Excursions: Gates Pass and Tucson Mountain Park

Despite quirky cloud cover, threatening wind and even rain, today’s Excursion turns out to be an excellent plein air experience.

We begin at Gates Pass, with its ample parking area and many plein air opps. Today we focus on simplifying content to three divergent shapes, three values, three colors, three major differences in scale. This helps in terms of composition, limited time, and identifying a theme or area of focus.

The demo turns out to be mostly about measuring; using one unit of measure to determine proportional relationships and placement of most important /dominant features in relation to everything else.

My three things/shapes: Mountain, building, sky.

Siting proportions, finding angles, placing values, color palette :


Thumbnail produced with scale and color palette considerations:

Working on the Pass in a variety of media:

Peggy-pencil, Margaret-ink wash, Cora-watercolor, Sara-graphite and Genevieve-chalk pastel.

Gates Pass has something for everyone; tourist, painter and hiker alike. Trails lead to scenic views, vertical outcroppings and rock shelters. The sites’ steady activity and great setting bring networking, friendship and business opportunity to the plein airist.

The second part of the  morning takes us down to the west base of the Pass, otherwise known as “scenic view ” pullout.

Here is a thumbnail view east. Value is built up with three different mark-making techniques and a colored pencil “glaze” over top.

Margaret works with water soluble graphite, an excellent sketching medium.

It is overcast, but the “teddy bear” Cholla still glow. Cora aims to catch this in watercolor.

Karen’s view to the west with measured study in line. Nice portable sketchbook-perfect for on-the-go.

Natural World meets Civilization…yee-haw.

Our lunch at Ironwood Picnic Area under the old Ironwood tree.

Thanks to Karen for the choco-hazelnut dessert, Margaret for Clementines and Peggy for grapes. Lunch is always a good time-best part…almost.

Afternoon location is close by. Our focus is space.


These shots show strong scale differences. Changes in scale are visually interesting and give the  illusion of depth. (click on any image to enlarge)

Peggy in the field. Her composition is more about deep space than plant diversity so we crop it to accentuate the depth. Cropping can help to simplify.


Genevieve works on two compositions. She solves the problems of the first one in the second. A warm-up is necessary at times.

Sara captures the changing light in pastel.

Nancy’s drawing is visually interesting with a variety of shapes, marks and scale differences.

Karen makes two afternoon sketches in different media. Careful measuring and tracking pays off.

Cora’s watercolor shows attention to scale, value and gesture.

Margaret’s small but grand mountain with Cholla. A parking lot is the classroom where our final feedback session takes place.

I’m working with colored pencil using a secondary triad.

We made it and came out on top during this boot-campy Excursion. Keep up the practice. New Excursion sites and dates coming this Spring are:

Plein Air Excursions: Time, Space & Light
Four Fridays 8 AM-5 PM
Section C: March 29, Happy Valley, Rincon Mountain Wilderness
Section D:  April 19, Brown Canyon, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
Section E:  May 3, Ruby, Ghost Town
Section F: May 17, Top of Mt. Lemmon, Coronado National Forest

Each Excursion is slightly different and comes with as much individual attention as possible. Any media and skill level  welcome. Sign up for each one separately or all together. Follow us for a Pre-Excursion survey of each site.

Happy Trails!

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