Whoops, I should have listened to Ed

The human brain has an unfortunate tendency to skip over the parts of a plan it doesn’t like.

Desert long view, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

I never expected to be flying back from my workshop in Sedona with four wet canvases, so I only brought a two-canvas PanelPak. Whoops, bad planning—but it was based on prior experience. I seldom have time for anything but a basic demo when teaching workshops.

“Do you want me to mail those?” Ed Buonvecchio, my monitor, asked me. No, I could jury-rig something using waxed-paper and an elastic band. I’ve done it many times before, but this time, something slid. My dawn painting of the Grand Canyon smeared. Whoops, I should have accepted help when it was offered.

Camel Head, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

Oh, well. That gave me the opportunity to demonstrate glazing to my Monday night Zoom class, but I think the painting is irreparably damaged. It will have to be completely repainted, and at that point it’s no longer plein air, meaning I’m no longer interested.

That happened after I dropped both Grand Canyon paintings jelly-side down on the sidewalk. Whoops, I should have made two trips to the car.

That’s not usually a deadly problem, as I tend to paint leaner in the field than in the studio. Thin paint sticks to the canvas better than its juicy cousin. The twigs and leaf litter will brush out when the paintings are fully dry.

South Rim of the Grand Canyon, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed.

“Do you always do a value sketch first?” Ed asked me—with a small dash of skepticism—during the workshop.

“Only when I want my painting to come out well,” I replied.

The human brain has an unfortunate tendency to skip over the parts of a plan it doesn’t like, and the less articulated the plan, the more opportunities for bad assumptions. The consequences have come to be known as Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong, will.

We see that law of unintended consequences in every endeavor, not just painting. Looking back on mistakes, we can almost always identify where we went wrong. “If only I’d…” is our universal response. Advance planning can’t eliminate all disasters, but it sure cuts down on them.

Painting, super-briefly, at the Grand Canyon.

Planning means different things to different painters. To many (including me) it’s a simple, rough value sketch or notanoutlining the basic composition. To others, like Andrew Wyeth, it means a complex series of sketches working out all the problem areas in a painting.

But there is no planning hack in art that allows you to skim over the critical composition questions.

“I don’t want to spend all my time doing a sketch!” one student complained. It’s a common misconception that a painting moves faster and is more visceral if we don’t spend time on the value sketch and grisaille. But a painting without a plan takes longer to finish, is more tentative, and often is just a hopeful approximation of what we first envisioned.

But at dawn at the Grand Canyon, I ignored my own oft-stated instructions. Like everyone else, I have excuses: I was exhausted, it was still pitch-black, and the light would change fast. The result was a sub-optimal composition. So, I’m not really that heartbroken that the painting was ruined by my bad packing. It was the only one of the four that I was ambivalent about.

The famous vortexes of Sedona

“It’s not about measurable facts, it’s about what you know in your gut is real.”

The only thing I’ve managed to paint this week has been this 9X12 demo.

Painters and photographers know there’s a dead period in the middle of the day. The long raking shadows of early morning or the beautiful golden light of afternoon are ideal for building a composition and matching colors. The harsh midday sun, with its bleached color, is more suited for listening to the instructor drone on.

In Maine, that dead hour hits at about 11 AM. Here in Sedona in March, it’s been showing up about 1:30 in the afternoon. Arizona is in Mountain Time, but they don’t observe Daylight Savings Time (DST), except in the Navajo nation. That puts us three hours behind Maine, where we just switched over to DST ten days ago. Neither my body nor my mind has any idea of what time it is.

The Sedona Arts Center is a very lovely facility in which to teach. (Photo courtesy Ed Buonvecchio)

I’m in Sedona teaching a six-day workshop through the Sedona Arts Center. The star of the show is, of course, the place. Sedona is a village of 10,000 people plopped down in the clefts of spectacular eroded red sandstone. As it weathered over the eons, it left buttes that rear up from 800 feet to 1,000 feet high. Twisted and carved by wind and water, they loom over the town in every direction.

This is probably why Sedona attracts a variety of spiritual and alternative-medicine practices. There are four areas which are called by the “vortexes”, described as “swirling centers of energy that are conducive to healing, meditation and self-exploration.” They’re all conveniently located where the hiking is easy, so tourists can get there without a lot of extra work.

Red rock spires are everywhere, looming over the town.

The vortexes were made famous in 1980 by psychic channeler Page Bryant and her spirit-world sidekick, Albion. According to her blog, Page “offer[ed] a number of services, including intuitive readings, Star Charts, subscription-based channeled messages from her spirit teacher, Albion, and private lessons on a wide range of topics.  She also [sold] her beautiful knitted, crocheted, and beaded work and her custom-designed jewelry — all of which has been inspired by working with the ‘wee people’ (fairies and elves).”

Bryant studied under Sun Bear, a self-proclaimed medicine man of Ojibwe descent. Sun Bear’s theology was a mishmash of various indigenous traditions, and traditional healers repudiated him. He attracted spiritual seekers from outside his community. They paid handsomely for the privilege. The heirs of Bryant and Sun Bear are classic American entrepreneurs bringing salt-healing, channeling, and other New Age mystical experiences to roughly three million visitors a year.

I’m a spiritual practitioner myself. I don’t think the metaphysical is testable. However, my own practice (white-bread Christianity) makes no claims to energy. In physics, energy is the capacity to do work, and that’s measurable.

Me, teaching. (Photo courtesy Ed Buonvecchio)

A brief search of the internet revealed no scientific literature on the subject, but certainly sucked me into a swirl of believers. As one wrote, “It’s not about measurable facts, it’s about what you know in your gut is real.”

Seeking God in nature is, in fact, an ancient spiritual practice. Job, the oldest book in the Bible (and therefore the oldest continuous religious text in existence), says:

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?”

It’s impossible to be in this majestic place and not see God’s handiwork. I’ll be generous and believe that’s the truth that Bryant and Sun Bear were muddling towards.