Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and the Southwestern United States in general, are known for their natural beauty, as well as their natural dryness. Art, at its best, is known for capturing the essence of nature in a special way that opens new insights for people. Robert Dalegowski is an artist who has found a unique way of capturing the dry and beautiful natural essence of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim landscape in his stunning watercolors.
“My technique is different than a lot of watercolor painters because the environment in the Southwest is very dry, and watercolor, by its nature, depends on water,” Dalegowski points out. “In the Southwest, [pigment] dries so quick that it’s very difficult to keep everything wet, especially the way I do it without an easel or anything, so my technique has a lot of hard edges in it. You can only keep a small space wet before it dries and you have to move to something else.”
Dalegowski, the North Rim Artist-in-Residence for Grand Canyon National Park, takes pigments from his 50-year-old paint box and applies them to watercolor paper affixed to a block, 9 inches by 12 inches in size, with latex around the edges to hold the paper tight and prevent wrinkling. He does not use an easel. He is a plein air artist, painting scenery directly in the outdoor, natural environment while sitting on the ground.
Developing a Style
Dalegowski has spent much of his life investigating, studying, and painting the Grand Canyon. He grew up in a rural home, without electricity, in Doney Park, on the east side of Flagstaff. As a child, he would spend hours exploring the forests and canyons of Northern Arizona. He began drawing early, with his first artistic tool being fireplace charcoal. He says that during his deployment in the Vietnam War, he drew to help keep his sanity. “It’s been my anchor throughout my life. I’ve done lots of things, but I’ve always drawn and painted for my own pleasure.”
He has developed a special personal connection to the awesome natural wonder of the Grand Canyon, which he attempts to relate to people through his work. “The availability of artistic expression, whatever it may be, as it relates to the canyon, gives the visitors another way to see it,” he says. “You can look at it on a movie, in a photograph [but] when you look at art, you are getting a third-person discolation. I can’t find its definition anywhere.] of the scene. The ability to see the spectacle through the eyes of an artist is an engaging thing that is important to the park service.”
The artistic style developed by Dalegowski involves highly controlled and expressive brushwork—the result of many years of watercolor experimentation in the solitude of the canyon wilderness. His technique does not produce an exact representation of the natural landscape, but rather an impressionistic version highlighting the play of light and mood on the canyon’s geological features.
He notes that, “Every aspect of the canyon is different. You have one perception from the rim, another from the river, another if you’re hiking, and another if you’re climbing. To be able to present all those different aspects to people, sometimes you need one part of it to resonate.”
To convey his personal artistic impressions of the canyon, Dalegowski takes advantage of the canyon’s naturally dry conditions. Most watercolor artists paint by using the behavior of water as they work, wetting the paper and letting the water in the paint flow on the paper to create their desired results. Dalegowski, by contrast, uses the Southwestern dryness to create his results. The paper and pigment in this hot, dry environment do not stay wet long. So he created a style in which the dry pigments create effects of hard edges when they are applied to the paper. These edges reflect his impressions of the canyon’s natural geology.
“I’ll look at something and see a design or a pattern—mostly lights and shadows. Sometimes the physical formation in it inspires me to draw and then paint,” he explains. “In my opinion, the key to the situation is to be able to make a very detailed drawing so when I paint I don’t get too confused on the situation.”
He adds, “It’s what I love to do—that quick impression of whatever it is. Then I lose interest in going back to the studio and doing a very complex painting. I would just as soon leave that aside. I just like to focus on the initial quick aspect of trying to capture the essence of a place. I suppose on one hand that’s selfish, but that’s my approach.”
Dalegowski is among 27 artists who will participate in the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, Plein Air on the Rim, this September. His work can be seen at the Kolb Studio in Grand Canyon Village and The Artists’ Gallery in Flagstaff.