Posted by: bluelanternstudio | April 19, 2012

Documenting a place

My family and I just returned from a four and a half week trip to Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Our time was mostly spent relaxing on the beach and in and around swimming pools, playing and reading (I’m a voracious reader and happily made my way through 8 novels!). Periodically we drove to the nearest town for food and supplies. We also did some kayaking and took two boat trips: one off the Pacific coast to see whales and the other on the Sea of Cortes where we saw dolphins, sea lions and pelicans.

photo: Keith Jardine

Travelling with a six year old, and also needing a fair amount of time to just relax and decompress from a stressful winter, didn’t leave a lot of time for creating my own art. I mostly took photographs to work from later. I did, however, manage to carve out a few chunks of time when I could disappear into the desert to do some plein air drawing and painting.

Because my time was limited, I gave myself two challenges: painting a cactus and painting the mountains. I started with the cactus and soon realized that even though they look simple enough, cacti are complex life forms featuring many angles, shadows, textures and colours. Far from being uniform green, the saguaro cacti I ended up drawing were a wide range of greens (from almost white to dark blue-green), yellow, hints of purplish red, and lots of browns and greys. Their shape is a mix of spheres and triangles, with edges all over the place. They have holes where various birds and animals have made their homes, along with flowers, fruit and, of course, spines and prickles.

Saguaro cactus (Robi Smith, acrylic on paper, 16" x 12")

I tried a couple of acrylic paintings on watercolour paper, and then gave up, took some photos and did a pencil drawing based on the pictures.

My forays into painting the mountain ranges didn’t fare much better. After struggling with acrylic paints, which dried super fast in the hot sun, I switched to watercolours. These ended up being much easier to keep wet, or re-wet as needed. I started by drawing the composition in pencil, and then began a series of washes. Once I’d laid down the paint, I wasn’t satisfied with how everything on the page seemed to blend together, so I added lines and shading with a black pen.

Mountain range in the desert (Robi Smith, watercolour and ink on paper, 12" x 16")

The result looks more like a quick sketch than a finished painting, but it captures the feeling of the warm sun and the variety of colours and forms in the mountains.

In addition to these few paintings and loads of photographs, I did bring a slim sketchbook with me and did do some simple drawings while out with my family. These are mostly light pencil sketches that remind me of the feeling of the places we were.

photo: Keith Jardine

All in all, I feel as though I have lots of material to work with, and warm memories, now that I’m back in my studio in the cool northern climate. (You can see more of my photos in my Facebook album.)



  1. So glad you had a nice relaxing time and brought back some wonderful memories that will show up in future work I am sure.

    • Thanks Darlene! I’m definitely trying to hold onto the sunshine 🙂

  2. Finding the spirit of place is a bit like treasure hunting, sometimes easier abroad than at home. What a precious time…spacious….shared by the three of you!
    Thanks for sharing so gracefully.

    • Thanks Francine. You’re right about it being easier to see things fresh when away. I’m inspired to get outside and draw more at home now that I’m back. Just waiting for slightly warmer weather 😉 ! (brrrr….)

  3. […] having such a great time painting outdoors on my recent trip to Mexico, I jumped on the chance to join the Opus Outdoor Painting Challenge this weekend. Opus is a great […]

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