Grand Canyon - pen & ink sketch with watercolor

24 October 2022

I rediscovered sketch journals... 

...during my solo road trip this year to paint in the Grand Canyon.

Days of driving passed through incredible landscapes. I wanted to record every inch, but of course impossible to stop at each change of landscape.

Photos can be a handy reference and reminder, and I did take lots of pics. But - there’s always that weird disconnect when I get back to the studio. I want to recreate feelings and sensations I experienced in a place. I can’t always find that life and intensity in my photos.

On the road I made quick pen & ink sketches as often as I could. Now that I’m home, I’m doing more pen sketches from my photos that call to me.

I’m experimenting with adding color to these pen sketches using watercolor.  Their job is to put my hands and eyes to work, which kicks in the creative engine and remembered experiences.  I'll use these as a starting point for studio painting, to see where they go.

The journals helped in another unexpected way.

When I first got to the canyon, I found the light there moved way too fast for me to grab. The definition of near-far, round-linear, deep-shallow were fugitive. These qualities of light help us know about our surroundings. They help us define 'space' as painters.

The seductive and intriguing complexities of the Grand Canyon geology took me to the mat. Fast-changing shapes bewildered my eyes.

I was a bit desperate for some way to organize it on a page.

And then there were the clouds. There were always big clouds racing over the canyon for at least part of any day. They move like huge traveling islands in the sky and cast enormous shadows. The shadows redefine the complex shapes and convolutions of the geology.

See that ridge in the middle? Very defined by a cloud. Nearly invisible five minutes later. This is an animated approximation of light changes, but very close to what the experience is.

I wrote in a previous post that it was a humbling experience. I’ve been painting plein air for a long time, and I thought I had some level of skill at capturing light. It challenged me. In the canyon, light didn’t stay the same for five minutes. So I needed a new strategy.

Stepping Back

So I stepped back (that phrase again). I removed color, which allowed me to simplify sections of shapes. And in those shapes, I could find the stories.

Grand Canyon pen & ink sketch, before watercolor

Grand Canyon pen & ink sketch, with watercolor


I want to go back to the Grand Canyon next year and take this information with me.

We’ll see how all this translates to paintings on canvas. I foresee changes.

Julia O'Reilly

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