I painted Deep Springs High Desert (oil, 15 x 39) while in the high desert of California for 14 weeks of teaching and painting at Deep Springs College. What drew me to this particular location, with the towering, snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains in the background, was the uncanny compression of space created by the long stretch of desert between where I stood and the 14 thousand-foot mountain walls. Communicating this vast distance became one of the primary challenges of the painting.
I started with the sky area, rubbing a violet-black into a large portion of the upper right of the painting surface. The transparent, rich, dark tone became warm and lit by the bronze color of the paper ground underneath. I let creamy, smoldering violets move in and out of the black vortex, helping to move the viewer’s eye across the vast desert floor. I love the process of manipulating paint on the surface – here, in particular, that meant pinning down the convulsive swaths of light and dark that ultimately produced the mountains, the desert floor and various other forms in the middle- and foreground. The left foreground of the painting is dominated by black basalt. Although it isn’t a major feature of the piece, it gave me some bearing on this huge space, anchoring my sight as I journeyed visually across this 10-mile expanse of desert.
The start of a painting must be thoroughly engaging in order to launch my imagination and inspire the high level of concentration required for the battle ahead. Those first swaths of paint are crucial, and I frequently, repeatedly wipe them out until I arrive at a convincing point of departure.
I used to be dependent on brushes, but I’ve all but abandoned them because I now prefer to paint with my hands – both bare-handed and with latex gloves – and with rollers. I can achieve enormous initial coverage with my paint rollers, without the distracting, horizontal, furrowed marks left by brushstrokes. Using every aspect of my hand and fingers as a tool, I can apply and direct paint with a great sense of purpose and control. I’ll squeeze thin, feathering lines of paint from underneath the tip of my thumb, and I’ll capture the edge of a distant plane with the reflective light of paint scumbled by the callous side of my thumb. Using my hand as a drawing tool has become one of the most effective ways to direct my visual focus, bringing me closer to the intuitive knowledge of form that we naturally all possess.