Santa Fe artist Joe Anna Arnett
Santa Fe artist Joe Anna Arnett

Something special is happening in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this coming May. Hundreds of plein air painters will be gathering to make new friends, reconnect with those we haven’t seen in a long time, learn how to improve painting skills, and — you guessed it — paint on location in a stunning landscape.

Of course, I’m referring to the annual Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE), hosted by Eric Rhoads. I’ll be there with Kelly Kane and dozens of today’s master landscape painters, including Joe Anna Arnett.

Joe Anna is a Santa Fe resident who has been to PACE enough times to share her advice on how to make the most of the week, including how to prepare for painting en plein air in the unique New Mexico landscape. She’ll be joining us at PACE, where we will present her with the PleinAir Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award in person. In a recent call with Joe Anna, she shared her excitement about painting in Santa Fe, an area she and her late husband, Jim, referred to as “target-rich” with so many subject choices.

“There’s so much here,” Joe Anna said. “We’re in this very unusual high desert, which people first think sounds desolate without that much going on, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The colors are so rich. I know if people haven’t been to northern New Mexico, they’re going to be surprised.”

Most of us will be flying into Albuquerque and then driving to Santa Fe, which is a visual treat in itself. “The landscape kind of takes its sweet time climbing higher,” Joe Anna said. “Santa Fe is 2,000 feet higher than Albuquerque. The land sort of takes its time rolling up to the mountains surrounding Santa Fe. It gets more and more and more dramatic, and then the geology just becomes thrilling.”

"Canyon Morning Shadows" by Joe Anna Arnett
“Canyon Morning Shadows” by Joe Anna Arnett

Cityscapes, Landscapes, Skyscapes … Rockscapes?

“We have rockscapes everywhere, and I love to compare this to the artists who paint cityscapes,” she said. “To me, our rockscapes are our cityscapes. They just carve out the most interesting shapes, and the light in northern New Mexico is incredible. We have really no industry in this part of the state, so the air is just clean and crisp and it carves out the shape of the formations to where they’re so architectural. You begin to feel that as you’re getting further and further north.”

In addition to the changing land, Joe Anna described the colors you’ll experience on the drive to Santa Fe as well as at some of our planned PACE paint-out locations. “You begin to notice that the color goes from sort of sandstone to very, very rich, and then you get into red rock. It’s just vibrant, and when the light hits it, it glows as the sun comes up and goes down. It glows in the very, very direct sunlight that we have almost every day here, and the light carves out the most wonderful shapes.

“You have an artist’s dream: You have dramatic shapes, dramatic colors, and you’ve got the light in northern New Mexico. You’re carving it all out — and the light, you need the light, it carves, it explains, it has the most amazing drama. I love all of those things, and that reveals itself. Just open your heart and be ready to be amazed by a completely different concept of desert.”

We have artist friends coming from all over the world to PACE, so I asked Joe Anna how we can prepare ourselves for visiting and painting in Santa Fe. She agreed that it’s best to “definitely be prepared.” Here’s how.

“To be specific, make sure that you have transparent oxide red or burnt sienna,” she said. “Those are going to be important for you. There are also very subtle greens. The nice thing about the greens here is that because we’ve got a lot of warm colors in the rocks and ground planes, the greens kind of cool things off. For your greens, you might want to begin with a blue such as cerulean or manganese and add subtle color to get to the greens rather than starting with a strong green you might have to knock down quite a lot. That’s just one of many ways to get to these colors.

"Chamisa Field with Asters," by Joe Anna Arnett, plein air painting desert
“Chamisa Field with Asters,” by Joe Anna Arnett

“You definitely have to have cobalt blue for our skies. It’s easy when we say ‘earth colors,’ but remember that the earth colors here can be very, very rich. You don’t need as many colors as you think. I would say you could even use quite a limited palette.”

"Clouds Over the Mesa" by Joe Anna Arnett, plein air skies
“Clouds Over the Mesa” by Joe Anna Arnett

In addition to knowing what colors to have on hand, be ready for some amazing new shapes to put into your plein air landscape as well.

“There’s a lot of architectural subjects that are wonderful,” Joe Anna said. “You do need a basic concept of perspective, but you don’t need to do straight lines. There are no straight lines here. My house leans every which way. You’ll have not only the dramatic rockscapes, you’ll also have really interesting architecture that you’ve probably never seen before, especially the places that we’re going that are scheduled on our PACE paint-outs. You’re going to be fascinated by the architecture.”

"Depot with Crows" by Joe Anna Arnett
“Depot with Crows” by Joe Anna Arnett

Be Comfortable

Joe Anna reminds us to be physically prepared for plein air in New Mexico as well. “Please bring a big hat,” she said. “You’ve got to shade your eyes. You’ll notice that the local artists are the ones with the really big hats. You want to shade your eyes, but the light can bounce. You also want to be prepared with sunscreen. I also wear long sleeves to protect my arms and hands from the sun. So when you go out on location, you have your big hat, you have your sunscreen, and you have to have water, because it is a desert and it is dry.”

Speaking of water, we advise everyone to start drinking extra water several days before you begin your travels to New Mexico, partly because of the change in altitude most of us will experience. For example, I’m coming from the forest-rich, rolling hills of Kentucky, with an elevation of only 530 feet. (You can simply Google your state and the word “altitude” if you’re curious about the difference for you.)

When it comes to arriving at PACE, Joe Anna reminds us that our water intake should continue. “You want to hydrate the whole time — before and during,” she said. “You may not be thirsty, but I kind of take water all the time. The high altitude can surprise you. If you’re hydrating, not gulping water but just sipping it continuously, you will probably avoid any kind of headache.”

It will be helpful to know what clothes to pack as well. “The key out here in springtime is to layer,” Joe Anna said. “I have gone out to paint on a cool spring morning and had to stop and shake the snow off because a little snow squall came up, and then roll up my sleeves because the sun came back out, and then it was back to light cold drizzle. I wear a shirt with pockets — artists have to have pockets. I also wear a sweater, and over that I may even have a light down jacket that I can roll up tightly in my backpack.”

We should also be ready to make new friends with other painters, including those from Plein Air Painters of New Mexico, who will be at PACE. “We love to tell you our secret corners and places that we adore,” Joe Anna said. “Ask us. We’re so happy to tell you how much we love our home. Everybody comes here, because they love it. There’s the depth of the culture, the depth of the visuals. Artists have a different way of looking at the world. We look much more intently, and northern Mexico hits you like that. It is intense light, so be prepared for that.

“Some of the most beautiful things that I see happen are on the opening day of the convention: people chatting, introducing themselves to people they don’t know. We start off with such a beautiful commonality that friendships come easily, so be open to that.

“There are artists at every level; don’t be afraid or intimidated. There are very, very advanced people and beginners, and we all love the same things. We’re all here for the same reason. We’re passionate about art, we’re passionate about doing it. I think you’re going to find so many beautiful kindred spirits.”

I couldn’t agree more. Some of my fondest PACE memories are meeting others in person and sharing our energy, enthusiasm, and common love of art and creativity. I hope to see you there.

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