There’s no law west of the Pecos

Suffering from over-the-next-hill-itis? Over the next hill it is, then.

Snow along the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas.

I’m in New Mexico with painter Jane Chapin. She’s prepping for surgery on her painting hand; I’m doing physical therapy for my back. Some people might think we ought to be in a retirement home. Instead, we’re ducking under four-strand fences, stomping over icy trails, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves far beyond cell-phone range.

The mountains along the headwaters of the Pecos River are some of the most beautiful country in the world. I painted them while on crutches last spring and did about as well as could be expected. Now my arms are truly free, and I have more mobility.
There wasn’t snow on the desert floor yesterday, but it still filled washes in the higher elevations. It has the granularized texture of old snow; they got a lot of it earlier this winter and it’s lingering. More is predicted. That’s good news in this arid landscape.
The critic is an ass. Photo courtesy of Jane Chapin.
What joy is to be found in painting in snow? It’s hard to struggle in and out of your snowsuit. Painters with circulatory deficits may find their hands hurt, and warm boots are a must. But if you can do it, there’s simply no experience like it.
Snow reflects colors and form like no other surface (other than the sea). It throws pure light back at you, perfectly reflecting the peaches, blues and purples of the western sky. It sets light relations on their heads, putting the lightest colors at the bottom of the canvas and the highest chromas in the sky.
But there’s no point in trying to do it from photos. They simply don’t capture the range of color and texture in real snow. There’s no sculptural form. Everything is flattened to a uniform, dull, white. “It is hard to get the feeling of winter without feeling the winter,” Stapleton Kearns once said.
Upper reaches of the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
Jane’s horses are in their winter pasturage down by the Pecos River. We chose a corner of their space to paint in. Scout and Lucy were uninterested, but Jimmy the donkey had no compunctions about expressing his opinion. It took several minutes of ear-twitching before he gave me the full ears-up.  “The critic is an ass,” mused Jane.
From there we drove up to Cowles Lake, hoping to get a good painting view of snow-covered Pecos Baldy. This is 4WD country. Our Toyota Tundra 4X4 didn’t look like too much truck at all as we fishtailed through slush and ice.
The Cabana Trail is closed for the season, and there were no safe overlooks on the switchbacks. Photos would have to do. The great risk of plein air painting is the temptation to drive around looking for a better view. “I suffer from over-the-hill-itis as much as the next person, but we have to settle down somewhere,” said Jane.
Barbed wire is tough on horses, but it does make a handy sketch-holder.
We stopped and did one more small painting, of the Pecos winding below a wildfire-swept ridge. I love mountains that have suffered forest fires. In the short decades before new growth covers them, their bones are open to examination. It was dark by the time we returned to the ranch, happy, cold and tired. This is the best of plein air painting.