The Petrified Forest: The Painted Desert

This post features  Group Four of the five groupings of seventeen paintings I did at the northeast Arizona Petrified Forest National Park. The earlier three groupings on the blog are “Natural Monuments,”  “Cultural Monuments,” and “Recent Developments.” The groupings were done partly to present relationships among the paintings and the environment and subject matter, and partly because they look good together.

This fourth grouping shows paintings from and of the Painted Desert, a place I initially confused with the “Petrified Forest” until I spent time there. The “Petrified Forest” describes the numerous, often huge, and mineralized logs that are so abundant along the southern half of the Park; they drew visitors as well as entrepreneurs to the area before it became a park, and their plundering was one important reason the federal government declared the area first a National Monument and then a Park. The petrified logs, stunning artifacts of a  chemical “magic” of eroding badlands, exist outside the southern boundary of the park as well as inside it but diminish toward the north of the Park (click for a map).  The Painted Desert is one of the primary features of  Park, evident throughout although sometimes hidden under sand dunes, meadows, and a much later geologic formation,  and it extends further north and west, almost to the border of Arizona and Utah. It is a different, and equally unreal, landscape from the grassy meadows and log-strewn lands a bit south.

From Pintado Point (2) , 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010

The painting above is the scene that captured me, again and again, a scene that breaks out when you round a curve in the drive north through the Park. It’s of a 225 million year old eroding landscape, one that changes color and shape with light and moisture, but is always, inevitably, breathtaking. And unreal, of course.

Here’s that landscape (different paintings of it)  in context with other elements that surrounded me as I painted it: The Petrified Forest: The Painted Desert:

The Painted Desert (1), (The Bidahochi Formation;  Inside the Painted Desert Inn;  The Painted Desert Inn, north side;  From Pintado Point –1) oil on masonite, 2010

I painted from inside the Painted Desert Inn on one stormy day. The wind was wild, the clouds fantastical, the sand grains covered my wet oils and blew my paintings around the covered but open-windowed patio. The next day I painted the outside, to the north, of the Inn, finding that capturing the multi-roofed and layered façade a challenge equal to capturing the multicolored badlands. Earlier that same day, I painted on the western side of the Inn, toward the trail that leads directly down into the eroded landscape, a badlands that contains washes that led travelers through the territory at least as far back as humans were making petroglyphs.  (I didn’t paint the petroglyphs, but have it on good authority that they exist in large quantities on the desert varnish of the rocks in the painted desert.)  And the bottom painting is a version of the vast badlands, with less red, that begins this post, a painting done from Pintado Point, on a different day, with different colors, but still having the same power.

The Painted Desert Inn, which is the Spanish Revival gift shop and entry point for a couple of hiking trails,  is a product of the 1930’s depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The dark rocky shapes seen from the Inn’s patio are parts of the Bidahochi Formation, a relatively young geologic feature of some 10 million years of age, which sits on top that 200 million-some year old eroding Chinle formation. This unconformity gives the casual visitor (and some more serious ones) a word that captures something of the strange nature of this national park: the Petrified Forest National Park is not a single thing, nor a double nor triple thing. It’s a series of “unconformities.” The word means a disjuncture of geological formations, like the 10-million year old element sitting right on top of the 225 million year old element, with no formations in-between. It’s a jarring thought, but inescapable.

For me, the Petrified Forest National Park is one unconformity after another, “unconformity” used more generally than in its geological sense.  PEFO’s focus, unlike most national parks, is not just on landscape or geology or geography, not just on chemical processes that turn wood into minerals nor long departed cultures with sophisticated buildings nor more recent national monuments. The Petrified Forest National Park is about all these things. And the scenes that I painted became more and more involved with capturing this large number of disparate elements, these unconformities.

Unconformities, landmarks,  bits of older and younger geologies and cultures — all intermingled, all bumping against one another, each giving the other a slightly different and larger meaning and context. –June

The continuation of this post shows the individual paintings in Group Four.

The Bidahochi Formation overlooking the Chinle Formation, 24 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

Inside the Painted Desert Inn, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010

The Painted Desert Inn, North Side, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010

From Pintado Point (1), 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010

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6 Responses to The Petrified Forest: The Painted Desert

  1. june says:


    I just finished wiring the last of the paintings, so I can hang them properly (and more easily). I’m hoping this will allow me to see what I have in the groupings. At the very least, I should be able to assess rather grouping is even worth while. Maybe I need to go back to the Petrified Forest for another round (already I hear groans from the other half, who can suss out my very thoughts!)

    Nah, I’ll just keep playing with them.

    It might be fun to see the outliers, the paintings that seem just plein air delights, set apart. (At least two of them seem quite different in tone, the first is the meadow; the other is one I plan to send to PEFO as per contractural agreement, so I haven’t made much of it).

    Or, maybe, when they are _all_ together, they will make more sense. The last grouping is in draft form at this very moment. It will take me a couple of days to get the hangings up and photographed for a final post (but I think I’ve been promising “final” for months now… –snort–)


    • Sheila says:

      Well, as one who has never been much for immediate gratification, I can patiently wait for the finale! Really good work, I’d say, worthy of the time in residence and emblematic of the importance of living with your subject and really getting to know it.


      • June says:

        Thanks, Sheila,
        I’m going to avoid looking at these pieces for a couple of weeks, hoping to get a fresh eye for them before I do anything final. Although, now that I think of it, there is one painting that still needs a tweak or two. Ah, so it goes. Anyway, I’m hoping that the textile work will be so aggravating that my eye for painting will come back like gangbusters in March:-) Thanks for checking in.


  2. Sheila says:

    I’d agree with the “airiness” analysis. It does look airy partly because of the lack of radical value contrast – none of that lovely russet. I don’t have a problem leaving it in the grouping per se, but it did look a bit lonely up there, like a kid on the playground wanting to play but not sure the other kids will let her. I hope you can find a way to bring her down in with the rest so she is really noticed, not ignored. 😉

    Now the ultimate will be to see all the groupings grouped, as it were. I think this is sizing up to be a great series. I had my doubts that you could make them a coherent whole, but by breaking them into the different “subjects” I think you have solved the puzzle of presentation.


  3. June says:

    Thinking about the last grouping and this one, I believe it might be the “airiness” of the meadow scene that is disturbing, more than the relative sizes. It was your comment about “weight” that made me see that.

    However, I think I’m following Robt. Genn on this one — a bit of an oddity or a mistake in a painting will sometimes allow the viewer to linger and add her own thoughts to the mix. “Why the H… did she put that one in with those other ones?” I sort of like thinking that such questions might be asked. I’m not big on the absolutely obvious, although what I do in my paintings is pretty obvious most of the time.


  4. Sheila says:

    These work well together and I like the arrangement – satisfies my need for balance. Adding the Inn to the mix of landscapes creates interest – reminds one that man is a part of this landscape too, but blending nicely here. It has a weight to it – probably because the others are distance and it is close up.


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