Late Night Meditations over Ransom Canyon

Working on the Canyon

Monday afternoon handed me the freedom to load the Jeep and find my way to Ransom Canyon, Texas in search of a plein air subject. I was not disappointed. Ransom Canyon appears to be the west Texas answer to California’s Laurel Canyon—a scenic gorge inhabited 500 years ago by Teyas and buffalo before Coronado came to visit, with Apaches soon to follow. No one knows for sure what became of the Teyas. Today people with money have built very expensive homes to crown the canyon crests. But I did not journey here to admire the houses; I soon became lost in the colors and textures of the rocky slopes beneath the stately homes, for awhile forgetting that I was standing on the floor of a suburb.

Finding shade in the 70-degree afternoon, I alternated my time there between sketching a section of canyon wall and reading Emerson’s “History” from his Essays: First Series. After about ninety minutes, I had done all I could on location and returned to my dwelling place. An early-evening nap managed to turn my Circadian rhythms upside down, so I now find myself at 12:08 a.m. in front of my laptop, searching for words to encapsulate what exactly happened over the past couple of hours.

I love playing solitaire (with real playing cards, not on the computer). Sitting down at the table around 8:00, I surprised myself by winning the very first hand dealt. When that happens, I know my options fall between wasting several more hours trying to win again, or simply putting the cards away and looking for something else to do. Choosing the latter, I drew out this afternoon’s sketch from my book bag, stared at it awhile, then chose to push further into the composition. As I worked, the textures of the canyon wall began to take on the characteristics of an aged human visage, the grasses becoming facial hair and the gravelly banks the craggy, sun-scarred skin. The longer I worked with pencil and brush, the more lost I became as the 8 x 10” surface took on the dimensions of the forty square yards of terrain I had studied in the afternoon light. Transferring the picture I took with my phone to the laptop, I began to enlarge the digital image, zooming in on the crags and shadows of the canyon wall, and discovering with delight more possibilities of developing the composition.

I get the most out of my painting experience when taking frequent breaks, walking away from the picture in progress and burying myself in some kind of significant reading. Re-opening the Emerson essay, I came across words that sent me into orbit:

All literature writes the character of the wise man. Books, monuments, pictures, conversation, are portraits in which he finds the lineaments he is forming.

Lineaments? What are lineaments? In former days, I often cursed my limited vocabulary. But now we live in this Zeitgeist of technological convenience. Reaching for the smart phone, I Googled “lineaments” . . .

Literary: a distinctive feature or characteristic, especially of the face. “I recognized those haggard lineaments.”

Geology: a linear feature on the earth’s surface, such as a fault.

How serendipitous, to read from this old sage exactly what I was doing with pencil and brush! Lineaments. The usage of this word peaked in the 1850’s around the time Emerson was finding his voice in the essay. And now, in this unusual hour, I have picked up the word and am now running with it as I study closely the features embedded in this canyon wall, experimenting with ways to translate them onto my watercolor page. As I work, I see the porous complexion of a native American hunter, scanning the horizon for buffalo, totally unaware of an impending encounter with Coronado or the Apache. As I continue to work over the entire composition, I am finding just as much joy with sharpened graphite pencils as I am with the watercolor brushes. I draw awhile, then paint awhile, then return to drawing, all the while carving new lineaments into the paper surface and weaving threads of color in and out with a rigger brush. Working over this expanse of rock, I feel as though I am part draftsman, part weaver and part sculptor.

. . .

A few hours of sleep have managed to replenish my energy, so now I sit next to the fire with coffee and the painting before me, propped for me to study it yet again before resuming. Temperatures have plummeted into the low thirties this morning, and the high is not projected to climb above the forties. So . . . it seems unlikely that I’ll return to the canyon. If I finish this 8 x 10” piece today, I may start another, using the reference photos I took of the terrain yesterday—not my favorite way to paint, but still preferable over standing in the frigid cold.

Last night proved to be an enchanting experience for me, and I am happy to share it with you.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

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