Plein Air Painting in Arizona - Paintings and Their Stories

Mesa Sky – Near Flagstaff, Arizona

On September 14, 2001 I drove from San Jose, California to New Mexico on a long planned plein air painting trip with a friend. We had originally intended to fly, but, because of the events of Sept. 11 2001 all the U.S. Airports were still closed. We decided to rent a big, comfortable Ameican car and drive instead.

It took 3 days to reach Taos, New Mexico. Along the way, we stopped to paint from time to time as the spirit and scenery moved us. Just outside Flagstaff, Arizona, we took a dirt road out into the mesa area and stopped to paint the gathering storm clouds.

This painting was done as a response to the boiling and building thunder clouds that seemed to emanate from the mesa tops. Exciting high desert color and primal and apocalyptic feelings are reflected in this plein air painting I did that day. I was so charged with the energy of the scene that I actually howled like a wolf at one point in my painting process. Because of the heightened emotion of that time I will never forget the experience of doing this painting.

Thank you Muse.

Oak Creek, Sedona, Arizona

April in Red Rock Country – Sedona, Arizona

We arrived at 5pm with fading light and cloud cover. We had booked a room at The Brian Patch Inn right on Oak Creek and hoped that the morning would bring better weather. Sure enough, the next morning was sunny and clear- perfect for plein air painting. I had a wonderful breakfast on the terrace overlooking Oak Creek – green chili and cheese muffins, yogurt and fruit – hot coffee. Then went straight to the creek side with my plein air painting gear.

I set up my traveling easel in the boulders across from an amazing slab of red rock that sloped down to the creek. The gushing water cascaded out of a dark shadowed area into the sunlight right next to the illuminated slab of red rock – so weird and gorgeous – I had to paint it. A Canyon wren called and chirped along with many other birds. I recognized the call of the Canyon Wren because of my bird call clock at home.

I spent a wonderful 2 hours by Oak Creek painting and enjoying the solitude and sound of flowing water.

Check out other plein air painting sites in Sedona here.

Wickenburg, Arizona

After leaving Sedona (see previous story) we moved on to Wickenburg, which is about a 2 hour drive from Sedona on route 89 (South and West of Sedona). Wickenburg is in saguaro cacti country and looks the way you expect Arizona to look. We stopped at the Museum of the West that has a gallery of wonderful western paintings including works by George Catelin, Edgar Allen Payne and Thomas Moran. The Museum also featured a fabulous collection of plein air paintings of the region by such well known plein air painters as Matt Smith and Ralph Oberg.

Outside of Wickenburg we stopped on a side dirt road to paint a desert scene of cacti. It was very hot and windy. My eyes couldn’t take too much of it before I felt dazzled. Here is the painting I did. Painting those saguaro cacti isn’t as easy as you may think! Dealing with the heat and glare of the treeless landscape is also a challenge. Desert sand is embedded into this oil painting and a few desiccated desert bugs.

History Note: The Wickenburg Massacre – Near this spot in 1871 a stagecoach was ambushed. Seven of the eight passengers and driver were killed in the attack. The attack was attributed to a band of Indians but to this day mystery surrounds the event.

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Sonoran Desert, Tucson, Arizona

I spent a full day at the Sonoran Desert Museum near Tucson, Arizona.

It was late March – I wouldn’t even attempt this in the Summer or even late Spring. We left our hotel in Tucson at 8am in order that I could paint early and be done before the middle and very hottest part of the day. Painting in the desert is challenging with the abundance of bright light and super dry air.

Plein air painting under such conditions is about overcoming difficulties and painting anyway. The landscape in this painting is typical of the Tucson area and shows the desert in bloom in Spring.

The Sonoran Desert was full of wonderful sculptural saguaro cacti and many other succulents. Most of them were flowering due to good rains earlier in the month. The Desert Museum (outdoors) itself is wonderful and very well worth the visit if you ever go to Tucson. We walked along trails through the desert which were covered with wild flowers and blooming cacti. We saw many different desert creatures: birds, reptiles, mammals and insects. A lot are nocturnal for obvious reasons.

There were underground displays with plexiglass fronted caves were you can see the animals sleeping in their burrows. We walked through a hummingbird aviary and saw one sitting on a thimble sized nest. So very sweet.

Late in the day I stopped in a remote area to do another painting. While I was there a hiker came by and warned me that he had seen a swarm of wild bees and to be on the look out for them Luckily, I did not meet up with them. My husband Dennis and I were ready for a dip in the Hotel pool and a cold beer when we returned from our day out.

Picacho Peak, Arizona

Picacho Peak Park is about 35 miles north of Tucson in the Sonoran Desert.

Picacho Peak itself is an amazingly shaped lava extrusion that sits on the flat desert plain like a clipper ship in full sail. It ascends 1500 ft. into the shimmering heat haze. The park is very well cared for with lots of shaded picnic tables spread out off of side roads. We found one we liked and I set up my easel for a painting session. This is the painting I did looking from Picacho Park towards the Picacho Mountains across the Interstate from the park. I was fascinated by the geology and the sweeping lines of rock strata that were revealed in different colors. It was blazing hot and there was a heat haze which I put into my painting. I hope you feel the heat!

Plein Air Painting Sites - Arizona
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