Luis Ortega is a San Diego based photographer and film photographer. Follow Luis on Instagram for more beautiful images of Southern California life.
Setting off well before dawn from his home in Mexico City, Jorge Obregón drove with the familiar ease of a journey taken hundreds of times before. Thousands of people were up and about, beginning their regular workdays. The further we got from the city's center, the more traffic there was heading towards it. We were happy to leave the chaos that is everyday life in the nation’s capital.
As we arrived at our destination, the sun began to rise from behind Popocatépetl, a 17,800-foot tall active stratovolcano, the second-tallest in all of Mexico. Warm morning light would soon flood the agricultural terraces. A pleasant though powerful smell of chamomile greeted us as we opened the car doors. The field was covered with these flowers that were only days away from harvest. At 7:00 AM, Obregón began his work.
Obregón is a landscape painter. He may be the preeminent landscape painter living in Mexico today, with his work featured in some of the country's most distinguished museums and galleries. And he has dedicated his life to capturing one subject in particular: the Mexican volcano. On this particular morning, I was fortunate enough to accompany him as he attempted to paint a decent-sized canvas in one go.
The subject of the piece was a valley where farmland mixed in with mostly dormant volcanoes all under the watchful eye of the two most well-known in the country; Popocatépetl (meaning "smoking mountain") and Iztaccíhuatl ("white woman"). The latter is dormant, in the shape of a sleeping woman, while the former, which casts an imposing figure that dominates the landscape, can often be seen with a plume rising from its peak. Both are always spoken of as a pair, going back to the Náhuatl folklore about their creation.
As Obregón paints, one gets the sense of being in the presence of an individual with extraordinary talent. His vision and focus enable the capture of every small detail contained in the scene. And the speed at which his brush moves allows for the majority of a painting to be completed in a single day. All the while, he maintained a spirited conversation that was an education on art, geology, volcanology, and the realities of being a working artist.
This day in the terraces was a departure from his current work. Obregón is working on a project financed by the National Endowment for Culture and Arts that will consist of nearly sixty paintings with an emphasis on indigenous landmarks and their relationship with the cosmos, which will be on display at the Kaluz Museum in Mexico City later this year.
All in all, we spent eleven hours in that field. It wouldn’t be until the end of our day that I would truly understand why Obregón is so prolific. Upon returning to his studio in Mexico City, exhaustion started to hit me, even though I had done little else than sit comfortably in the shade while he worked without stopping, but the artist himself was still a spring of energy and could well have repeated the exploit the following day.
"My interest in painting volcanoes surged when I realized that we live surrounded by a neovolcanic axis with more than 300 volcanoes, and our culture has always been influenced by them."
The following Q&A was conducted in Spanish and translated by the writer.
Jorge, how would you describe your relationship with Mexico's landscape, and has your work changed that relationship?
The relationship between my painting and my country is very close, I've been painting landscapes since 1990, and as an artist, I am immersed in it. It's a way of painting the space and time in which I find myself.
Is the expanse of the city beginning to encroach onto the natural spaces surrounding the volcanoes?
Unfortunately, urban growth has expanded excessively without control and invaded previously agricultural spaces which I used to paint.
What interests you in particular about volcanoes?
My interest in painting volcanoes surged when I realized that we live surrounded by a neovolcanic axis with more than 300 volcanoes and our culture has always been influenced by them. On top of this, I have a special taste for mountaineering and I frequently climb to be immersed in that environment.
Why paint a canvas of this size in one sitting?
The size of the canvas is not so important in relation to painting in one session. I rely more on adequate light and the atmosphere of each location. I try to paint and capture the most important aspects of a location in one session. Afterward, I will bring it to my studio for finishing touches.
What leads you to paint on location rather than in your studio using photos?
Painting a live scene is much more enriching than painting from a photograph. The human eye perceives many more colors than a lens can, and there are other senses that also participate in the production of a painting. Photography is very cold and limited in its ability to represent a space, perhaps even flat if we compare the binocular perception of the human being when we are in nature. There is a chasm between painting on location and from a photograph.