Sedona Plein Air: In Search of “The View”

Note: This is Part 2 of the account of Sedona Plein Air Festival 2010

In which the artist becomes finds himself obsessed with finding the perfect view and comes to realize it is all perfect in its own way, something he should have known in the first place.

joshua-been-cathedral-reflectionsThe View

Joshua Been, Photo by Tim Poly

Joshua Been, Photo by Tim Poly

Joshua Been‘s “Cathedral Reflections” made a powerful impact as the image used in the Sedona Plein Air Festival 2010 postcard, website, and mailings. His inspired decision to paint this iconic land form as a reflection in a small river is plein air at its best. This is a powerful image, turning the view upside down in a sense, as the subject becomes not Cathedral rock itself but a reflection of it. We know this is water and we know there are towering buttes in the distance. Aside from the choice of composition, “Cathedral Reflections”is just a beautiful picture with appealing colors, lots of warmth and yet with cooling reflections of the blue sky. This is one of those scenes that I call “The View”.

“The View” is any perfect view that I also must paint. It is iconic, perfect, hence it is “The View”. Obsessed to find the exact location, I will go to any lengths to find where the artist stood when he painted The View. Been’s painting reminds me of another view that I nearly drove myself crazy trying to find. But before I go on, I want to state that I am not the only artist who suffers from the desire to find and paint The View—the many views that are out there in the world. There was plenty of evidence of that going on at Sedona this year so, despite my own obsessive neurosis regarding such Views, I am in good company.

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The View that, a few years ago, first drove me to distraction was Michael Obermeyer‘s 20″x16″ oil painting “Monterey Bay”, a cheerful, bright view of Monterey Bay with Monterey and its two fishing piers in the middle distance. In this view, we look down on the scene between towering pines as if through a window. The painting captures a feeling of space and distance and makes you want to go down there to that harbor, get on a boat, and go fishing—or at least go down there and have chowder in a bread bowl. It was this painting, in combination with an early morning experience of seeing the rising sun throw glowing orange across pines like these, that led me to many hours of searching over several months, trying to find the exact location of The View, as I came to call it. This was not an easy thing to do and I won’t describe the search except to say that twice my father Bill Lewis and I drove all over the hills overlooking Monterey trying to find the exact spot where Obermeyer painted this. Eventually, the hill revealed a spot that approximated The View and even improved upon it. This view yielded an entire collection of paintings: Pine Trees. Don’t ask me where this spot is, you can not afford the price I will extract! Such is the value and the insanity of obsession.

Reflections on Cool, Clear Water

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Driving into Sedona (see Part 1), the red buttes glowed in the sun, seducing this poor artist into thinking that this is what must be painted, red buttes. But where is The View, I thought—the one of Cathedral rocks reflected in the stream? In fact, where is Cathedral rocks?! We are surrounded by butte after glowing butte and none of them look like it.

“Must first find Cathedral rock then you can find ‘The View'”, my feverish brain told me. I should have known, but sadly did not, that this is a siren call of the worst kind. After all, the scene has been painted with a mastery that can not be equaled. It’s been done. What would the next artist do, should he even manage to find The View, but paint a pale reflection of the first well done painting. A reflection of a relection. Others would say, “Oh, nice job painting that Joshua Been view.” That is the best one can expect. It is even possible that your painting could be better than Been’s, though doubtful, but it would still be a “copy” of The View.

On some deep level, I am convinced that I knew this but my obsession with The View had gotten hold of me and for two days I searched out The View, heard whisperings of where it was, ‘go here, take that path…’, ‘when you get to the rocks turn left and go a hundred yards…’ and so on. Did it ever occur to me to just ask Joshua Been? No.

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In the meantime, David Lussier and John Caggiano, my “room mates” at a wonderful house in Oak Creek Village, have been pursuing the buttes with a vengeance, perhaps only toying with the idea of painting The View. Or, perhaps, if they are obsessed with The View, they do not show it. The buttes alone, not being reflected in anything, are an overwhelming presence. It may be that the sheer gravity of these massive rocks affect a pull on us as humans, certainly as artists. We are pulled to paint them. No, they demand we paint them.

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This is why The View, Joshua Been’s indirect view through the medium of the water, makes so much sense, for just as it is better to look at the terrifying face of the gorgon Medusa through a reflection, so it may also be better to paint the buttes through a reflection, as they are too strong to face straight on. Anyway, this became my rationalization. The color defies description; at first, it seems simple; then you realize it is a complicated subject—a subject I failed at after trying a few times that week. In any case, I just couldn’t see how I could top the original take on them that Joshua Been gave us or even hope to approach the colors that Susan Ogilvie in her showcase piece (see right).

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Escape from the Tyranny of the Buttes

So, by the third day my obsession waned and there were moments of clarity, like those one has when figuratively beating one’s head against a wall. It hurts, and the wall isn’t moving. The buttes were no longer buttes. I had dropped the “e”. They were laughing at me in all their redness, inscrutable, refusing to give up their color secrets to me. And The View? I never really found it. Oh, I found places close to it, but over and over something nagged at me, a little voice that kept saying, more and more insistently “So what?“. So what if you paint The View?

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That was a wonderful moment of letting go. At that same moment, it was so clear that this obsession with The View should have never trapped me. After all, I’d fallen for it before, and the signs were all there from the first moment: a beautiful thing desired too much, a consuming struggle to reach it while, at the same time, a blatant disregard of all the other equally beautiful things within reach. In that moment of realization, and shame, the tyranny of the buttes vanished. They became just what they are and nothing more. Now I was free to paint them, which I did, and I was free to not paint them. Ironically, in the end, I found The View…and decided not to paint it.

Somehow, someday, I will have to think of a proper phrase to cover this sort of painting debacle, since I am prone to fall victim to it. When I do, the phrase will be added to the Lewis Laws of Painting. Something like “Never let the landscape push you around.”

– End of Part 2 –

2 comments for “Sedona Plein Air: In Search of “The View”

  1. David Lussier
    November 10, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Robert, this is great! I hadn’t realized while in Sedona, that you had ‘Butte Fever’ for a few days! LOL. John and I found ‘the view’ the day before we left. I didn’t paint it either.

  2. November 13, 2010 at 6:33 am

    Funny article. It makes me think of how some of the best paintings have nothing to do with a spectacular panorama… Anyway, the “View” that Josh painted has been photographed and painted a gazillion times over at Crescent Moon Ranch in West Sedona by the creek, near the entrance. It’s one of my own favorite spots to paint, with and without the reflections. The main downside to it is the number of passersby that can break your concentration, which happened to me when I attempted it at the festival. My favorite variations on it are to emphasize the point of land and the glowing bush beneath it. Unfortunately that shrub keeps growing and tempts me to head out there some day with a pruning pole! Here’s one of my versions, 24×24 en plein air, acrylic: http://susanpitcairn.com/workszoom/516619

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