A CONVERSATION WITH ROLAND LEE
Interview by Editor Pamela Frazier for the Zion National Park book, A Century of Sanctuary
Many people think that the life of an artist is all play and no work. Is that true for you? What is easiest? What is hardest?
In some respects that is true, for my work is my pleasure. Not a single day goes by that I don’t want to sketch or paint. It is a drive that is hard to explain. I have never had one day of artist block in my life. My head is spinning with paintings and every new scene that passes in front of me longs to be painted.
In creating paintings an artist shares something of himself/herself with others. Those that respond to the paintings are usually feeling the same feeling the artist felt. All art deals with the sharing of human emotions. There is a giver and a receiver—the artist who creates or performs, and the viewer who watches and responds. When it clicks, both equally share the experience along the feelings—creating a kind of bond between them. I feel that bond with many of my collectors. I catalog every painting and enjoy both meeting my collectors and learning how my paintings have become a part of their lives. Their friendship has been a rich part of my life.
The thing I dislike the most is when my painting time is interrupted. For instance when I have to stop and deal with the business end of things such as answering emails, shipping paintings, paying bills, or choosing frames. Those are things that must be done in order keep the business going, but they get in the way of making art. The sooner I get back to painting the happier I am. If I don’t paint for several days I get downright surly. Just ask my wife.
What motivates you to do what you do?
Like all who enjoy the outdoors, I want to see what’s around the next bend in the trail, or over the next ridge, or in the next canyon. I want to feel the stiff morning breeze in Zion canyon and the icy rush of the Virgin River on my bare feet. I want to bask in the warm rays of the midday sun and watch its final rays light up the sandstone at day’s end. I want to be there. That is what drives me, and that is why I am a landscape painter.
What my wife doesn’t understand is how I can stop and stare in awe at the same spot in the same canyon at the same time of day over and over again. The explanation is simple. I call it “filling the bucket.” The bucket is filled when I am outdoors in nature. When I paint, the bucket is emptied and it needs to be re-filled again. And so it goes. I don’t think the process is going to stop any time soon.
Zion National Park has been the subject matter in many of your paintings. What is it about Zion as a subject that captivates you and holds your interest enough to paint it over and over again?
Of course Zion National Park has captured the fancy of artists since long before it became a National Park. People like Thomas Moran, Maynard Dixon, Gunnar Widforss and others succumbed to its beauty. Their images were not attempts to capture a literal geological recording of what they saw. Theirs was motivated merely by a response to the majesty and intrigue they felt while in the spell of the place. The paintings they portrayed captured the imagination and feeling of what Zion is. I am walking in their footsteps–caught by the same spell and driven by the same motivation. I want people to see what I see with my eyes and feel what I feel with my heart while I am in Zion.
How does an artist see Zion differently than the average visitor?
My wife constantly claims that I see things differently than others. That may be true because as an artist, I don’t look at things as objects. I see the interplay of light and shadow. I see a series of tableaus or dramas that are played out at each turn. With every change of weather, with every cloud that drifts overhead, with every passing minute a new scene takes the stage. New characters take the lead role while others pass behind the curtain. One of my paintings touring nationally this year with the “Paint the Parks Top 100” show is called “Five Minutes of Fame.” It depicts a fairly non-descript cliff in Zion that visitors see daily but I doubt ever really notice. It certainly doesn’t call attention to itself. But for just five minutes on a particular day, the bright spotlight from the setting sun lighted up its peak with a brilliant glow that gave it a moment of glorious fame.
That is how I see Zion. It’s not about things. It’s about positive and negative shapes, areas of light and shadow, and reflected light. It’s about rich textures and subtle colors–all found in the elements of art. Nature uses these elements and paints daily with a very full palette and really good tools. By studying the landscape we learn to see how nature paints its vistas. By looking closely we discover its secrets.
I am sure there are some visitors to Zion who only see it as a big pile of rocks. Or maybe as a destination to cross off their lists once they’ve done it. But I guarantee that anyone who has stopped to sketch or paint their experiences sees Zion with a different set of eyes.
How has Zion changed or shaped your life?
I was drawn to Zion National Park as a teenager. My wife and I courted there. It caused us to move from California to Utah. We have raised our children and our grandchildren under its spell. It has become my playground and my art studio. And it is my haven of peace in a hectic world. When I get discouraged, or need to regenerate my soul, I go to Zion National Park. Its canyons and cliffs heal me with soothing sights and sounds. My time at our cabin on the East Rim is among my most cherished moments. Many people have places where they go to find solace. For me that place is Zion.
Do you have any ulterior motives—something you wish to achieve with your art?
My goal as an artist is to convey a feeling of peace to others. None of my paintings ever conger up negative emotions or depict the baser side of our world. We have enough of that dished out daily in the media. I hope to share a message of tranquility and wonder for the glorious natural world that we are a temporary part of and help others feel a greater respect for the Master Creator. Hopefully my paintings of Zion accomplish that goal.
As I look back on the others who have painted Zion’s landscapes over the years I would feel honored beyond measure to be mentioned in their company. Some time back, the Maynard Dixon property at Carmel Junction in East Zion came on the market. It had also been the home of the revered watercolorist Milford Zornes. My private dreams pictured me living there and carrying on the Zion artist legacy. That never happened for me, but today a wonderful art museum on that property brings dozens of the world’s best artists to paint Zion each year. I think Maynard Dixon would be surprised at the crowds, but pleased that artists today still find Zion a worthy subject.
In a recent introduction I was called “The Painter of Zion.” I like that. Of course I paint other subjects as well, but when the history books are written I would feel grateful to be listed with those whose art helped perpetuate the grandeur and intimacies of Zion National Park.
Describe your process
I frequently begin my paintings by doing on-location sketchbook pencil studies. I often use Watson-Guptill hardbound sketchbooks which hold up well to the rigors of travel and prevent the drawings from smudging. These sketchbook drawings combined with written notations not only provide an immediate outlet for recording my feelings and experiences, but also serve as invaluable resources back in the studio when working up finished paintings. In addition i carry a small pocket digital camera for detail reference.
I use a soft 6B or 8B pencil for most of my on-location drawings because they provide a good range of dark tonal values well suited to my chiaroscuro technique. In this drawing of the Great Arch of Zion, I am captivated by the rich sunlight hitting the arch face, casting a strong shadow under the arch and across the valley below. My sketch captures the reflected light on the underside of the arch as well as the sunlight striking the tops of the trees.
Back in the studio, I prepare my painting surface by soaking a sheet of 300lb. Arches® cold pressed watercolor paper in the tub, and stapling it to a sheet of Upson® board or Incredible Art Board ®. When dry the paper becomes taut like a drum-head. I then use masking tape or artists tape to cover the stapled area leaving a clean white border around the finished painting.i prefer Daniel Smith brand watercolor tube paints in a variety of colors. I am especially fond of the Quinacridone permanent colors which were pioneered by Daniel Smith and now found in other brands as well. Favorite brushes are a 3” Hake brush, 1 inch flat Aquarelle, #12 Loew-Cornell® 720 Ultra round, and various Jack Richeson® sables. I use both a Jones palette and Eldajon® palettes (no longer made) in the studio, and a compact Winsor & Newton® paint kit for on location work. Most of my on-location paintings are about 5” x 8.” All of my larger paintings are completed in the studio. My studio has floor to ceiling north facing windows for natural light and is supplemented with a combination of warm and cool fluorescent lighting.
I start each painting by building up loose transparent glazes, working from light to dark. Because of its transparent nature, watercolor cannot be painted light-over-dark. Light passages must be preserved by painting the darker negative shapes around them. At this point I am careful to retain these light areas as I build up the darker values. I choose not to use any masking fluid to preserve the whites, rather I just paint around them; this creates more natural hard and soft edges.
Watercolor is an ideal medium for capturing the random water stains and varnish marks on the sandstone walls of Zion. A wet-into-wet wash describes the soft sky, while a dry brush technique is used to delineate cracks and fissures in the rock face. I refine the shapes as the painting progresses, being careful to balance hard and soft edges. The final touches include the addition of the darkest darks and elements of detail in the leaves and branches of the foreground trees.
“A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park”
Published by Zion Natural History Association
Foreward by Robert Redford, Edited by Pamela Frazier
144 pages, full-color
available online from ZNHA: www.zionpark.org