On Saturday, January 17th, 2015, the High Desert Plein Air Artists met at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve to paint. We could not have asked for a more beautiful day! It was clear, around 65 – 70 degrees, a slight breeze – pretty perfect for January (or any month for that matter).
The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is an oasis in our otherwise dry desert. It transitions from the Mojave Desert to the Colorado Desert. The Morongo Fault creates water drainage from the surrounding mountains to form the Big Morongo Creek and marsh areas in the preserve.
The preserve is a bird watcher’s paradise. Most of the people I met were there adding birds to their notebooks. It was fun to see one gentleman from Canada get so excited about seeing a California Thrasher – he was positively giddy! He had only ever seen one before in his life, and he saw two while we were talking. For those who don’t know, California Thrashers are pretty common in the high desert. They are often found on the ground rustling up the leaves. They are midsized, brown and have very long curved beaks. Click here for an image and more info – I could not get an image to download for some reason…
The preserve is a beautiful place for plein air artists as well. The preserve consists of 31,000 acres of desert land. If you do not like to move far from your car, there is plenty of subject matter right by the parking lot. There are picnic tables and a restroom. If you are like me and prefer to explore an area more, there are miles of hiking trails – many of them are boardwalks, so if you have a rolling cart you can pull it easily. There is a kiosk at the beginning of the trails with lots of information: trail maps, animal track identification pamphlets, etc. The trails are well marked and nicely maintained. The one drawback (for artists) to the boardwalks is that there isn’t enough room to set up along them. You can’t go off the boardwalks because it’s all marshy on either side. There are, however, observation areas along the way where there is room to set up. Some of the trails do go away from the marsh area and are dirt trails, so you can find areas to set up along those.
The subject matter in the preserve is varied. There are expanses of meadows, giant cotton wood trees, palm trees, mountains, canyons, a stream and marsh, and a huge variety of other plants ( I am not a botanist, but here is a list of the plants in the preserve just to give you an idea of how many plants there are in the preserve.)
For my first painting of the day, I set up where the shadow of a mountain was casting over a trail and a variety of trees and bushes. The sunlight was skimming the tops of the foliage, bringing out the reds, oranges, and pinks of them. I didn’t realize when I set up that I was at a major intersection of trails. Because of this, I had lots of onlookers throughout the morning. Several people asked if they could take my picture while I painted and others asked questions. They were all polite and apologetic for disturbing me, and it really didn’t bother me at all. One man was so interested in my work that he wanted to know where I sold my work, so I was able to offer him a business card with my website on it.
We (Holly, Susan and I), met at the kiosk area after a morning of painting and had a nice visit. I need to be a better recorder of our outings, and unfortunately I didn’t think to take pictures of their work (sorry ladies!) They were both working in pastels and did beautiful pieces. Susan’s was a close-up of a trail and the tangle of trees and vegetation. Holly did a vista view with mountains in the far distance and a line of cotton woods where the tops were being lit up by the sun. I hope to get better at taking pictures of fellow artists in future paint outs.
I opted to stay after lunch and do one more painting. For this one I set up right on the edge of the parking lot. I tried something different that I think I will always do from now on. I know that starting with a toned canvas is the way to go when painting, but I never seem to have the time to get it done before I head out, so I would just use a plain white canvas. For this painting, I decided to tone it and then paint right on it without waiting for it to dry. I laid down a mix of burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and white. Then I wiped most of it off so the canvas board was just stained with some color. Wow! It worked, and made my entire painting process go much faster. Working fast is so important when plein air painting because the light changes quickly. This experience was a reminder to me to always be willing to experiment – one never knows when it will work out for the best, and if it doesn’t, then you just add it to your list of things to not do.
I hope this post will inspire you to head out to the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve – even if it is just to go on a hike. Click here for visitor information and directions. If you enjoyed my post, I invite you to sign up to subscribe to my blog. Also, please feel free to comment and share your insights.