Manzano Mountain Review is an online New Mexico literary journal affiliated with UNM-Valencia.

Watercolor Skies
at Ghost Ranch

by Lisa McCallum

“I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.”
             ~Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
 

Our painting teacher Pomona is an aging angel, a hippie from any decade whose constant “You’re welcome!” to our “Thank yous” becomes the calm mantra of the class. People should say “You’re welcome” more often. Long white hair tucked under a knitted skull cap. Smock spattered with the paints of years. Back hunched, steps slow, fingers stiff, brushes clenched.
 
At the paleontology museum, I see the small green dinosaur that was discovered here. It’s a cute little thing, but it’s not awe-inspiring like the huge bones of the dinosaurs up north. Ghost Ranch was a swamp too; I didn’t know anything in New Mexico was similar to home. A shallow valley surrounded by hills striped with peach and rust, topped with narrow towers of beige earth here and there. Sky so wide it’s hard to believe that any other places exist on this planet.
 
Learn about full spectral intensity, the darkest of the darks. Gather dollops of thick paint with only a few drops of water and paint a square. Pick up more water and paint a square called ‘dark,’ then add more water and make ‘mid-tone,’ then ‘light,’ then ‘tint.’ ‘Tint’ is barely a color, but it’s there. The palest pink, the lightest blue, the faintest green and gray. White is not a color. If you use Titanium White, that is cheating. The full spectral intensity of white is merely paper.
 
Paint a color wheel. Paint a blue sky with clouds. Paint a purple sky with a thunderstorm. Paint leaves with a sponge. Paint an adobe building with an aqua door. Paint mesas, hoodoos, a smattering of bushes that grow stubbornly out of dry rock. Paint a witch tree. Dead and black, its curves are far lovelier than any living tree. Look at the paintings of the other ladies, my classmates. They painted the same things, but their paintings are not like mine. What is there is not what we see.
 
When mixing, start with the lighter color and add the darker one—in smidgeons—to the light one. Never add light to dark. The dark will eat up the light every time.
 
Start another painting while the first one’s drying, Pomona says. Come back to it after giving it some space. You’ll know when it’s finished, she says. Painting is the colored version of writing, a story on a piece of paper that everyone sees differently.
 
Georgia O’Keeffe’s house at Ghost Ranch has a view of the Pedernal Mountain, her obsession. While we all admire Georgia, we know better than to try and paint like her. Pomona teaches us to paint with three opposing colors, then four. My paintings look psychedelic—too vivid, too unreal. Contrasting colors draw the eye, Pomona says. No one but me will know it’s Ghost Ranch, I protest.
 
Watercolors require colored paints, not white. I get clouds and highlights by leaving the paper unpainted. Knowing when to stop is the hardest part. There are no do-overs. If you don’t leave any white, you have to start over. Very little in life is as unforgiving as watercolors.
 
Geckos flit across rocky paths. Desert rabbits hop among the bushes. Late one night, an injured baby bat crawls into the grass to die outside my door. In the morning, it is gone. It survived.
 
Dreams at Ghost Ranch: the small green dinosaur flies around my room, silent, circling. A Native American woman floats closer and closer, her face painted bright green. She is talking to me. I wake before I can understand her words. Cool rain comes in through the window screen above and wets my pillow.
 
Paint color names have entered my daily vocabulary. Payne’s Gray, Alizarin Crimson, Viridian Green, Naples Yellow, Cerulean Blue, Hooker’s Green, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue. A rainy morning clears and reveals a watercolor sky: wisps and bands of Payne’s Gray and Ultramarine Blue, a dash of Cerulean, some Naples Yellow entering from the east. A hint of Alizarin Crimson behind the Pedernal Mountain. The sky paints itself.
 
Last dinner. I listen to the ladies’ stories of retirements and divorces, of chasing the upcoming  eclipse, of driving to Texas to study with Pomona in the past. One classmate tells me about her abandoned quest for love at age seventy: ‘I won’t be a purse, and I won’t be a nurse.’ I nod with sympathy. Four paintings go into a box in my trunk. This was the summer camp that I never went to as a child but always wanted to.
 
Last breakfast. Goodbye to the ladies. Goodbye to Pomona. I tell her it has been a joy to learn from her and I tear up. Really? ‘A joy’? But Pomona inspires words like this. Some people you meet once and never again. They make you utterly glad you knew them, as if your heart is more open now. Light into dark.
 
Payne’s Gray, Alizarin Crimson, Viridian Green, Naples Yellow—such names for beauty. I see watercolor skies when I’m driving home and imagine painting one. A wash of water, delicate layers of color, dabs of light from the sun either coming or going. Add a sunset or a rainstorm. Make an adobe house red or an aqua door purple. Paint what is there or what I see.
    

Lisa McCallum’s fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in Colere; Into the Teeth of the Wind; inTravel Magazine; Loonfeather; Mikrokosmos; North Country; Peace Corps at 50: Asia; Pilot Guides Travel Stories; Prairie Margins; Pology; Tango Diva; The Mid-America Poetry Review; The Talking Stick; Transitions Abroad; Travelmag; Wanderlust and Lipstick; Whistling Shade, and elsewhere. She writes and teaches in the Twin Cities.