Plein Air to Studio, Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, Nevada

Earlier this fall, I went on a short trip to Las Vegas to do some painting at Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas, Nevada with the intention of developing a painting from plein air to studio.

(Scroll to the bottom of the post to see the finished studio piece.)

Having been to Red Rock Canyon several times to rock climb, I was familiar with the terrain and landscape.  This time, instead of views from the top of the rocks, I went with visions of painting canyons and cactus from the valley.  Over the course of a week, I painted three oil studies as well as small sketches and watercolors.  Using those paintings and ideas, I created a larger painting in the studio.

Ink and Watercolor Sketch of Pine Creek Canyon
Ink and Watercolor Sketch of Pine Creek Canyon


Designated as Nevada’s first National Conservation Area, the canyon is only 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip  According to their website, over 2 million people visit every year.  Of course, most of those visitors stick to the 13-mile scenic drive.  A few more adventurous folks go for the hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, biking, running, and photography and painting.

 This area is under intense pressure from nearby developers.

For more information on proposed development, read this article

or go to

Plein Air to Studio

The first day was spent taking reference photos.  I also sketched and became re-acquainted with area.  Following the scenic loop, I stopped at pullouts for photos, noting the light and shadows at that time of year.

The photo bellow shows the place I had in mind for the studio painting.  With so many perspectives, possible compositions and combinations, it was hard to narrow it down.  I knew I wanted to get a sense of the grandeur and size, without losing the smallest formation (which is meaningful to me).  I also wanted a sense of scale and a feeling of the arid desert, without being barren.

View of Pine Creek Canyon across the plains.

View of Pine Creek Canyon across the plains.

Day 2-4

Based on my drive-through, I chose three locations to paint.  Each offered a different view & perspective of the terrain.  While composition was a consideration, the main focus was on subject, color and texture. I painted oil studies over three days, studying the angle of the light and shadows, texture and color.

Study 1: 

This first study was certainly not an ideal composition, but the goal was study the rock formations while including some of the vegetation.

Pine Creek Canyon, Study No. 1, Oil on Canvas 11x14 © Nelia Harper
Pine Creek Canyon, Study No. 1, Oil on Canvas 11×14 © Nelia Harper

Study 2:

Moving closer to Mescaltio (the little red rock topped formation), I focused on the single rock formation, especially the pattern of columns, striations and the shadows.  (The formation is actually to my right – outside the photo.)

Study #2 - A closer look at Mescalito in Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, Nevada
Study #2 – A closer look at Mescalito in Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, Nevada


Notice the value study done in marker.  Clipped to the easel, the study keeps me focused.

Study 3:
This study was to further practice the multi-colored rocks and vegetation that was only touched on during study no. 1.

Study No. 3, Oil on Canvas 9x12 © Nelia Harper
Study No. 3, Oil on Canvas 9×12 © Nelia Harper – Drying in the hotel on their complimentary newspaper.


Each of these studies provided the opportunity to practice, become familiar with a new subject and test out ideas, techniques and color.

The pollution was heavy on several days, creating a strong haze that dulled many of the colors.  Luckily, the temperature was below average making mid-day painting quite comfortable.

Of course, being such a popular area, several people stopped to chat, and see what I was doing.  One woman even sent some photos to me (thanks Catherine!).

Painting Red Rocks and Yucca - Photo by Catherine Nichols
Painting Red Rocks and Yucca – Photo by Catherine Nichols
Back in the Studio

Back in the studio, I went through my paintings and photos.  I decided on composition, color palette, and size.  There were still several unresolved problems with the rock formations, so I chose to work in pastel to further develop the ideas and color palette.

The photo references are taped/clipped to particle board and placed on a smaller easel.  After developing the drawing, the next step was an underpainting in oil.

Creating a Storyboard and underpainting in oil.
Storyboard and oil underpainting.


Using the references, the painting was finished over several weeks.

When I showed my recent work to my 8-year-old nephew over the holiday, he exclaimed, “That looks like the desert!”

Ha!  Mission accomplished.

Pine Creek Canyon, Pastel on Pastelmat, 16x20 © Nelia Harper
Pine Creek Canyon, Pastel on Pastelmat, 16×20 © Nelia Harper


Now on display at the Historic Carnegie Building at 200 Mathews Street, Fort Collins, CO.  December 7-10, 12-6pm.   More details from my previous post here. Soon available at Nelia  If you are interested in this painting, please contact me directly.

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