to add an interesting perspective. The far distant mountains produced the perfect background with remarkable atmospheric perspective to add to the challenge.
Climbing such a dune is an art in itself, with one step up and three sliding back down. By the time I was on top I was totally winded and just stood there, allowing the excitement to overcome exhaustion. Jesse set up an unbelievably large board to paint with acrylics and a palette knife. I could see artists scattered about the lower dunes, all totally captivated by the scenery.
After choosing my subject, I struggled with the distraction of a beautiful sky, and the difficult choice between a skyscape or landscape; an artist just can’t have both at once. This was like, “Which one of your children do you want to keep?” The best way I could deal with this was to forbid myself from touching the part of the paper where the sky would be, and decide later if I was to include any sky at all.
After an hour and half of painting dunes and shadows and mountain range backdrops, I finally gave in and allowed myself to mix a bit of blue. Suddenly, as if the universe objected, the still was broken. Sand was everywhere and everything I owned was full of sand, including my own body. The wind was blowing so hard I could not stand up, and with eyes, mouth and ears full of sand could barely see. I just managed to hold onto belongings, paper, and brushes as I stuffed them in my bag. Within a few minutes the wind paused enough for me to begin walking out. Jesse had met with similar fate, but he had almost finished his first canvas. He was still thinking about the mesquite.
On the way back to the car the wind quietened as suddenly as it had come up and had not been so bad in other painting sites, but we could still see the clouds of sand bathing our original painting sites. After the initial gusts, artists in lower locations had recovered and were still painting. With my painting gear completely unusable before a thorough cleaning, I decided to go for the 9 AM buffet at the Ranch. Jim and Sharon joined us. Jesse and Zeke stayed to paint the mesquite. As we left the sand dunes, a rainbow smiled at us from the west as if to tell us the universe was with us.
The original plan called for an afternoon paint at Dante’s View, which lies 15 miles away and a mile straight up. With Jesse taking six in his van and Zeke driving with Sharon, we reduced the number of cars to two. Dante’s View, overlooking hundreds of miles of Death Valley, is usually an absolute must painting site. From the parking lot, a quarter mile trail takes you to a peak, where few people go, to a place with an excellent panorama of Death Valley 5500 feet below.
No photo will ever capture this view; here you discover the epitome of what plein air painting is all about. Sitting amongst the rocks as a wind shield, looking out across the valley, with a gentle and usually cold breeze, birds soaring beneath, provides the very quiet, perfect place to meditate and paint. The snowcapped Telescope Peak rises above a parched valley and a hundred miles to the north, mountains fade into a clear blue sky. The white salt rivers below wind amongst every color in the rainbow. A painting done here contains a kind of excitement that is not possible in any photograph or painting taken from a photograph. You simply can’t feel what you feel here in person by looking at a photo of this. You just have to be here. I am never ready to leave this spot, and I only leave after promising myself that I will return some day. I included two photos from Dante’s View taken previously on a normal day.
It is always a bit chilly at Dante’s View, but my experience during this trip was unlike that of any other visit. Half way up the mountain we encountered a driving rain, which was replaced by a heavy fog. By the time we were within a few miles of Dante’s View, we could no longer see the top of the mountain. I began to dread arriving at the top and discovering 50 feet of visibility. As we approached the parking lot, the visibility behind was grim. The view site at the top was strange and eerie. A black cloud loomed above us, but to everyone’s delight, the valley below was lit up brightly, providing an amazing view of the valley itself. It was freezing cold with fierce winds driving straight through our flimsy jackets into our bones. The experience was invigorating, but the weather allowed us just time for a quick gawk, a few photos, and a run for the warmth of the van.
On the way down, a voice in the back of the van suggested an Irish coffee at the Furnace Creek Inn, followed by a resounding agreement. Shortly before arriving at the Inn, we made a scouting stop at Zabriskie Point, since it was convenient. Zabriskie Point, another excellent artist venue, provides a look down on Death Valley, through beautiful and colorful rock formations, from a vantage point of a few hundred feet above the valley floor.
Accompanied by two artists I made the short trek up the hill to the overlook, while Zeke, not waiting on the Irish coffee, opened a tail gate, mobile saloon in the parking lot and commenced passing out cups of Jamieson. I was not much competition for the Jamieson, but in the scouting process I discovered a new and unique artists’ haven that would come in handy for the next day’s painting plan. The park service has installed a nice overlook for tourists including a flat tarmac with a rock wall along the west side simplifying viewing the panorama. This provides an efficient tourist spot and handles busloads of tourists, which is part of the problem for artists. Nevertheless, by following a rugged path we discovered how to move onto the west side of the wall providing not only an excellent place to set up easels, but also serving as a wind (and tourist) shield.
By now, the need for Irish coffee had subsided but we stopped by the Inn anyway to scout out its potential for later visits, and the ladies proceeded to buy out the gift shop. We archived the restaurant, patio, and garden for possible extended visits later and moved on to Furnace Creek Ranch.
Pauline and I hosted a critique party in our room and everyone came with wine, snacks, and chairs. We spread our creations for the day across the two queen sized beds, and admired and critiqued the work while sipping wine and sampling dips. Each artist had displayed unique methods, some invented on the spot, for dealing with the desert scenery and was happy to share it with the others. We all struggled to cope with the fast paint drying speed. With constructive comments and observations of fellow artists, a few of us discovered how a simple change, wash, or cropping choice could elevate a painting from a “nice” level to “fantastic”. Everyone agreed that the day, even though limited somewhat in the afternoon by the weather, had, all in all, been a resounding success, producing some excellent new art pieces. We had all earned a trip to the Corkscrew, where we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. It being both pleasant and convenient we stayed and sampled their pizza and other bar food for dinner.
Our next day would begin at Zabriskie Point.
I began the morning by walking through the outdoor museum with a sketchpad and sketching the stage coaches from a previous era. Once again I promised myself to come back some day and spend serious time with these works of art. As always we wound up eating a lot too much in the Wrangler breakfast buffet. By 8:30 everyone was on his way to Zabriskie Point, in separate cars, the theory being that since it was close to the ranch, and easy to find, everyone would enjoy complete freedom to come and go. Unfortunately, two artists took a wrong turn and wound up in Badwater, 17 miles to the south. Fortunately, for them, Badwater is another good place, and they enjoyed the mistrip thoroughly.
The Zabriskie Point paint out turned out to be as close to perfect as one could ask for, beautiful sunshine, just enough clouds to make an interesting sky, and a shield that allowed tourists to see us but not to approach us easily. Busloads of tourists chattered above and behind us, but almost none of them risked the walk around the wall to ask what we were doing or to inform us about the great painting skills of their grand kids.
The paintings produced during this morning were even more exciting than those from the sand dunes.
I had selected several options for the afternoon, including Natural Bridge and other venues along the colorful Artist Drive. Because of the convenience factor and the paved road, I recommended a return to other locations along Artist Drive where I knew of various interesting panoramas. We began with a picnic in the first major parking stop along the drive.
After lunch we spread out and set up easels capturing a wide variety of views. Jesse and I found good spots at the top of a hill that is accessible by a good, though steep footpath. Because of a rather heavy wind at the top others chose spots further down in shielded locations. I was able to position myself amongst rocks that shielded me from the wind as well as the drove of tourists that make it to the top of the hill. Looking south was a most inspiring view of the southern part of the Death Valley floor, with a mountain range as a back drop and low hills as a foreground. I enjoyed the afternoon paint even more than that of the morning.
As sunset approached, although Jesse and I had managed to find rocks behind which to hide, the women were rather happy to move on to Artist Palette where toilet facilities were known to exist. Arriving there, we also got the benefit of another sunset and a chance to see views we had missed on our visit the first afternoon. Because of the moving cloud structure, I saw, for the first time, a shadow start at the peak and move down along the palette as the sun went down.
With time left before darkness, the ones who had not already been to Badwater that day continued on to experience the lowest point in the USA. During a walkabout at Badwater, several artists commented on views that would be inspiring to paint, especially views to the north.
On the way back we made a quick stop at The Devil’s Golf Course, not passing on the opportunity to take a great photo of Jim in the act of pretending a drive with a nine iron. We couldn’t convince him to actually drive the ball. Besides being a bit illegal, Jim just didn’t want to risk ruining one of his favorite irons.
Back at the Ranch we gathered again for a final critique and wine tasting. Both queen sized beds were covered with the day’s work. We could all see now that our trip had been truly worth it, with some dynamite paintings resulting from the exercise that day.
All of us hungered for more and agonized over what would be our final painting of the trip. I began to realize that the paint out should have gone for at least five days, instead of four. Three of us followed the original plan to paint Mosaic Canyon, which is near the western entrance. For a brief moment I considered painting the twenty mule team wagon, but eventually joined the others. Ruth and Marianne decided to stay an extra day and went back to paint at Badwater. Jesse had fallen in love with another tree at the Ranch and set up an easel right on the grounds. He had already begun a three by four foot panel when we checked out at the front desk.
One down side for Mosaic Canyon is the three mile drive over a gravel covered wash board that vibrates a car to near destruction. The second is a parking lot completely full of tourists with no toilet facility. As we attempted to squeeze into the last available spot, an RV, driving where he should not, bashed the rear fender of his neighbor. Before we could leave our car another tourist begged me to move closer to the neighboring car so he could squeeze into a too narrow spot next to me. Valuing my Lexus a bit more than a parking spot, I gave him my spot and parked along on the gravel access road away from the parking lot mayhem.
Painting in the canyons presents one of the greatest challenges to simplify. The typical wall comprises a cornucopia of colors shapes, and details that are likely to be interesting only to the painter himself. The challenge is to design an artistic composition using the subject for inspiration without being a slave to it. As hard as we try, it is impossible to capture the whole experience of being in the canyon; copying what one sees does not work. These scenes are subjects to inspire abstract art. This is definitely a place to practice simplification. A skilled artist can figure out what to leave out, not what to put in.
Each of us had come to a satisfactory conclusion by noon. Four of us stayed for lunch at Stovepipe Wells before saying our goodbyes.
As we prepared to make the five hour drive home, I reflected on the previous four days of art and felt that I had done something worthwhile. I had observed that each of the artists had developed a passion for painting Death Valley that rivaled my own. Every single artist was expressing his desire to return to Death Valley next year, especially if we came as a group. That, alone, made the trip worthwhile for me.
Most of the photos in this report were taken by Pauline Abbott. Paintings were done by artists James Trolinger, Susan Ballou, Marianne Flynn, Ruth Merkle, Zeke Guspan, Jesse Fortune, Sharon Rawlings, Anne Wilson.