Painting in Rocky Mountain National Park

| Next
Oil Painting of Moraine Park Sunbeams Rocky Mountain National Park

Fall in the Moraine     Oil on Canvas     18 x 24"     John Hulsey

   Ann and I arrived at the William Allen White cabin in the early evening just in time to witness the setting sun pouring over the peaks of the Front Range and sending luminescent light shafts of Naples yellow down upon Moraine Park. This would be our view from the cabin for the next two weeks, and what a spectacular view it is, in any hour of any day. If one could build a cabin anywhere in the entire Park, this would rank among the most desirable locations for sheer magnificence of scenery.   My immediate impression upon gaining the porch after the steep walk up from the "Reserved for the Artist" parking spot near the road was that one could simply remain on the porch for two weeks and paint a series of landscapes of the view, like Hokusai's "100 Views of Mt Fuji".

Artist's Cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park  The cabin is surprisingly spacious, with a vaulted ceiling and a large picture window framing another wonderful mountain view, underneath which is a large window seat perfect for a sunny nap. A small, complete kitchen, one bedroom and ¾ bath round out the accommodations. Our favorite spot was the large porch facing west to the Front Range and that's where we spent most of our time when not on the trails. We both agreed that there couldn't be a more perfect place from which to launch our new adventure, and  we resolved that we were going to take full advantage of the brief time we had here.

    I have participated in three residencies sponsored by the National Park Service over the years. My first was at Yosemite, then Glacier, and most recently, Rocky Mountain National Park ( RMNP ).  I apply for these because they fit perfectly with the kind of activities that I naturally love: hiking in the wilderness and painting outdoors. These residencies are always competitive and one must follow the submission policies carefully in order to be considered, and it may take multiple attempts to finally be awarded the residency.  While each Park is free to establish their own criteria for judging applicants, generally speaking, they are seeking serious artists who have demonstrated an ability to share, in some way, their artistic experiences with the public, and who can state in the application what that contribution will be from this particular residency.  In my case, I was developing paintings of the west for an exhibition at the Strecker-Nelson Gallery in Manhattan, Kansas.

    Some Parks programs may also require the artist to make a short public presentation each week during the residency. Although it can be a little nerve-wracking to make the public presentation, I enjoy the process of talking about my work. I have been teaching and demonstrating to groups for over 25 years, so it comes somewhat naturally to me at this point.  This program also requires an artistic donation of a work related to the residency experience within 12 months of the artist's visit. Each of the three residency experiences that I have enjoyed was totally unique, as befit the character and nature of the different parks.  Each of these residencies required different amounts of resources to be expended upon them, depending on the distance which I had to travel to take advantage of them, and the length of the residency.  Most residencies that I know of are two-week commitments, except for Yosemite, which is administered by a separate non-profit group, Yosemite Renaissance, and which allowed me up to a month's stay, a length of time which I regarded as essential considering both the distance from my home and the vastness of the territory. Click this link to open a pdf of: An article about my Yosemite residency, "Painting in the Range of Light" was featured in the summer 1998 issue of Watercolor magazine.

   Over the last 37 years of traveling to paint, I have made many trips to RMNP.  It is only some 10 hours driving time from my home now, so it has become an old and familiar friend.   Because I have hiked nearly every trail in the park several times over, I don't have to do any advance scouting to know if a particular location will be good for painting. But I also understand that I don't really know what I will find on any given day - it is still wilderness - and the variability of weather, light and wildlife conditions is vast.  My own perceptions are constantly evolving as well.  So I approach each painting trip with excitement and anticipation.   This year, for instance, late snows and lots of summer rain created a wildflower display unlike any other I have seen.  Every trail at nearly all altitudes had flowers decorating the open spaces, which gave the Park a magical, almost Disney-like appearance.

    Early Monday morning we were on the Fern Lake trail to "The Pool", which is an impressive thundering waterfall formed by a chasm which squeezes  the Big Thompson river through a sharp right turn just before it is crossed by a wooden park bridge. This trail is a very popular one which leads up to Fern Lake and eventually crosses alpine country to wind up at Bear Lake, a hike of nine miles. I have hiked the trail in reverse, from Bear Lake to Lake Odessa, where I camped and painted, and then down past Fern Lake and The Pool to my car, so I was already familiar with the painting potential here.  I had an idea for a pastel painting of this dramatic scene that I wanted to develop, so I crossed the bridge and carefully worked my way down the chasm wall to a painting spot near the rushing water which framed the falls and the bridge. I love the roar of the water, the stranded logs and the wonderful colors in the rocks here, and my out-of-the-way perch meant no interruptions from onlookers. For this two week trip, I brought my portable watercolor and pastel gear, figuring that I would save weight and time by eliminating the turpentine and the brush cleaning of my oil kit.  This morning I worked only in watercolor, which suited my watery subject perfectly, and by midday I had finished my study and was packed up ready to head back to the cabin.

Watercolor in Rocky Mountain National Park

Page from my sketchbook of The Pool and the stream below Alberta Falls

    Late the next morning we decided to take the 6 mile round trip hike up past Alberta Falls to Mills Lake and then back down to Glacier Gorge junction, perhaps painting the alpine view at Mills, or Alberta Falls.  With only two days to acclimate, we paced ourselves on the way up to the 9950 ft. high Mills Lake, and stopped frequently on the trail to rest and talk to other hikers.  This is a very busy trail in the end of June, and we found Alberta Falls festooned with other visitors and no possible place to set up for painting.  We pushed on to Mills Lake for lunch, but I felt that the light was not good for painting there at that moment. On the way back down, Alberta Falls was still packed with people, so I found a side trail which let us get down to Glacier Creek just below the main falls where I was able to do a small watercolor in my sketch book.  That evening was spent resting our tired feet and painting the wonderful view from the porch.

       Aspens shade the trail to Bierstadt Lake, RMNP, Co.

  Wednesday morning we decided to walk next door to the Moraine Museum and try out the shuttle bus which would take us up to Bear Lake, from where we could take the easier route up to Bierstadt Lake.  The trail climbs up through aspens and boulders and eventually levels out into a delightful stroll through a mature lodgepole pine forest which has the feel of some great cathedral interior.  Everywhere are majestic columns of tree trunks lit by slanting shafts of multicolored sunlight, the ground is carpeted by ferns and wildflowers and the air is redolent with the incense of pine warmed by the morning sun. After about a mile and a half, at a turn in the trail, one emerges from this space suddenly to find a perfect sub alpine lake mirroring the reflections of Hallet's Peak, Tyndall Glacier and Flattop Mountain. We had just enough time for lunch and a painting before we had to head back down the opposite trail with a thunderstorm approaching. The return trail is steep and switchbacks repeatedly as one travels through an ethereal landscape of bizarrely twisted aspens and wildflowers.
Photo of Indian Paintbrush in RMNP, Colorado
The trail along here offers exceptional views of Longs Peak to the south, the mountain framed between stands of aspen. Perhaps the best time to walk and paint this trail is in the fall, when the frosts change the palette of these green aspen slopes into gold.  At the bottom of the trail we emerged at the shuttle bus stop, which took us back up to Bear Lake for our connection down to the Moraine Park museum.

   That evening I was scheduled to make a public presentation at the Beaver Meadows visitor's center, as part of my residency exchange.   Every park employee and volunteer that I met was extremely kind and attentive to my needs as a visiting artist. They treat the artists in this program as special guests, and seek only to make our experience as positive and easy as possible. Beyond the mandatory public presentation, they are quick to point out that we are not required to do any other work at all. The good folks who run the program understand that artists need time to contemplate, to dream and to find a place of inspiration and peace, qualities that RMNP possesses in abundance. I came to understand that these people work in the park for the love of it, and wish only to share that experience with their guests.

   I was knocked over by their kindness and obvious respect for art and artists, and found that they are well aware of the pivotal role that artists played in the establishment of the Park. In fact, they introduced my public presentation at the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center with a short discussion and slide show of the work of Moran, Bierstadt, and others, and linked my own work and presence there with this great tradition of painting. That is a tough act to follow, but the warm welcome from the audience made me feel at home.  I gave a brief talk about how I got started in art, how I combine my interest in plein air and studio painting, followed by a demonstration of the two types of portable painting gear that I had brought along, and samples of actual paintings in pastel and watercolor.  This was followed by a brief PowerPoint slide show of my work in oil, pastel and watercolor which was projected up on to a screen.  To illustrate my working process, during the slideshow I held up some of the original small watercolor studies from my sketchbook as the larger oil versions made from those studies were projected, and invited comparisons. Finally, I took lots of good questions from the audience before the evening was over.

   The following morning I worked in pastel at a dangerously fast moving and powerful set of waterfalls on the Big Thompson River. Elephant-sized rounded boulders deposited during the last glacial period dominate the scene and create a wonderful play of light and sound with the rushing water.
Photo of boulders in the Big Thompson River, RMNP, Colorado One cannot help but be impressed with the obvious power and wildness of the crashing water as it tumbles down the steep slope. Even so, in recent years, the Park Service has been forced into putting up fences here to try and keep people from climbing out on the slippery rocks and becoming swept away by the water. It is one of my favorite spots in the Park, and I always stop here for awhile to paint some aspect of its magic. After searching back and forth along the banks, I settled on a very low-key, but colorful composition of water and rocks in deep shadow.  I have always found great inspiration in wilderness; my appreciation of the risks and potential dangers has served to sharpen my senses and pleasure in these places. However, not everyone realizes that a National Park is not a controlled and perfectly safe environment.  That same day, as if to underscore the point, a woman standing on some rocks posing for a photo fell into Glacier Creek and was swept downstream.  Luckily, the injured woman was able to grab an overhanging branch until she was finally rescued by the teams from the Park Service.  This all served to remind me that the time we have here is short, and that I must make the most of the time to paint.   Later that afternoon, I made another pastel of Moraine Park from the cabin before driving up Trail Ridge Road to the 11,827 ft. summit for the sunset light show.

Photo of the artist John Hulsey painting in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.
  The next morning I set up my watercolor easel on the trail head to Cub Lake, at a spot next to the wooden bridge which spans the Big Thompson River.  This is a great place as it allows me to be out of the way of hikers but perfectly positioned to paint the river as I look west into the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Sometimes there is the added bonus of discovering a fly fisherman or two in my view to include in the composition. The weather looked like rain building over the mountains, but weather often changes quickly in the park, so I began to work anyway, but was soon forced to grab my paints and paper and seek shelter from a pounding cold rain at the shuttle stop nearby. For a few minutes it really poured and hailed, but soon cleared out enough that I could get back to work. When I am alone and painting in public places, I am often interrupted by passers-by who are curious about an artist at work; this is to be expected, and I have come to enjoy these exchanges. I have also learned through my teaching to paint and talk at the same time, which seems to fascinate people. This day, though, my wife Ann was available to handle any questions for me, so I focused down on what I was doing and became somewhat oblivious to the parade of happy hikers passing by behind me. At one point, I am told, a park Ranger clomped heavily across the wooden bridge on a horse and stopped right behind me to talk with Ann for a few minutes.  I have no recollection of it! Worried that the rain would return, I worked the painting to a good finish and packed up just as the next wave of rain swept down the Front Range on top of us. The rest of that rainy day was spent painting from the shelter of the cabin porch.

Photo of Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

   I had been out working in the waxing moonlight for the last couple of nights, but this night it would be full. We decided to take a drive up to Bear Lake at midnight to see if we couldn't paint a pastel and take some photographs of the moon reflected in the water.  Outside of the park campgrounds, there is almost no one up and about in the park at night, so we had the whole place to ourselves.
Pastel of Bear Lake at night, RMNP, Colo. It felt like our own private park for the night, and in my view, it is just one of the many benefits that the residency affords the artist.  It is an eerie sensation to be walking around on a trail at night, perfectly able to see and navigate, but strangely, delightfully alone, save for whatever nocturnal wildlife might be around.  We walked the path to the north side of the lake and took our pictures while we kidded each other about the hungry mountain lions that surely must be near. The aerial perspective of receding mountain peaks bathed in the clear, blue moonlight contrasted perfectly with the deep, inky shadows of the forest surrounding the lake.  We set up our pastel gear and began a small painting working with broad strokes of blues and blacks contrasted with the cool whites of the moonlight and its reflection. In order to paint  at night, I have to keep in mind the
Midnight Bear Lake        Pastel       John Hulsey

necessity of making accurate color judgements based on what I actually see, rather than what I think I see.  Nighttime lighting is so very different than daytime that it takes some experience painting it to get any understanding of how the daytime colors of even a familiar landscape are radically altered by moonlight.  First of all, the value range is restricted to a very low-key range, almost always composed of deep grey-blues.  Then, we notice that unlike daytime, we have a dense dark, which appears to be black. There is the bright moon, which when full, can be very near white.  Objects lose all their details and dissolve into broad shapes and silhouettes of subtley-modulated darks. This is really where the camera can be of little assistance to the painter.  In order to make a nighttime painting have depth, color and life, we must be able to develop interesting, powerful shapes and put into those shapes all the wonderful subtle shifts in color.  This means expanding the darks of our limited low-key value range out like an accordion to approximate the same width of tone we can find during the day. I purchased a special set of dark pastels from Sennelier just for this purpose.

   Another problem artists struggle with while attempting to paint at night is the difference in illumination between the work on the easel and the moonlit scene before us. Over the years, I have tried various types of battery-powered lights - book lights usually - to light my work and palette.  Often they provide too much light, or light with a strong color cast which throws off my colors.  Now, with the advent of improved white LED lights, we have better choices available in both color and intensity of illumination. These days, I avoid all the fussing around with clamping a light to my easel by simply wearing my light. I wear a great baseball-style hat made by us that has LED lights right in the brim, which follow me wherever I look.  This frees me from having to aim the light, but also allows my eyes to readjust to the darkness quicker as the brightness of the work surface disappears when I look up.  It also frees up my hands to carry gear or a walking stick as I walk the dark trails at night.  This new light system allowed me to work more accurately and quickly, resulting in the painting shown above.  We soon packed up our gear and slowly ambled down the trail toward the car, reluctant to leave the peace and beauty of Bear Lake in the moonlight.

  The next morning I caught the shuttle back up to Bear Lake, from where I hiked the trail further up to Dream Lake to paint for the day.  The view up there is of Hallett's Peak and Flattop Mountain at the foot of which is beautiful little Dream Lake, aptly named.  Snow still carpeted the shadows below Hallett's imposing sheer rock face and the higher parts of Flattop, and the many-colored rocks shimmered in the light and summer warmth.  The scene demanded to be painted.  This was a challenging location, as it is almost always windy and tends to blow right in your face, ruffling the surface of Dream Lake and smudging the perfect reflection of Hallett's Peak in the process. The light at this altitude ( 9900 ft.) is intense, so the wind makes using an umbrella shade a real problem.
Photo of John Hulsey painting watercolor at Dream Lake, Colo. I had my special lightweight folding model attached to my easel for awhile, until a sudden gust caught it and bent it in my hand! Then the rain moved in and I quickly moved my paper and palette on to the ground where I huddled underneath the umbrella, hoping there would be no lightning to strike the portable lightning rod in my hand. Luckily, there was only rain this time, and, soon over. I had to complete my first study of the scene in the bright light which I knew had thrown off my values considerably. Another trip up there was going to be necessary, and perhaps the wind would cooperate next time.

  The following day, Tuesday, Ann and I drove north across the park to EndoValley, past the Alluvial fan to paint the aspen forest there. I decided to give my watercolors a rest and work in pastel, which seemed more suited to the subject at that moment. I have always loved the way the pale trunks of aspen trees pick up the light from around them and reflect it, while at the same time, they tell the story of their lives in the varied and interesting scars in their bark.  Throw in a mountain meadow behind them for a background and a wildflower carpet at their feet and one has the makings of a perfectly inspired composition. All I needed to do was move around a bit to get things lined up in my viewer properly and I was ready to set up and paint.  While Ann painted in watercolor, I set up to paint in pastel.  After years of adapting my various portable oil painting easels for pastel work,  I really love the ease of using the purpose-made Mabeff pastel easel and Dakota Art Pastels box which fit together like a hand in glove.Photo of John Hulsey's pastel painting equipment The easel is both light and sturdy, can be weighted down with a rock bag if need be, and the box holds the right amount of colors securely in a portable size. In a couple of minutes I was set up and working. I worked directly, no preliminary sketch, and no block in. I work outdoors either on Sennelier pastel cards, Wallis paper or my own custom-made pastel boards, which I cut to size from illustration board.  I cover these boards twice with a tinted gesso, and when thoroughly dry, I apply a clear pastel ground made by Liquitex, which has the tooth of a blackboard when it dries.  In this way I can make my painting surface any size and any color that I wish and still have a lightweight, sturdy surface on which to work. I never use fixative on the finished paintings, preferring to protect them by storing them in a covered box made from FomeCor, each painting interleaved with cut sheets of glassine paper. The box stays in the car when I travel, so I never have a painting slide off the seat onto the floor again.  Lessons learned. The large studio pastel, Aspen Light II, was subsequently developed from my location work here.

   The next morning I got up at 4:30 to see if I could catch the setting of the nearly full moon over Moraine Park as the sun rose, bathing the Front Range in a rosy glow.  I had to wear gloves and all the warm clothes I had in order to work, but the effort was worthwhile as the light conditions developed into perfection. My only company was a lone fly fisherman, who added a nice human element to the scene.  A strip of fog lifted up from the river and slipped slowly and silently off to the east, turning from light blue to bright red-orange as it rose into the early morning sunlight.

       Pastel painting of Moraine Park, RMNP, by John Hulsey
           Moonset, Moraine Park                                   Pastel                                             John Hulsey

   Again I was presented with an embarrassment of riches in the form of so many possible paintings and only time for one.  The cold and damp made for stiff fingers, but I was able to paint a small study which I could use later as the basis of a larger studio piece.  It was time for a breakfast break and then on to Dream Lake to attempt another, larger watercolor before my final public presentation that evening. 

   My last long hike in the Park was up to Cub Lake the next morning. This is a wonderfully varied terrain, from house-sized boulders overgrown by ancient, massive pine trees to wildflower meadows surrounding shallow duck ponds. As the trail begins to climb in earnest up the last section before the lake, one is enveloped by a dense aspen forest.  The light here is mysterious and delightful, inviting one to linger and enjoy the little watercourses which cross the path and the ferny sunlit glades.  I was tempted to change my plans and stop here to paint, but wanted also to push on to see Cub Lake again, which I remembered as a sparkling jewel.  Eventually I moved on and was rewarded with a scene of tranquil beauty and blooming water lilies at the lake. I spent a couple of hours up there, painted a small study and then returned again to the aspen grove, which now was lit by late afternoon light. I can't describe the powerful beauty of that place at that moment, except to say that some combinations of light and form seem to me to contain more than the eye can see, and so they make a deep and lasting impression that is beyond mere words.  Perhaps that is as good a definition of inspiration as any.  These experiences fill our spirits in with some elemental force which we, as artists, then feel compelled to express, to give form to the formless, perhaps. On the surface of this expression may be a landscape scene, but if we are successful at infusing our art with the spirit of a place, there is more than that. There is something new and indescribable which lifts our expression into the powerful realm of art. It is an act of faith to be an artist; the goal of making a transcendental work of art is elusive and difficult to achieve. It takes dedication, effort, talent and perseverance to get there, but one also needs the benediction of unstructured time to allow the art that is always within us to emerge.  This, in my view, is the reason why a residency like this is so important for the working artist. The benefits of this experience can power-up creativity and provide the inspiration for a whole new body of work. I brought this powered-up attitude home with me and was able to produce 31 new paintings for an exhibition titled, "The American West" held at the Strecker-Nelson Gallery in October 2009.









blog comments powered by Disqus

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
Become an Artist's Road Member Today!

The Artist's Road LogoClick here to become a Member and enjoy access to all the in-depth painting and travel articles, videos and tutorials. Guaranteed!

Search the Site

Not ready to become a Member yet? Subscribe to our free email postcards, "Perspectives". Enter your email address here.

The Artist's Road Store
A Primer on Night Painting - Nocturnes

Nocturnes - A Primer on Night Painting

Filled with inspirational examples by the masters of nightime painting, this little book is sure to fire up your creative energies. Never tried painting at night? We show you how it's done with a step-by-step-oil demo and a tale of night painting in the wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Primer on Night Painting - Nocturnes is a 7 x 7" PDF download with 40 pages of text and images. It includes a gallery of paintings by masters of the nocturne, information to inspire and encourage you in your plein air nocturne painting, an illustrated step-by-step demo and tips for working in pastel and oil. Also available in a softcover edition. Check out the tools and other products that we use in our own art and travels in The Artist's Road Store. We only offer things for sale that we enthusiastically believe in.







About Us

Photograph of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty in Glacier National Park
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 40 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
About Ann
     About John
 Hulsey Trusty Studios