Plein Air: May on Tumamoc

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It all began with this idea to record the changing light and color of Tumamoc Hill. It took a month and many paintings but I think there’s something educational here.




In this beginning phase, I’m just showing up on the Hill without much of a plan but to paint the same scene at different times of day.


My plein air set up; a pochade box mounted on a camera tripod. Standing.



My palette is limited to complementary pairs keyed to an overall color cast or “hit”, say blue or orange. It becomes impossible to avoid the blooming palo verde. They glow a luminous lemony yellow. So, I have to put yellow in each painting, in addition to the complementary pair; three color limited palette for each painting.



Later Afternoon:


I’m churning these out and slowly coming up with a better plan for what I think might make an interesting statement about color/light on the hill. This is a (the) process.

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We gather to assess our work during these plein air sessions. Talking about what you are doing helps you to figure out just what it is…that you are doing (or making or thinking or feeling).


The group offers suggestions for presenting the work up to this point.


After deliberation I decide to paint another series more specifically about shifting light and color on Tumamoc.


I’ll call this initial arrangement, “The Yellow Month”, after the plethora of yellow blooms during May and their subsequent fading .

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What I really need is more consistency with fewer variables. I decide to do one painting every hour for one twelve hour period. I’ll use only two colors plus white for each painting. Each painting will have a different complementary combination. I’ll key the color to a reference point, say, the rooftop. At the beginning of every hour I will take the color wheel and hold it up to the rooftop and spin it until I find a close enough match. Matches are difficult to find so I end up using a process of elimination more often than not.

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6 AM, go!


8 AM: Blue-Violet and Yellow-Orange.



11 AM: Blue and Orange



5 PM: Red-Violet and Yellow-Green


I made some reference cards to help out with seeing color mixing potentials. This really helps me to compare different color combo’s to find a more likely fit. Color is relative/relational.

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I finish up at 6 PM and try some different arrangements for the twelve pieces in the Tumamoc Library building.


Should I divide the day into three parts?


It ends up like this, all twelve presented in one rectangle. Titled, “One Day on Tumamoc”.  I rotated the paintings, reorienting them. This way the emphasis becomes light and color instead of twelve views of the same scene. More abstracted, less representational. At first it can be confusing and even irritating to look at this piece but if you stare and unfocus your eyes, “soft eyes”, you may begin to get an overall “feel” of space and subtle color shift.  I like the way this turned out because it makes me look longer…

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But, this still isn’t enough. I want to use more color, so I take all of the pigments I decided upon in, “One Day… ” and set up for another series.


Looks/Feels pretty yellow-orange this morning.



While I was away, Owen set up his time lapse camera in my line of sight. Luckily I have now painted the scene so many times, the ladder is easy to ignore.


Besides, company is fun. All this time painting on Tumamoc enables me to interact with the scientists and other artists who work up here. Check out for more  information. Also UofA sciences website.

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Here is my predominately yellow-orange morning. I used sixteen different hues in this painting. I could not have achieved this complexity of color and light without practice with over twenty-one  paintings of the same scene already. I should add, color is partly subjective, so I would not expect for anyone else to come up with the same color choices, although it would be interesting to discuss and deliberate…

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Moving on to painting number two. My plan is to make four paintings today: Early and mid morning and early and mid to late afternoon.


But, I get distracted. Maybe it’s the heat, but suddenly this ladder and saguaro juxtaposition is fascinating …

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Now, I really am going gaga. It is 105 degrees and I am feeling…pink!


After a cool down I get back to the task at hand and complete the day with just three paintings of the original scene.

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Late afternoon is red and violet.

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What next? I retreat to the studio with a (my) painter’s palette for Tumamoc. I use this palette for several abstractions based on still poignant memories of being there on the Hill and sensations, thoughts and feelings experienced. This is the most fun!


I mix up the palette and get to work on another series of three.


This is number one. You can see the rest at the end of the Project Gallery.  I think I’ll try this process out in a different place/geographical location and see what happens, how different will it be? What new experiences await? What new discoveries will be made? Always an adventure!

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  Project Gallery

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The Yellow Month, oil, M.Milstead



Color Signature for The Yellow Month, oil, M.Milstead

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One Day on Tumamoc, 30×40, oil, M.Milstead



Color Signature: One Day on Tumamoc, oil, M.Milstead

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Three Lights of Tumamoc: Morning, 10×10, oil, M.Milstead

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Three Lights of Tumamoc: Midday, 10×10, oil, M.Milstead

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Three Lights of Tumamoc: Afternoon, 10×10, oil, M.Milstead



Color Signature for Tumamoc, oil, M.Milstead



Redhouse, 10×10, oil, M.Milstead

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Darkcolumn, 10×10, oil, M.Mlstead


Lightway, 10×10, oil, M.Milstead



7 thoughts on “Plein Air: May on Tumamoc

      • (Francisco has returned to his mountain lair to contemplate his navel, thus leaving me here to respond with insufficient high school Spanish to continue in that beautiful language.)
        You are most welcome, Meredith, but thank *you* – I insist! I am blown away not only by your talent, but by your ability to weave the technical aspects of color and light, photography and a dedication and passion I can only marvel at into a tapestry that even a non-painter can understand and (greatly) appreciate. All of that spiced with a wonderful sense of humor, too – you should be (more) famous! May on Tumamoc at 105??? Bonita en rosado, ciertamente!

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