Plein Air Painting Road Trip: Western National Parks and National Forests
We had a tent full of red dust. We had campfires every single night (except for that night in the Wind River Range when the fire pit was dug below the water table.) We had a lot of ramen and hot sauce. We had dirty feet and tan shoulders.
Now, we are home! I just finished up a 2-week road trip that went through Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and back to Idaho. I went with my good friend Rachel who now lives in Nashville, TN. We were on the Triathlon Team together at James Madison University in Virginia and have been on many, many bike rides together. Two years after graduating, we found ourselves reuniting in Salt Lake City, UT for a few weeks of exploring a lot of National Parks and National Forest, camping, swimming, biking and hiking.
One of my main goals for the trip was to create time to paint outside, also known as plein air painting. Plein air painting is when an artist painting directly from observation when they are outside. It’s a French term that means to paint outside. It’s a challenge because it requires more planning and you are sometimes at odds with Mother Nature. In the two weeks, I completed six paintings.
This is going to be a two-part article. For the first part, I’m going to share the six paintings I did on the trip and go through a little bit about where each of them were painted, how I approached the painting, and how each landscape was specifically and uniquely inspiring. For the second part, I’m sharing some tips for how to get started developing an artistic practice in the outdoors and some tips to make painting outside more manageable.
Painting #1: Dixie National Forest – Cedar City, Utah – 6/9/17 – 6:00pm
I painted this right in our campsite! It was so gorgeous, filled with Aspens next to a small stream at the tail end of the afternoon light. The sun was beginning to set at this point and the Aspen bark reflected the bright orange and warm light from the sun and cast cool, purple shadows on the trees hidden from the sun. The bark was the most interesting thing to me about the scene so I focused in on that by cropping out the leaf canopy and the ground. This was one of those rare paintings that flowed beautifully from my mind to my brush to my paper without much struggle.
Painting #2: Dixie National Forest – Alton, Utah – 6/10/16 – 7:30am
This second painting is also, ironically, from the Dixie National Forest. The day before we had been in Zion National Park hiking the Angel’s Landing Trail and the Narrows. We looped around to the East side of the Zion and then entered the Dixie National Forest from that side. It was a beautiful place to camp. It had open meadows and big pine trees. I woke up early and hiked into the woods behind our campsite and set up. This time, I was more interested in the cast shadows from the trees and the trunks of the trees. Since the sun was just starting to rise, the sun was low, just peeking over the hill and casting really strong shadows. The ground was unusually clear of brush and tall grasses etc. so that made it easy to paint the shadows as well. One of the biggest challenges with this one was the clouds. They kept rolling in and covering up the sun, thus the shadows disappeared which were the main focus of the painting.
Painting #3: Bryce National Park – Bryce, Utah – 6/11/17 – 11:00am
We got a nice early start to the day in Bryce National Park. We hiked the Navajo Trail to Peekaboo Trail. I painted this somewhere along the hot, sunny Peekaboo Trail under a rock just off the trail that provided some shade. It was a fantastic spot to paint because I could see the “windows” in the canyon walls off in the distance. In both my studio paintings and plein air paintings, I love to create really layered spaces where you can see some parts in great detail and evidence of things far away in the background. This little spot was good because it had grasses, bushes, and little rocks up close that I could really put some detail into. It’s my personal preference to have the foreground of a painting in high focus and detail so this spot provided me with those details. Another thing that I liked about this spot was the complementary colors. The desert seems to produce super vibrant complementary colors in it’s landscape. Here is was the red of the rocks against the green of the plants as well as the blue of the sky against the orange of the rocks. Complementary colors are the colors opposite each other on the color wheel and they are known for creating high contrast and visual energy.
Painting #4: Escalante National Monument – Escalante, Utah – 6/13/17 – 3:00pm
As I said about the last painting, the complementary colors are so striking in the desert. They are apparent in this landscape as well. This spot was right at the beginning of a trail that I don’t remember the name of… some kind of arch trail. Rachel hiked up to the arch and I stayed back so that I would have time to paint. It was totally worth it. It was actually the most challenging painting of the trip. The angles of the rocks and all the cracks and layers were a new challenge for me. There are also so many color and value shifts within the rocks. It’s hard to decide what to simplify and what to fully render. There is also a lot of plant biodiversity in the area and I really tried to represent as many of the types of plants that I could.
Painting #5: Teton National Park – Jackson, WY – 6/5/17 – 8:30pm
I really can’t express to you how refreshed I felt to be back in the mountains! I discovered I greatly prefer the mountains to the desert for many reasons so I was happy to be back in the lush and green landscape I love. The Tetons are very close to where I live in Idaho Falls, ID and I spend a lot of my weekends camping there. For this painting, I was near the Colter Bay Picnic Area just before sunset. My two biggest complications this night were the thick mosquito swarm that chose to surround us and the setting sun. Mostly the ferocious mosquitos. Like many days in the Tetons, it got dark and cloudy over the mountains so I couldn’t really see the sunset and the it got dark really fast. Because of those two factors, I didn’t get the time that I would have liked to add details and refinements. The main thing I wanted to capture in this one was the pale yellow light reflecting on Jackson Lake.
Painting #6: Targhee National Forest – Driggs, Idaho – 6/9/16 – 6:00pm
This was another spot that felt like home. Driggs is on the West side of the Tetons aka where I spent all my winter weekends snowboarding. We were just outside of Darby Canyon here looking out towards a potato field and the Big Hole Mountain Range. It was so pleasant. The sun was bright and warm and a little canal behind us made for a nice little soundtrack of birds and gurgling water funneling down the canal. This was the smallest painting and took about 30 minutes to complete. It’s not my favorite painting of the trip but it was so nice just to sit there and relax before we went into town for dinner.
Camp Chair (or sometimes not)
Empty Can (An old soup can)
Paint brushes and bag (Both flat and round, varying sizes)
Plastic Palette with Cover or Saran Wrap (A way to store it so paint doesn’t get on your bag)
Paper Towels (pre-ripped and folded)
Paper (Strathmore 90LB Black and Tan toned paper)
Paint (Winsor & Newton Designers Gouache)
Brushes (Grumbacher and a whole bunch of random brushes)
About the creator
Kelly Sheridan is an artist living in Idaho Falls, ID. She teaches High School Art at Compass Academy. She extracts her happiness from the Rocky Mountains there. When Kelly isn’t in her studio or teaching, you can find her outside. In the warm months, you can find her on a road bike or mountain bike exploring her new home state of Idaho as well as Utah and Wyoming. She grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a magnificent green, lush pocket of the world. She also has a love for backpacking. You can find mint tea bags, sour patch kids, and Faber-Castell Grey Value Markers as her favorite non-essential essentials in her pack. You can see more of Kelly’s work on Whoa here.