Saturday, June 29, 2013

Waterton Canyon - An Extraordinary Gorge

Storm over Waterton Canyon

The Platte River spills down from the mountains and carves an extraordinary gorge through the Rampart Range that concludes with a rugged canyon known as Waterton. This is where the South Platte emerges from the foothills and onto the boggy wetlands just southwest of Denver. The gravel service road that follows the river course is wide and flat making it a perfect track for biking, hiking or trail running. Bighorn sheep are the park’s feature attraction but mule deer, blue herons, black bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes also frequent the area.

We approached the rocky corridor during a late June blizzard. Flakes of white, cottony seeds from gnarled cottonwood trees fell on us like a spring snowstorm. To the west, gray clouds foretold afternoon thunder showers so we picked up the pace. Before long, the steep, red walls had risen to one thousand feet. Dark-green shadows stretched across the narrow pathway.

Just around the bend, water confined by an ancient dam was diverted through a tunnel and into the Highline Canal. We proceeded into Pike National Forest hoping to see the resident bighorn sheep but it started to rain. Trying to stay ahead of the storm, we hustled back to the trailhead but the much needed rainfall thoroughly soaked us. Nevertheless, we dried out quickly upon re-entering the land of lizards, fire and sun.

Cotton fell on us like spring snow

The canyon walls are a thousand feet high

Just around the bend was an ancient dam

Water is diverted through a tunnel into the Highline Canal

The South Platte carved Waterton Canyon

The river emerges from the foothills just southwest of Denver

We missed the sheep but spotted this merganser

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Wheat Field with Cypresses - Colored Pencil Drawing

"Wheat Field with Cypresses after van Gogh" Colored Pencil

It's a warm, sunny day in southern France. Boiling clouds drift across the turquoise sky and the indigo cypresses are windswept by the notorious mistral. The golden wheat field is ripe and ready for harvest. The picture is a magnificent expression of summer. It draws you in. I can almost feel the wind and the heat. In my head, I can hear the buzz of locusts announcing the change of seasons. This is one of my favorite paintings and I wanted to understand why. I decided to make a study after it but not an oil painting copy. I chose a different medium instead, colored pencil.

"The study I have intended for you depicts a group of cypresses in the corner of a wheat field on a summer's day when the mistral is blowing. It is therefore the note of a certain blackness enveloped in blue moving in great circulating currents of air, and the vermilion of the poppies contrasts with the black note." ~ Vincent van Gogh

Copying the "Old Masters" is an accepted tradition that has occurred throughout the history of art. I've made numerous copies in the past because it's a great way to learn about line, color, composition and technique. Sometimes I even feel like I'm able to get inside the artist's mind and discover the true meaning behind a specific piece of work. Often times I gain greater admiration and respect for the artist I'm making the study after. Vincent van Gogh was the master at taking an ordinary, nondescript scene and turning it into something monumental. Places that other artists would disregard as worthy of paint he turns into masterpieces.

"I have a canvas of cypresses with some ears of wheat, some poppies, a blue sky like a piece of Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto ... and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too." ~ Vincent van Gogh

Wheatfield with Cypresses has a balanced composition that is dominated by diagonals which makes it very dynamic. The lines are swirling and broken to express the extreme heat and wind. The two dark cypresses are the focal point, they extend vertically across the horizon line contrasting against the pale green sky. The blue mountains in the background provide some depth and the foreground wheat incorporates some of Vincent's beloved yellow. The analogous color scheme is calming. Yellow, green and blue are right next to each other on the color wheel. There is no violent clash of complementaries, that van Gogh is so famous for, here.

"The tree is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has a quality of such distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine." ~ Vincent van Gogh

One of the most characteristic features of southern France is the cypress tree. In Provence, cypresses are symbols of death associated with cemeteries, but it seems Van Gogh regarded them as a spiritual link to stability in the wild landscape. Within a few weeks after admission into the asylum at Saint Remy, Vincent was allowed to go out into the countryside to paint. He instantly became fascinated with the Provencal cypress trees.

"The cypress is so characteristic of the scenery of Provence; you will feel it and say 'Even the colour is black'. Until now I have not been able to do them as I feel them; the emotions that grip me in front of nature can cause me to lose consciousness, and then following a fortnight during which I cannot work. Nevertheless, before I leave here I feel sure I shall return to the charge and attack the cypresses..." ~ Vincent van Gogh

At Saint Remy Vincent was attracted to nature under stress: huge turbulent clouds, bent trees and rolling hills and ravines. The cypresses seemed to perfectly express his own mood. He saw them as wind tormented shapes that came shooting up out of the unstable ground like whirling black flames reaching for the sun. The cypress paintings were an irresistible release of pent-up emotion bringing out the troubled rhythms he must have felt within. They reveal his style that had evolved - expressive brush strokes, thick impasto and dynamic composition.

"...The cypresses are always occupying my thoughts, I should like to make something of them like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them..." ~ Vincent van Gogh

The cypress was as treasured by Vincent as his sunflowers. Like the sunflowers, his treatment of them is exaggerated so that they become extremely vivid and personal. A real cypress does not have such a fiery character or such pointed extremities. Vincent felt that it was he alone who could perceive the true identity of the tree. That is why, today, most artists have such respect for these masterpieces that none would dare try and exceed them.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Located just northeast of downtown Denver, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is a peaceful swathe of prairie, wetland and woodland habitats where wildlife thrives. The place used to be hell on earth. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States charged into World War II. Fearing that Germany and Japan would resort to chemical warfare, the Government was determined to produce it's own stockpile of chemical weapons as a deterrent. Major General William Porter, chief of the Chemical Warfare Service stated, "It is fully recognized that the best insurance against an attack by chemical agents lies not only in gas masks and protective clothing but also in the ability to retaliate immediately."

For strategic reasons, the 27 square miles of farm ground near Denver was chosen as the site for a massive, top-secret, chemical weapons manufacturing center. The government purchased the land and promptly evicted the 200 or so families living there. Construction of the Arsenal began on June 30, 1942. During its first year, the south plants operated around-the-clock producing horrific war chemicals such as mustard gas, lewisite and chlorine gas. Lewisite was particularly lethal, it's manufactured by combining chlorine, acetylene and arsenic. The arsenal was also creating incendiary munitions like the napalm bomb. During "Operation Meetinghouse", the single most deadly bombing raid in history, around 1,700 tons of RMA-produced-firebombs were dropped on Tokyo obliterating a large section of the city.

In addition to manufacturing weapons, the Army established a prisoner-of-war camp at the arsenal. The prison was operated between November 6, 1943 and April 1, 1946. Known as the Rose Hill POW Camp, it confined German soldiers that were being captured in North Africa. Work slowed after WWII but when back on wartime status during the Korean War, production increased briskly. Military spokesmen boasted that the arsenal could turn out millions of incendiary bombs a year when operating at full capacity. The RMA pumped out M34 grenades, artillery shells with distilled mustard and cluster bombs.

After the Korean War ended, our relationship with communist Soviet Union deteriorated. As tensions mounted, the RMA developed a frightening, new chemical agent in a secret installation at the north plants. Known as GB nerve agent or sarin gas this deadly weapon was as serious as the atomic bomb. Throughout the 1960s, the arsenal's hydrazine plant mixed liquid rocket propellants for the Air Force. RMA-produced-fuel powered Apollo II all the way to the moon. Adding to the contamination nightmare was the fact that the Army leased a portion of the facility to Shell Oil Company for the production of pesticides and herbicides. A long list of other deadly products was manufactured and processed by that private industry.

A byproduct of the arsenal's enormous production was millions of gallons of toxic waste. Conforming to disposal practices that were common at the time, the waste products were released into natural bodies of open water. When these reservoirs overflowed with poisonous fluid, the Army constructed a man-made, waste holding, evaporation pond known as Basin F. The sludge in one basin became so toxic that birds died within minutes of landing on it. In 1962 they tried using a new Pressure Injection Disposal well and pumped treated waste material 12,000 feet underground but the well had to be shut down four years later because the liquid injection triggered a series of earthquakes in the area.

After the toxins began turning up north of RMA in water used for drinking and irrigation, the outraged public complained that the arsenal stored enough nerve gas "to kill every man, woman and child in the world." By the 1970s, the arsenal's primary mission was the disposal of stockpiled warfare materials but the destruction of chemical agents created extremely toxic byproducts as well. Often referred to as the most polluted square mile on Earth, the RMA was placed on the EPA's National Priorities List of most contaminated superfund sites. Since then, the mission at RMA has been the total cleanup of the modern day Gehenna under the supervision of federal, state and local agencies.

The impossible task was hazardous and demoralizing, there seemed to be no end in sight. What happened next was a miracle. On a dreary winter day in 1986, a worker spotted what must have seemed like apparitions emerging out of the mist. They were angels sent from heaven. There was a communal roost of bald eagles on the site! At the time these birds were critically endangered and sightings were unheard of. The astonishing discovery prompted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to become involved with managing wildlife at the arsenal. Officials soon found out that despite the severe contamination, more than 330 species inhabited the military grounds.

Apparently, the protection from urban sprawl and development allowed the deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, hawks, owls and white pelicans to flourish throughout the site's abandoned fields and woods. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Act was passed in 1992. The United States Congress declared that the site would become a national wildlife refuge when the environmental restoration was complete. It was a positive development during the act of contrition. Enthusiasm for the remediation was immediately invigorated by the motivation to protect our national symbol, the Bald Eagle.

As of September 2010, after 30 years and more than $2 billion, the clean-up was considered officially complete. A small herd of wild bison transferred from Montana was introduced into the park and restoration of the shortgrass prairie with native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs is being finished. The urban refuge features a green-built visitor center that provides environmental education and interpretive programs. There's also catch-and-release fishing, hiking trails, and a self-guided, wildlife-drive auto-tour. Just decades ago rabbits were used to test for sarin gas leaks, today buffalo roam, coyotes howl, owls burrow and eagles soar.

The arsenal is one of the nation's largest urban, wildlife refuges

As of September 2010, the clean-up was considered complete

The shortgrass prairie is being restored to its natural state

The new visitor center is green-built

Inside the visitor center, exhibits document the RMA's history

The Bald Eagles were like angels sent from heaven

Deer flourish throughout the site

Bison from Montana were introduced into the park

Birds are using the nest boxes

Construction of the Arsenal began in the summer of 1942

At one time, this may have been the most toxic place on earth

A rabbit is used to check for Sarin nerve gas leaks

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Birds in Art - Colored Pencil Drawings

"Bald Eagles" Colored Pencil

Birds have inhabited the earth for 160 million years. Incredibly, they represent a direct link to the last dinosaurs. Since the dawn of civilization, birds and their spectacular gift of flight have fascinated humans. The sheer diversity of their appearance, behavior and personality is astonishing. Prehistoric peoples featured them in culture as birds were often depicted symbolically in early cave paintings. It seems like artists have always appreciated their beauty because birds have appeared in masterpieces throughout the history of art.

Today, seeing birds has become so common and their songs so familiar, that sometimes their true existence is taken for granted. Avid birders now use high-powered binoculars and cameras to document rare sightings and check off life-lists. Their field guides are beautifully illustrated with great precision by talented draughtsmen, who meticulously render each and every feather. My artistic style is realist but I'm inclined to simplify details, strengthen colors and exaggerate the prominent features in order to capture the essence of a species.

Whether an artist is striving for photo-realism or a more abstract representation, I've found that colored pencils are well suited to handle either request. I prefer a restrained composition with subtle hues and soft edges to express a tranquil mood. Starting with a sheet of textured paper, I begin drawing the eyes first and work outwards from there. Next, using an impressionistic application, the color is built up patiently, through multiple, transparent layers. Finally, when completed, I hope my sincere enthusiasm for our feathered friends shows through and inspires others to appreciate birds as much as I do.

Osprey ~ Colored Pencil

Yellow-eyed Hawk ~ Colored Pencil

Stellar's Jay ~ Colored Pencil

Canada Goose ~ Colored Pencil

Mountain Bluebird ~ Colored Pencil

Great Horned Owl ~ Colored Pencil

Great Blue Heron ~ Colored Pencil

Golden Eagle ~ Colored Pencil

Red-winged Blackbird ~ Colored Pencil

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Staunton - Colorado's Newest State Park

Staunton State Park

Last week we visited Colorado's newest state park. Located just six miles west of Conifer, it reminds some of Sherwood Forest in England because of the huge, old-growth ponderosa pine trees. Others believe the jagged, granite peaks resemble Yosemite National Park in California. Frances Staunton, who gifted the property to the State of Colorado in 1986, described the area "as a natural wilderness-type park ... typifying Colorado's most beautiful mountain forest and meadow region."

When Frances was six her family left West Virginia and headed to California, searching for a healthier, drier climate. They arrived in Denver during the winter of 1905. The beautiful, snowy landscape inspired them to stay in Colorado forever. Her parents were both doctors. Archibald and Rachel Staunton set up medical offices downtown at the Republic Building. Shortly thereafter, they purchased the mountain property and Mrs. Staunton lived up there in a cabin seven months of the year to earn the homestead deed.

Dr. Rachel offered medical care to people in the area including Native Americans who exchanged pottery, jewelry, beadwork and rugs for her services. The Staunton's continued to acquire land and built numerous structures on the site. They began renting out cabins so others could enjoy the "Lazy-V Ranch". They leased some of their property to a logging operation that built a sawmill, cable system and an employee bunkhouse. Frances eventually took over management of the ranch. Throughout her life she protected and preserved the fragile environment. Later, she declared in her will that the extraordinary land where her family had a second home should be given to the government.

On May 18, 2013 her wishes became reality. Staunton State Park is now open to the public. "This is an oasis, a sanctuary, a place where people can get out of the stress and pressure they have in their everyday lives," declared Governor John Hickenlooper at the official dedication of the park. We got acquainted with the wilderness by hiking an easy loop around the triple-tiered Davis Ponds. The soft, fresh paths were easy on the feet and the quiet solitude was a welcome relief from the busy week.

The park's varied life zones support a rich diversity of wildlife. All kinds of animals have been seen in the locale such as squirrels, marmots, showshoe hares, fox, bobcats, mountain lions, black bears, deer, elk and moose. There are also rumors that lynx live in the area. We're planning to come back and explore the over 18 miles of trails, maybe we'll even make it to the spectacular Elk Falls Overlook. Park manager, Jennifer Anderson, explains the special allure of the landscape, "there is a moment (when visiting Staunton) that the spirit (of the place) creeps into your heart." That's why you'll love Staunton State Park.

Staunton State Park opened two weeks ago

It reminds some of Sherwood Forest in England

Others believe the granite spires resemble Yosemite in California

Varied life zones support diverse wildlife

Pikes Peak can be seen from Staunton

The quiet solitude is a welcome relief