By trade, I am an interior designer. Yes, that means I took a colour theory course for (a single) credit in university. My background is also in art, but by passion, I am an avid outdoor adventurer.
Growing up in Calgary, I have spent most of my time wandering the greys and blues of the Rocky Mountains, occasionally dabbling in the lush greens of the west coast. My favourite colours are those found in my natural environment - Lake O’Hara turquoise, autumn larch chartreuse, and the fringe magenta-red of the aurora borealis. Most of my days outdoors are spent in cooler colours. So, naturally, exploring the American deserts this summer left me a little stupefied by colour.
Art has gifted me with creativity, while design has given me a critical eye. Both of these skills are fused together in my love of painting, and I’d argue it opens my eyes to seeing landscapes in an entirely different way than most. As part of setting out on a road trip through the western United States this summer, I resolved to diarize the colours I witnessed along the way. I packed a small notebook, my water brushes, and a 48-colour set of watercolour paints.
Nothing could have prepared me for the magical landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park. By the time I had arrived, I had already experienced a few red rock landscapes; I had seen desert expanses of orange, and walked my fair share of kilometres through golden sand. But the intensity and variety of hue in this incredible canyon coloured me utterly flabbergasted.
I travelled the 13 kilometres of the Fairyland Loop in absolute amazement. Out loud, I kept saying to myself “this can’t be real”, and it hardly felt it. I was surrounded in all directions by dunes that faded from vermilion to mandarin, amber to straw, and towering hoodoos with layers of carrot orange, coral, pastel pink, lavender and ivory. I took more photos on this hike than I had all week, and still, they hardly do it any justice.
When I look at a landscape like that of Bryce Canyon, of course I see the obvious culprits: orange, pink, white and gold. But it is about so much more than seeing a single colour in any one place to me. I collected a specimen orange rock, and carried it back to camp with me that night. When I opened my paint palette, there wasn’t a single orange to match it; it would take a little more work than that.
My eyes don’t just see orange, plain and simple. My art history and experience in mixing colours tell me a completely different story, and in this case, it’s something of a geological one. I can tell the story of this little orange rock through the colours I mixed to match it.
Since I also found a green rock along the way, and had occasionally witnessed some green fleck in larger, lower outcroppings of rock, my first addition to a base of orange was green. Simple colour theory, of course, dictates that too much green would turn my mix to grey, being that they are near opposites on the colour wheel. Consider - orange is comprised of red and yellow, and green is comprised of blue and yellow - together, they are a mixture of all three primary colours. In case you didn’t play enough in art class, all three primary colours together turn into the colour of mud. So, I added only a touch of green to balance the sharp saturation of my orange paint.
Understanding the sources of colour in natural environments helps to understand what all comprises the colours you interpret. The red rock of Zion National Park, for instance, occurs because of a high iron oxide content; naturally, it would be a creamy white. There are all kinds of natural pigments that give us the colours of stone and gems: green-blue (turquoise), pink (rose quartz), yellow (amber or yellow topaz), green (emerald), red (ruby), blue (sodalite or sapphire), and purple (amethyst), to name a few.
Since I found my orange rock in an environment surrounded with pink, white and gold rocks, I can only assume that some of those natural pigments might also be present in my rock. So, I mixed in a little bit of everything I saw: peach, pink, gold and red.
When you realize how many paint colours go into a mix that represents a single specimen rock, you become familiar with the colours present in all of your surroundings. Blue is rarely just blue. It typically leans more towards a green-blue or a purple-blue. Because browns and greys are such a complicated jumble of colours, it is easy to see which direction it might lean on the colour wheel when you consider their environment.
I can’t seem to get enough of these dramatic, hot coloured vistas. They’re so unlike what I’ve known all my life. Even the clouds reflect the pink rock of Arizona deserts, and I can’t tell you how many times I was tricked into thinking I had tanned when I returned from hikes covered in a thin film of Utah’s red desert, or the gold sands of Colorado.
I used to find myself refilling the blues and greens of my paint palettes much more frequently than anything else. The more I learn about the desert’s side of the colour wheel, the more I’m finding myself drawn in the opposite direction when I paint, and really, I think I have Bryce Canyon to thank for that.