Monument Valley: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

Monument Valley was our last stop before heading to Vegas and flying home. It always feels like just when I start to figure things out, just when I feel like I might hit my painting stride, the trip is over: do you feel like that when you travel and sketch? After 4 days among the dizzying rock formations, I am starting to see big shapes, scratching at the surface of understanding the color, the light and all the textures I see…

It was a relatively easy day, so we pulled over and stopped for short breaks a few times as we drove towards Monument Valley.

This was my first sketch of the day, somewhere outside the town Bluff, Utah.

A few of these panoramic sketches are done on a 6×12 Fluid Cold Finish paper block. I carried this in addition to my usual Stillman & Birn sketchbooks (an Alpha and a Beta) because it seemed like the right proportion for painting these vast scenes. And because I always carry more paper than I need to when I travel!

This next one is a strange rock formation outside a town named for it: Mexican Hat. My kids asked what the town would be called after that top rock falls off .

As you drive towards Monument Valley from the north, you start seeing these classic silhouettes of the rocks against the sky. And yes, you’ve seen some version of this in every Western movie. But it’s still worth pulling over and painting.

Most of these next quick sketches are over very short stops on 17 Mile Drive through the park. I had my paints and book out of the bag. If the car stopped, (mostly to take a photo or two) I did a quick sketch.

This is one of the famous mitten formations. Is it East Butte? West Butte? I can’t be sure.


One last piece, made outside the park.

I could paint that red rock for days and not tire of it.

And that’s it from my spring road trip. Here is the rest of it:

  1. Starting at the end in Las Vegas
  2. Zion National Park
  3. Inside Antelope Canyon
  4. The quiet beauty of Mesa Verde
  5. And this last one, Monument Valley.

Thanks for coming along on the ride!


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Mesa Verde: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

After Antelope Canyon, Mesa Verde is such a change of pace. A quieter place that you need to see at a much slower pace. Just the view from the Visitor’s Center at the bottom of the drive (it’s a winding 45 minute drive up from the bottom to the top of the mesa) is spectacular. You see the snowcapped La Sal Range that sits on the border of Utah and Colorado right out the big picture windows.

These two sketches are from the top of the Mesa, looking across at a dwelling called Spruce Tree House.


We arrived too late to get on a tour to view the inside of the dwellings, so we were back the next morning to tour Balcony House. No watercolors this time, we had steep ladders to climb and tiny tunnels to crawl through, so all  I have from the tour is two little colored pencil and ink drawings from inside the dwellings.

And yes, that’s our guide in the sketch above, standing between a kiva and he edge of a precipice.

These cave dwellings were built between 1190s, when the Pueblo Indians moved off the mesa tops to the cliffs to live, and the 1300s when they finally left, probably because a long drought made it almost impossible to farm on the mesa tops.

Other posts from this road trip so far:

  1. Starting at the end in Las Vegas
  2. Zion National Park
  3. Inside Antelope Canyon

And one last post soon: The Giants of Monument Valley

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Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

Lower Antelope Canyon can only be visited with a Navajo guide, you can’t walk through it alone. And we were on a one-hour tour, with 20 other people. That means no stopping, you just walk through this narrow slot canyon for an hour. So I tried not to get too ambitious and just had paper and a couple of pencils in my hand as we walked across what looked like parched, brown, and rocky land.

And then we descended steeply into the slot canyon and everything changed. The lines on the striated rock got more dramatic and twisty and the colors got super-saturated.I tried to capture it all n quick sketches as we walked. It was clear my pencil-setup was not going to work.

When our guide paused briefly to point out a formation that looked like a lion’s head, I pulled out a pen, hoping the line would add the drama I needed to my sketches.

But it just wasn’t enough. So I dragged out my tiny pocket palette, brush and water, and juggled them all as we kept walking through these crazy spaces, trying to capture the unbelievable colors and formations around me.


Antelope Canyon is amazing. Yes, I’d seen photographs of it, but I’d always assumed they looked like they did because they involved a fair amount of post-production magic… not so, the place is truly magical, and the colors are unreal.
I drew page after page, throwing color and line at the page in an attempt to capture the swirling canyon. All the while, I walked the narrow, twisting spaces, trailing the group, trying not to hit my head on an overhang…Maybe all my sketches looked the same and I could have stopped at one, but I didn’t know that, I sketched because it was the only way for me to really see and process the place. To sketch something is to look at it closely, to see every nook and cranny, and register texture and surface. It is like touching every inch of that rock, feeling the graininess and bumps and color, all with your eyes.



And then as suddenly as we descended, we were out of the canyon, back above ground. And it seemed unbelievable that just below this everyday place was that magical one.

Antelope Canyon lies within the Navajo Nation. Just as you cannot help notice how startlingly spectacular the landscape is, there is no way to ignore the poverty and lack of infrastructure here. The former, I knew I’d see. The latter, I was ignorant about, and it truly startled me. I’m looking for a good book about (or set in) the Navajo Nation, one that might shed some light on the people, their history and their current lives. If you know of one you can recommend, leave me a comment.

One last quick stop after Antelope Canyon: Horseshoe Bend, an oxbow lake. I remember this diagram so clearly from my 8th grade geography book (image courtesy of BBC Bitesize Geography) but Ive never seen an oxbow lake before.

Horseshoe Bend didn’t disappoint, it was a textbook oxbow lake, and pretty dramatic when viewed from the edge of the deep canyon it cut.


Other posts from this road trip so far:

  1. Starting at the end in Las Vegas
  2. Zion National Park

Coming up next: The much-quieter magic of Mesa Verde

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Zion National Park: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

My hands down favorite National Park in Utah (and there are so many amazing ones) is Zion. It doesn’t have singular recognizable features like Arches and Bryce do, but it is just so beautiful. I think the Virgin River running through is what makes it different from the other South Utah parks. This makes the terrain somehow friendlier and all the green in the park really sets off the spectacular red rock.

You cant drive around Zion, you must take the shuttle. And the line for the shuttle can get long… Luckily, however long your line is, you can always see The Watchman from it.

Yet another sketch, from another shuttle stop. If I’m sketching by myself, I agonize about what to sketch and what angle to sketch it from. When I’m traveling with my family, I sketch whenever and wherever we get a break, however short it is.

At the mouth of the Narrows (which I would love to hike down one day, just not in the spring when flash floods are most common), this father and son stacked rocks in the river.

Upper Emerald Pool. An unfinished sketch. It was getting dark and we needed to head back down. I’ve sketched this pool (and some of this park) about 4 1/2 years ago… it’s interesting to see how my sketches looked then.

The red rock at Zion is so hard to paint. The color changes dramatically with the changing light, and the rock has just so many interesting features I want to convey. There are color shifts in every new layer of the rock. There are deep horizontal and vertical lines. There are blind arches and pockmarked rocks; dark wet patches where the water seeps through; and there’s sand where the wind erodes the rock and turns it back to sand… How in the world do you capture all of that?

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Starting at the End: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

I’m starting at the very end of a weeklong road trip. We drove through South Utah, North Arizona, and the western edges of New Mexico and Colorado. So why start at the end? Because we ended our trip in Las Vegas, a strange way to end a trip through some of the most spectacular landscape in the world. I thought I’d post the few sketches and impressions from Vegas first, and then move on to Red Rock Country.

Vegas baffles me. Everything (and everyone) on The Strip looks like a caricature. Flat, 2-dimensional, a little bit unreal. Even the people standing in line to check in at the hotel.

Vegas in the daytime. Everywhere you look, there’s people standing around and texting…

Evenings in Vegas. Crazy high heels. Super short skirts. And the neon-colored drinks in long-necked souvenir glasses.

I tried drawing the fountains at Bellagio while they played a short tune.

The one place I enjoyed was the Pinball Hall of Fame. A short drive off the main drag, this place is a labor of love, filled with beautifully restored vintage pinball machines. My kids played for a couple of hours. I sketched. It’s interesting to observe individual pinball-playing stances: there’s the serious “lean-into the game” stance, and the more laid back crossed-legged one, but they all involve gripping that machine like it’s going to run away if you let go.



I didn’t sketch much time on the main drag, but I had to stop and draw this scene I passed by: Only in Las Vegas will people walk past a giant pink flamingo and not bat an eyelid.

That was my day in Vegas. More sketches from the rest of my road trip tomorrow.

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A rather thin sketch week

Some weeks I’m a daily sketcher. Other times, I only end up drawing a couple of days a week. This week was a one-afternoon-of-painting kinda week. Maybe because I’m scurrying to wrap up projects before I take next week off? Hoping for a week of lots of sketching, sunshine and red rock.

But meanwhile, from grey and rainy California, here are my three pieces from one afternoon.

University Art in San Jose is our last independent Art Store in the South Bay. And while I do some of my art supply shopping online, I still go in here regularly. 20ish years doesn’t technically qualify as a vintage sign (for my Vintage Signs of San Jose project)  but I visit this store so often, I wanted to sketch the sign. It’s a hard one to sketch: So straight-lined and stark. University Art store’s sign structure belongs to Standard Brands, a SoCal based paint store that is now gone. What would you call this style of signage and structure? Modernist? Brutalist?

One of my absolute favorite things to draw and paint is electric poles and tangled wires. They’re a beautiful mess.

This guy? He’s called Dealin’ Dollar Dan. He’ll end up on my vintage signs blog too, but he was painted the same afternoon as these other pieces and more than anything, reflects the grey and rainy day. I can never resist adding in stop signs and parking signs to my scenes. They’re recognizable with so little of them drawn and they add much needed pops of color.

No blogposts from me next week, but I’ll be back the week after. Happy Sketching!

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Our favorite tree

If you live in Almaden in South San Jose, chances are you know this exact tree. In Guadalupe Oak Grove Park, at the top of a hill, it’s every kid’s favorite tree. Mine have climbed it since they could climb stairs. They still love it, so every time we do this hike, we pause here. And every so often, they hang out in the tree long enough for me to sketch.

I’ve drawn this tree over the years, and in many seasons. Mostly dry seasons, because, up until this year California had it’s worst ever years of drought.



When I did this sketch last year, I thought the tree might not make it through one more year without rain…27063252234_871b25337a_o

But I was so wrong. And here, in stark contrast to those previous drought-year sketches, is this one from the weekend…


Our tree is back!


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