My favorite thing about the Southwest is that you can find incredible things to photograph all day long, regardless of the weather. After enjoying the moonset (see previous post) and a brilliant sunrise on the slickrock (it turns out, there is such a thing as too brilliant a sunrise, at least for me!), Marc Adamus and I headed into Willow Gulch in Escalante, which neither of us had explored before. The deep canyon is far enough from the paved roads to seriously limit foot traffic so it feels like a truly wild place. Other than a few bushy spots and a little rock hopping, most of the hike was a refreshing and easy walk along a small clear gurgling stream. Above us the sandstone walls were painted with beautiful stripes from eons of water staining, and many of the cottonwoods were still fully dressed with brilliant yellow leaves while others were completely barren. Where the cottonwoods had lost their leaves the canyon floor was covered in a golden blanket. The photographic gem of the day came in the form of several little puddles of water that had a thin and colorful glaze of natural plant oils on the surface creating a psychedelic soup of iridescent colors.

Click image for a larger view!

"Psychedelic Soup" ~ Escalante National Monument, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/5th sec
Notes: 4 exposures bracketed for focus, blended with Helicon Focus

All plants contain natural oils that perform a variety of necessary functions. Seeds are often full of oils to provide the necessary energy for germination, while leaves and flowers can contain oils to ward off would-be grazers (eg. the oils in poison oak and ivy), among other functions. In autumn many of these plants shed their leaves, which slowly decay and release the oils, which are then washed away by the rains. Sometimes enough of the oils collect in small puddles where the oil floats to the surface and creates a thin film. The fantastical colors you see, which change with the viewing angle, are a result of a phenomenon called iridescence. As light hits the oil it can either reflect off of the surface, or travel through the oil (refracting) and reflect off of the water surface. These multiple phase-shifted reflections then recombine, attenuating and amplifying select frequencies of light through wave interference. The degree of phase-shift (and thus the perceived color) is modulated by the thickness of the film. The changing colors you see on soap bubbles, butterfly wings, mother of pearl, etc are also a result of iridescence. What was particularly fascinating about the plant oils that we found in the canyon was that they were so fragile that they would crack if you touched them. That fragility is what caused the little islands of varying color, and of course the larger cracks you see as well.

Click image for larger view!

"Plant Oils on Water" ~ Escalante National Monument, UT
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/6th sec
Notes: 4 exposures bracketed for focus, blended with Helicon Focus

The iridescent effect only works if you view the surface at an angle rather than looking straight down. This made my compositions challenging to pull off since I was working with puddles that were just a few inches across. To get the whole frame in focus, despite it being a flat surface, I needed to blend exposures taken at several different focus settings. Fortunately the water was very still, which made the blends very straightforward. It’s easy for me to get lost in these little details and Marc said I spent about 45 minutes composing ‘Psychedelic Soup’!


14 Comments to “Oil Paintings”

  1. Floris, that second shot is amazing. Plenty of psychedelia, but with the leaf connecting it to reality. The color palette is also really lovely and unique. The first is cool, but compared to the other it’s just a fun poster. The one with the leaf has real depth.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jackson! That is my favorite of the two as well, exactly for the reasons you mention.

  3. Richard Wong says:

    Great stuff Floris! You are really great at this abstract stuff.

  4. Georg says:

    Dang! You really have a talent in finding fresh and original images and they are always perfectly crafted!

  5. Vanessa says:

    I like them both, but the first one’s my favorite. There appears to be a parachute seed in the top right of the painting, ‘connecting it to reality’ in a much more subtle way.

  6. Thanks folks!

    Vanessa – good eye, and yes that’s exactly why I included the seed, glad you like it.

  7. Aleks says:

    Love them both. The first one looks like a rock thin section viewed through a polarizing petrographic microscope. Cool stuff!

  8. Ariel says:

    Beautiful work Floris. I love reading your descriptions as well as viewing your photos. πŸ™‚ Which Marc were you traveling with? Marc Adamus?

  9. Kent Mearig says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by the iridescent colors of plant oils on water, but I’ve never succeeded in photographing them at all. Overcoming the relatively small size of the subject and that required angle is certainly as daunting as you say. It’s possible I lack some useful gear, but it’s more likely I just lack your level of patience and persistence. Go you.

  10. Floris says:

    Thanks everyone, really appreciate the comments!

    Kent – the only tricky part was needing to bracket for focus, which for a static 2D surface is not that tricky really (with the right software). It’s a blast!

  11. […] short trip to Utah in late November. If you missed the previous posts, be sure to check them out: Oil Paintings and Dreams of Solitude. One of the many reasons I wanted to head out to Southern Utah was to check […]

  12. Guy Tal says:

    Beautiful creative work, Floris! You have a great eye for these patterns and subtle color.


  13. Andrew caine says:

    I like them both, but the first one’s my favorite. There appears to be a parachute seed in the top right of the painting.

  14. Fantastic views Floris, lovely details and simplicity you always amaze me! πŸ™‚