Morning, Aspen Forest

In the height of the pandemic lockdown, I got an inquiry about a painting commission. A company called Better Place Forests, who buy forest land and create memorial forests as an alternative to traditional cemeteries – here’s a quote from their website:

“We want to change the way we talk about, plan for and create end of life experiences. Rather than cemetery grounds, we imagine lush, natural forest lands. Your legacy lives on in a memorial forest—for you, your loved ones, and the planet.”

They were making a new forest north of Flagstaff Arizona into a conservation memorial forest and wanted to have a painting of it for the guest center. I of course felt like I had died and gone to heaven. Because it was drivable, I was able to travel there during the pandemic. I spent about 2 1/2 days wandering around at dawn and late afternoon taking photographs. After going through and grading the photographs, we shared a group of selects and then slowly reduced it down until there was an image that was approved for a painting.

Since the forest was recently acquired, it hadn’t been groomed and turned into a finished conservation memorial forest yet. So grooming was added digitally; things like a path and a bench area, which were modeled after their other locations and on some existing buildings. I called up a friend of mine from the visual effects days who is a master matte painter named Rick Rische, and he agreed to help with that. Meanwhile I began painting, and left the areas where he was working until they were approved. Here are some of the phases of the painting:

Since the underpainting would show through here and there, I made a very simple version of the scene, as opposed to a uniform color everywhere.
Here is a sketch of the forest, using a combination of markers and oil paint. Most of this will be covered, but it serves as a road map.
A baby step forward here. The trees are solid here, as is the pathway, but still tons of work ahead.
Things are a little more fleshed out here, but still pretty rough.
This doesn’t seem much further, but represents a lot of work! In addition to the rocks around the path, the endless leaves are a little closer to what they should be.
Here’s the final painting, which will hang in the Welcome House. Color and value are more balanced and accurate now, so it feels like the real scene. Also, I don’t usually do this, but I had some photographs of some deer from early morning in other parts of the forest which I swiped and added to this scene; I felt like it added a sense of the early morning wonder that I was after…

3 thoughts on “Morning, Aspen Forest

  1. Janet

    This is absolutely beautiful. I love them the way you posted your painting process. Are used to work for the Arizona office of Tourism so I’m a little bit familiar with the area you mentioned. What a wonderful idea to plant a tree as a memorial. I just lost my brother two months ago and It would be a wonderful way to honor him by planting a tree in his name. Thank you again for posting your fantastic painting.


  2. Jim Bartel

    What a great project for a good organization. The result looks fantastic. Always enjoy your walk through the process. Great you were able to connect with Rick!


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