Q&A: Outdoor Painting at the Grand Canyon

John Cogan paints the Grand Canyon at Shoshone Point in 2015. | Courtesy of John Cogan

This fall marks the 10th annual Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, which starts September 8 at Grand Canyon National Park. One of the event's highlights is artists painting en plein air, or outdoors, for a week at the Canyon. The work produced is then displayed for sale in Kolb Studio through the new year. A portion of the proceeds from the annual event benefit the Grand Canyon Association’s mission to create a dedicated art venue at the South Rim.

We spoke with John Cogan, a professional painter who has joined the Celebration of Art each year since its inception and estimates he has painted the Canyon 700 times (although he admits he quit counting a while ago).

When did you start painting the Grand Canyon?
My wife and I went there in 1978, and I started painting it right after that, and I’ve been painting it ever since. I love it. There’s always something new and different in the Canyon: the lighting, different seasons, just day-to-day changes in the weather. [It] makes it a really intriguing and challenging thing to paint.

What are some of the challenges?
Painting there at the Canyon, the main challenge is the changing light. That’s always true when you’re painting en plein air, because the sun moves pretty rapidly across the sky. It’s especially tricky in the Grand Canyon, because you have so many different buttes and crevices between them, and the shadows seem to change even faster than they seem to do in a flat landscape.

What is your favorite spot at the Grand Canyon?
You can’t make me choose a favorite spot, but if I had to pick one, I would probably say Mather Point, which is of course the main place people go on the South Rim. There’s parts of it I could paint without any reference at all, because I’ve been there so many times and painted it so many times.

What keeps you coming back to the Celebration of Art every year?
I keep coming back because it’s exciting. There’s a lot of artists there, and all of them I know; every year there’s a new one or two that I have to get to know, but they become my friends. They’re more than just acquaintances. We paint together, we talk a lot, we compare notes on how to approach painting the Canyon — everybody has their own way of doing it. It’s fun to watch all the other artists and see what they do differently than what I do. And, of course, the opportunity to spend nine straight days doing nothing but painting the Grand Canyon. And, yeah, we get tired, but not tired of the Canyon. You just finally get weary from all that painting, but no one wants to quit. I’ve seen artists out there painting the day when everybody is leaving; there'll be someone out there with their easel set up, painting. They just don’t want to give up.

What should new visitors expect from the event?
Visitors can come out and watch the artists paint. We’re all used to gawkers and having people look over our shoulder, asking us questions. It doesn’t bother us. They can watch us paint for a couple hours and watch a blank canvas turn into a painting of the Canyon.

Why is this event, and the creation of a dedicated art venue at the Canyon, important to you?
I think the general population grows a new perspective of natural wonders when they see it in pictures. Of course they see it in photographs, but there’s something different about seeing it painted — paint on canvas. It brings back memories and reinforces the idea that this is a special place.

I think, and hope, this is an event that is going to continue well past my lifetime, because there’s so many people that are interested in art and historical art, and a lot of the [stored] paintings that will be exhibited eventually date back to the 19th century, so it’s a bigger thing then just us. It’s fun to be a part of it, and for the event in September, it’s special and everything, but it’s larger than any of us. 

To learn more about the upcoming event, visit the Grand Canyon Association’s website.

— Kirsten Kraklio

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