A Year of Painting Outdoors in Tahoe
Artist Nathanael Gray painting on a ridge just off the Mt. Tallac trail

Nathanael Gray spent the past year painting outdoors in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Read about his experience, and be inspired.


Locations and titles of paintings in the exhibition “A Year in Tahoe”, at Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento, CA through June 4, 2020

The sun bounces off the shoreline, a blinding white spot, then the lake recedes to deep blue. The view of the Lake Tahoe Basin that stretches before me is vast. It’s cold. I am on top of a mountain ridge on the east side of the Tahoe Rim Trail.

To get to the top of the slope I scramble off trail through the snow. I follow snowshoe tracks, but I don’t have snowshoes, so I break through the hardened crust of snow, weighed down by my painting gear. It’s over my knees. On top the wind and sun exposure has swept the snow away, revealing bare rock.

To scramble up the boulders and reach the peak is a challenge with the canvas in my hand. I have to throw the canvas on the rocks above me before pulling myself up. Today it is calm, although cold. I level the legs on my easel across two boulders. I set one leg higher than the other to balance between the uneven terrain. The sun is already low in the sky, I have to work quick. I like it this way.

I lay out my paint. Nine colors; only primaries and white. I like to have a warm and cool option for each color; for blue I like a light and a dark, and when painting Tahoe, I use Cerulean (but don’t overdo it). I set my 30×48 canvas on my easel. It’s a large piece to carry up the rugged trail (or in this case there was no trail). I like a big canvas because it allows me to get my whole body into the painting. When I paint big it feels like the painting is an extension of my own existence. My body moves, fumbling to express the splendor of the place in which I stand. It’s almost like worship. I like bold thick strokes of paint. It feels primal.

A Year of Painting Outdoors in Tahoe
“East Rim Trail,” 30×48, by Nathanael Gray

It’s my existence in this place that I am trying to get at while painting outdoors. That’s why I hike through snow and up slopes to these remote places. I can find a beautiful view along the road, but I have a profound experience when I wander out. I brave the terrain, and stumble upon a place perhaps no one has ventured to paint. I try to put it all in the painting: the grandeur of the place certainly, the colors and the light, but also the wind that wants to knock my easel over. That rustle of breeze through the trees. The ephemeral quality of a sunset casting such beautiful light you don’t want it to leave, but at the same time, its leaving is what makes it so beautiful. It’s doubtful I get all of this into one painting. But over time, and flinging lots of layers of paint, I find a thing that is just beyond my grasp.

From a distance my paintings come together as a representational image of the landscape. But I also want you to get nose-up in the painting. That’s where subtle revelations are happening. In a bold streak of blue I was questioning the existence of God. In a thick line of red I remembered someone I love. In a soft stroke of orange and yellow not quite mixed together I was listening to a bird. In a smudge of bluish gray my feet were cold. In a deep streak of black I was considering the eons of time and clashing of tectonic forces that formed the ground that I stand on, and then in a small spot of exposed canvas, my faith in God was restored. I don’t mean to say that my paintings are so self-important that all these things are truly there. But I am saying in the marks, I work out these thoughts when painting outdoors. It’s a way for me to process these things.

It’s why I visit and revisit the same places. My understanding of the place deepens, and so do my paintings. I decided to spend a year painting outdoors in the Lake Tahoe Basin, starting in May of 2019. To do this I wanted to feel the place, exist in the place, and then paint the place. I spent calm days painting by the water. Spent days hiking up into the mountains. Painted sunrises on cold winter mornings when my hands went numb. Painted by the light of the full moon. Swam during golden hour then perched my easel on the bank and painted the sunset with the fresh water of the lake dripping down my skin.

A Year of Painting Outdoors in Tahoe
Painting the sunset near Bonsai Rock at Lake Tahoe just after taking a swim in the lake


A Year of Painting Outdoors in Tahoe
“Sunset Swim,” 30×40, by Nathanael Gray

I even took a ski lift up at Homewood Mountain Resort, painted atop Rainbow Ridge and skied back down with my easel on my back and painting in hand (Ski patrol unfortunately kicked me off due to the sun setting only 15 minutes after I got started. I had to finish in the parking lot).

I don’t paint in all these conditions as a gimmick (but they do make pretty good stories). I do this because painting, and more specifically landscape painting for me, is life. It is adventure and exploration. It’s a moment or a series of moments that are built into a painting, or a series of paintings. It’s an extension of my own personal search for meaning.

So, I am on top of this rocky peak, surrounded by snow, bundled up with two sweatshirts (one with a hood), a coat on top of that, a baseball hat over my hood, gloves, and wet boots. I take off my gloves and breathe into my hands to warm them before getting started. I stare at the sun. Low over the lake, its light bounces off the shoreline, a blinding white spot, then the lake recedes to deep blue.

The view that stretches before me is vast. It’s cold. I take a deep breath. The kind of breath where you drink in everything beautiful about the place. It just fills you up — the smells, the sounds. Then I slowly exhale, but I exhale onto the canvas. That is what I try to do when I am out painting. Drink everything in, and exhale a single deep breath onto the canvas.

Additional Works from Painting Outdoors in the Lake Tahoe Basin:

“Shoulder Season,” 36×48, by Nathanael Gray, Painted at Zephyr Cove in the fall
“Just a Glimpse,” 36×48, by Nathanael Gray, Painted looking toward Lake Tahoe from the East Rim Trail

Nathanael’s exhibition “A Year in Tahoe” will be at Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento, CA through June 4, 2020. Go to ayearintahoe.com to see all the work and additional painting stories like this. To learn more about Nathanael and see past work go to nathanaelgray.com.

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