Painting in Yosemite Valley -
Yosemite Valley

A record of the great and terrible adventures of artists and friends, namely Tyler J. Murphy and Daniel J. Keys, on a painting journey through the Golden State.

By Daniel Keys


It all began some time ago, when I received an email from a young artist whose name is Tyler Murphy. After becoming acquainted with one another during a workshop, and extending mutual invitations to paint our respective areas, we began planning his first trip out West to paint with me in my home state, California.

The following is a concise journal, with interjections by Tyler himself, describing one of the greatest adventures of my artistic life thus far. I’m deeply indebted to all who made the journey possible, and sincerely grateful for the experience, though mostly I’m thankful to have been a participant in the blossoming of a new friendship that I hope will last an exceedingly long time.

Mr. Murphy is an extraordinary being who made each moment of the trip all the better simply by being himself, and affording me the rare opportunity to do the same. For that, my sincerest hope is that above all else, the writing of this story represents more than the wonders of nature, or an education on those wonders; more than photographs of beautiful vistas, or stories describing the sufferings of travel; but rather my heartfelt gratitude, and appreciation for art, what inspires it, and the friendships it so marvelously fashions together.


“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” —John Muir

Painting Yosemite: Day One

Breakfast has long been understood as the most important meal of the day, and when painting, especially out of doors, I certainly find this to be the case. I often wait until the last possible minute to even begin consuming such a meal, so as to ensure it has lasting effects on my seemingly ever-increasing pangs of hunger. It’s far too easy for me to begin making poor painting decisions on an empty, or nearly empty, stomach, so you can imagine why I give special credence to this often overlooked meal.

This morning was no different, of course, although when arriving at our hotel’s lobby, I knew within seconds I was not going to be satisfying any real cravings, despite the guarantee of a full “continental breakfast” offered by the unintelligible woman at the front desk the evening before. No, this was to be a “find what you can at the nearest gas station and make do” sort of morning. “Oh well,” I thought. I was too happy to actually care. This was the first of seven full days representing an adventure I’d been craving far more than food, for a very long time.

The Day Continues On

Our hotel was in Mariposa — a small town in the foothills about a forty-minute drive from the Yosemite gate — and following the quick jaunt into the gas station’s mini-mart for a makeshift breakfast, we began our drive to the park.

Accentuating the sights as we drove along was Tyler’s wonderful selection of music, primarily epic movie scores. I was glad to discover that we seem to share a love for the grandiosity of what modern composers seem to readily create for the industry’s biggest movie blockbusters. I actually relished these times in the car, probably as much as I did painting, because of how stirred I felt listening to each track on the appropriately named “To the End of the World: Volumes I, II & III” CDs. The sounds of orchestras creating some of the most beautiful modern melodies, paired with the majestic vistas that seemed to linger around each twist and turn of the road made for a marvelously inspiring time. My thoughts were so often intersected not only by the sights, but sounds as well.

The closer we came to approaching the park’s gate, the more beautiful the landscape became until we finally arrived at what impressed me as sheer grandness. It was not until we viewed with our own mortal human eyes the granite peaks surrounding Yosemite Valley, the trees marked by seasons that precede our young lifetimes, and falls of water cascading downward and crashing into the earth, that we truly understood why artists like Albert Bierstadt, photographers such as Ansel Adams, and preservationists like John Muir, devoted a good part of their lives to absorbing, appreciating, and interpreting this sanctuary carved by time.

The First Stop

After spending most of the first morning in the park searching out places to set up, we settled on an ideal spot right beside the Merced River looking out to El Capitan. The sun seemed especially bright there, but the water was cool, and before long my pant-legs were rolled up and my feet were in. I remember the sound of the water flowing downstream as I sat amidst the tall soft grasses framing it, and contemplated what it would be like to live in that very spot. How content I would be! Tyler, the dedicated painter that he is, was still finishing up his first painting as I basked in nature’s spa. I did manage to get a few snapshots of him at work though.

To the right is the first painting of the day, “Merced River, Yosemite.” One thing I’ve found when painting “en plein air” is you must keep your palette and canvas in the same light. It’s crucial they are either both in shade, or both in direct sun, to avoid the mistake of adjusting color and value on the palette only to find it looks completely different when placed on your canvas.

I’ve also noticed that I tend to make my values a bit darker than I should when painting in sunlight. Things are always brighter when viewed in direct sun, and keeping this in mind helps me be more accurate when it comes to deciding my values.

“Painting outdoors can be very frustrating. With its changing light, strong winds, rain, and snow, it is as if nature is saying, ‘Okay, kid, I’ll give you an hour of my time—let’s see what you can do.’ In truth, I’m usually disappointed with my efforts. However, I realize that painting this way forces me to interpret a scene differently than I would from a photo in the comfort of my studio. I think it starts to bring out my true artistic voice. Looking to the masters is extremely important, but there’s no better teacher than nature itself.”—Tyler

El Capitan
El Capitan

Close Encounter

I like to think of myself as being a no-nonsense type of person. Not that I want to be intentionally insensitive, or without compassion, but I often find myself using expressions such as “you’ll live,” or “get over it,” among others. This was the case when endeavoring to cross the Merced River nearing the end of our first day in Yosemite. Allow me to explain: It is by far one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen, with massive boulders clustered along its path of cool clear water originating from the snow pack atop the mountains. This being such a beautiful spot, visitors from around the world flock to take in the sight, smell, feel, and even taste, of its waters. Swimmers dot its path, and many a camera is taken out of its respective case in order to capture but a moment of its constant movement.

Naturally, we as artists desired to capture our own such moment using paint, and being the kinds of artists for whom the average view of something just isn’t enough, we decided to paint the river from the side opposite the road that runs parallel to it. The only way to accomplish this of course was to wade across, carrying all of our gear overhead, and being careful not to slip on the moss-covered stones that make up the river’s bed.

It was while wading across that I began to hear distant tourists, who had been swimming and standing on the road side of the river, call out “hey” and wave their arms back and forth. I could tell that they were attempting to get my attention, but I don’t usually respond to “hey” and so continued on. Tyler had reached the other side by now, and he was patiently waiting for me to join him on the shore. All the while, the yelling and hand-gesturing continued to increase from our new tourist friends up the stream. After a while longer, it had occurred to me why they wanted our attention: “They must have their cameras out to photograph the river,” I thought. It was a prime time of day for this kind of thing, and I continued my thought with an eye-roll . . . “I must be ruining their precious shot”.

Just as I was about to yell out one of my before-mentioned beloved phrases, I began to understand what they were actually trying to enunciate from such a long distance. Slowly but surely I began to put it all together . . .

“B…B…BEAR,” they exclaimed!

“What is it?” Tyler asked.

“I’m pretty sure they’re saying ‘bear,” I confusedly answered. Sure enough, at about ten yards from where I stood was a large brown bear! Immediately, escaping the beast’s glance we crossed back over the river, and took refuge on the road, which was about twenty feet up from the river’s surface.

Needless to say, the road side of the river became far more attractive to us from an artist’s perspective than it had been originally, and we decided to leave the other side to the bear to use as he saw fit.

That evening, we spent most of our waking hours back in the hotel looking through the books and art catalogs that we had brought with us. Of all our mobile collection, the works of three artists seemed to dominate our choices: Richard Shmid, Clyde Aspevig, and Edgar Payne. Tyler and I couldn’t remove our eyes from looking at every image, and carefully studied the drawing, value, color, edges, and composition of each one. As I sat there, scrutinizing the reproductions of the master-works that sat in my lap, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I am to do what I do, and how blessed to have friends with which to share these moments.

“Over the last year, I’ve made every effort to seek adventure and seize opportunity. In January, Daniel and I planned a paint trip that would take us into some of California’s most beautiful places. Reflecting on it now, I’m appreciative that Daniel took a risk and made the invitation — to essentially a stranger. I love art for its mysterious ability to bring people together. We together agreeing and declaring that “yes, this is good” has a strange way of putting a friendship on the fast track. After all, it’s not often I find myself burning the midnight oil with a fellow young artist as we paw through page after page of Schmid and Aspevig, and book after book of the Impressionists that came before them.” —Tyler

Day Two

Desiring a different choice for breakfast the morning of day two, we decided to venture out to a café that was down the street from where we were lodging. The Sugar Pine Café, outwardly modest and lacking in curb-appeal, was almost like walking back in time. Not that the décor was dated (on the contrary, it was thoroughly clean and modern), but it had a sense of what I imagine an all-American diner should be, complete with country breakfasts prepared by large male cooks in white hats, tee-shirts, and aprons, and served by waitresses who use terms of endearment when addressing their patrons, new and old alike.

After ordering enough food to feed a small army, Tyler and I conversed over coffee and quickly slipped into reminiscing about our earliest diner experiences — mine at a local establishment delightfully called “Mom’s,” with my father on my birthday, and his also with his father, in Montana. I don’t normally like to seek comfort in something as trivial as food; however, there’s something to be said about biscuits and gravy, and diners, and the memories of sharing those experiences with those dearest to my heart; and even as I write this I find I’m hungry for those times again.

The Hike That Almost Killed Me

Day two began with the best intentions. Breakfast was hearty, and morale was definitely up. We had all day to spend exploring and painting, and as far as we were concerned, we were the only ones on the planet that day. Being surrounded by the stunning beauty that is Yosemite, and feeling extra adventurous in such a place, we both agreed that a hike would be most enjoyable, and with many to choose from, the Nevada Fall seemed to beckon the loudest. The idea of being amidst such a breathtaking phenomenon and having opportunity to paint it sounded too good to pass up. Plus, what could be manlier than a hike in the mountains, right?

So, sunblock on, lunches packed, art supplies handy, and backpacks secured, we began what I fondly refer to as . . . the hike that almost killed me.

I assured Tyler that though I’d never done any serious hiking, I was up for a new challenge and looking forward to the much-needed exercise. Such would have been famous last words.

The trail leading up to the falls was the steepest thing I’d ever encountered. My backpack’s overall weight resembled that of my own body, and the heat coupled with the elevation began to wear on me faster than I could have ever imagined. Before long, my breathing could be likened to your standard obese bull having had its very last run through the meadows before dying, my ears were ringing like out-of-tune church bells, and I was confident my breakfast would be making an encore appearance before the next step. Honestly, the trailhead should bear a sign that reads “To all who enter: Make your peace with Almighty God, for this is the trail that surely leads to Him.”

To top it all off, whilst my life began the course of flashing before my mind’s eye, dear old Tyler was taking in and enjoying the scenery, and — for reasons unbeknownst to me — reminiscing about having to endure intense sports training during his high school glory days. He obviously related football training-camp to our hike from hell. It was finally when he mentioned that on the first day of practice, for every sport he played, he would inevitably regurgitate a previous meal in front of the entire team, I snapped. That did it. I quickly instructed him to stop talking immediately, and informed him that unless the falls were around the next bend of the trail, he could give up on the idea of ever seeing them with me, because I was going to either call for the next helicopter to rush me out of that wretched place, or he was to push me over the cliff on which we stood and take on the responsibility of informing the art world of its tragic loss.

Fortuitously for him, me, and perhaps the art world, the waterfall we had set out to see were just around the next bend.

A Good Day After All

It amazes me when I consider the contrast between the experiences of getting to the falls, and then spending the day at the falls themselves. As you’ve probably by now gathered, getting there was dreadful, but upon arriving at the end of the hellish journey we discovered how beautiful water forcefully streaming over large boulders and crashing into pools below can be. That day, despite its almost tragic beginnings, turned out to be one of my very favorites. Tyler and I could have spent the entire trip in that very spot and been totally satisfied. Once we made our way down from where the crowds gather to see the head of the falls, we found enough seclusion to set up our easels in peace, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves painting the day away. We even took a break from painting at one point just to dive in! Both Tyler and I agreed that this was the kind of day we’d hoped to have, and were completely contented to relish the accomplishment of getting to our destination.

In Tyler’s words…

“A major trip highlight was Day 2 in Yosemite. After a tiring hike we found ourselves painting along the headwaters of the Merced River. An hour before, we were packed like sardines marching up a hot trail. Dan and I just looked at each other and smiled as a mariposa (butterfly) fluttered through our work area and skirted its way down the shaded south boulders. Two hours in, the sun worked its way around the merciful redwoods overhead and now blasted our necks, shoulders, and canvases. We finished our work and agreed that the pool of water we had just painted was now tempting for reasons other than visual aesthetics. So we jumped in.”

Day Three:

By our third and final day in Yosemite, we felt completely at home there. Though we never quite figured out the roads that run through the valley, and the eccentric ways in which they cross, we did have a sense of familiarity with the place as a whole, and were quite confident in the choices we made where painting set-ups were concerned. I honestly grew to love the park in the three days we explored it, and already I long to go back.

We only had about half the day to paint, but I feel we made the most of it. Tyler expressed his interest in painting Half Dome, so he and I agreed to head over to a spot where it could be clearly seen. Though I chose not to paint it, I did enjoy having a good view of it, and knowing that my friend was enjoying himself brought me equal satisfaction.

I chose to paint a nearby pine. I often do that when in an area that’s so recognizable; I prefer more intimate settings to vistas, because I feel that they most represent me and my taste in composition. The structure of an individual tree is far more interesting to me than a grand vista, and I like to treat each one like a portrait — much like I do a flower or teacup.

“Daniel is an amazing friend. In every way possible he was generous to me. I’m thankful for the books and things he gave me but even more thankful for his time, knowledge, guidance, and encouragement. Also, he’s not afraid of a little healthy competition . . . and I like that. I reckon for the two of us this was the first of many trips to come.” —Tyler

Alas, our Yosemite undertaking had to come to a close. We needed to be on the road to our next destination by early afternoon, and difficult as it was to tear ourselves away from what we speedily grew to love, the next chapter of our journey was still ahead of us. Just beyond the San Joaquin Valley, and over the coastal mountains, sits some of the most incredible coastline known to man — Carmel Highlands and Big Sur. So, we geared up, bid farewell to the eastern side of the state, and eagerly looked toward the west.

Learn how to paint from modern master Daniel Keys with his art video workshops here.

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