Painting en plein air -

Do you have a bucket list? Chuck Marshall does, and he just completed one of the items: taking an unforgettable trip to paint en plein air throughout the wild West. See his photo journal here, and be inspired. (Note: This article was originally published in 2018)

A Plein Air Painting Trip to Remember

by Chuck Marshall

My family’s get-together was cancelled for the 4th of July, so I decided to go ahead and leave early on the 4th. I was no good sitting around waiting for this day to come anyway. My mind was filled with so many thoughts and excitement of the upcoming trip, and I wasn’t getting anything done. I was already packed, so I left Wilmington, Ohio, and headed west. Just the thought of heading west to finally get to do the things I have so wanted to do my whole life had me smiling with anticipation. But there were a couple things on my mind that did put a little damper on my excitement. Besides another personal reason, my mother had fallen and hurt herself the day before, and it was heavy on my mind. I drove as far as I could the first night seeing fireworks off in the distance of all the cities I passed after dark. It was a strange feeling, seeing them and not being a part of them, and knowing I was going to be very alone on parts of this trip.

Part 1: South Dakota

I was trying to time my arrival to my first campsite in the mountains so that I didn’t have to try and set up around evening or night. So the next day I made it to Spearfish, South Dakota, and got a room for the night. A friend had told me the trout fishing was good there, so I used the needed allotted time the next day to fly-fish the Spearfish River. I was able to catch a few nice fish, and decided it was a good sign for the rest of the trip. I fished till around 10:30 a.m., and then headed back out on the road.

Painting en plein air -
Spearfish River

Part 2: Beartooth Pass, Wyoming

After leaving Spearfish, I made it to Red Lodge, Montana, and got something to eat, then went to the grocery store for supplies, and then filled my car up. I was headed up the mountain to Beartooth Pass. There isn’t much up there at 11,000-plus feet elevation and it would be more expensive even if there was. I drove up the mountain to where my campsite was to be, but it was still closed for the season. So, I found a campsite at Beartooth Lake. I quickly pitched my tent for the first night. It wasn’t lost on me that I was camping a little over 10,000 feet all by myself in grizzly country. Although it never left my mind, I quickly set camp and went fishing. The first night was hard to get to sleep. Been a long time since I camped, and never in bear country by myself. Morning broke and it was quite chilly. I was up early; I wanted to hike to some high mountain lakes and fish. Moving helped warm me up, but breathing was hard to do when you aren’t used to the elevation.

Painting en plein air -

Painting en plein air -
Beartooth Lake, early morning
Painting en plein air -
One of the lakes I hiked to where I caught many brook trout. There were still patches of snow everywhere.

This was my last night staying at Beartooth Pass. I had fished most of the day, and on the way back to camp I stopped to paint this scene. I still had my waders on, so I painted this while wearing them because I wanted to fish afterwards. I got many comments from passers-by.

That night I had a visitor to my campsite. I never knew what it was, just some animal’s nose pushing in on my tent wall. It startled me awake around 2 a.m. Not knowing what woke me, I lay there listening and waiting to see if it was my imagination or not. All of a sudden the side of my tent pushes in, and then slides down the side of my tent a little. I lay there not breathing, but it finally stopped. Then it came back again. I’d had enough so I clapped my hands hard and hollered “Get out of here!” To my surprise, it worked. But two hours later I finally fell back to sleep.

The next morning I broke camp and headed towards Yellowstone. I was happy to move on too.

Part 3: Yellowstone

I stopped in Silver Gate, near the northwest gate of Yellowstone National Park, where Ernest Hemingway had stayed and written for a short time. This town was definitely an old mountain town, embracing tourism for their only income that I could see. I got some coffee and gas before moving on.

Painting en plein air -

I had already decided before the trip that I was fishing Slough Creek. It is very well known all over the world to fly-fishermen as a world-class trout water. So I passed up way too many beautiful scenes I should have stopped and painted. I was rewarded with a dream fly-fishing experience. To call that river area beautiful would be a huge understatement. As I approached the river, I felt I was on a great adventure and I had to slow myself down to take it all in. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Once to the water I was very aware this was wilderness and I had to be careful and alert. I came across a bull bison lying on the ground as I rounded a bend. We startled each other and he jumped up and started posturing. I, on the other hand, slowly backed away. I finally made it around him and continued fishing. I had more than one bison encounter, for they were thick around there.

Painting en plein air -

There were many fish striking bugs on the surface, and I knew it was going to be good fishing if I could match the hatch. I figured out the hatch was Pale Morning duns, which I had in my box as I had done my research and prepared. I ended up catching many cutthroats and cutbows, which is a cross between a cutthroat and a rainbow.

Painting en plein air -
Wolf tracks beside the tracks I had made earlier when I walked through.

When I got back to the car, two young men were there I had seen fishing. We ended up chatting and I found out they were guides. They asked me if I wanted to do an evening float trip down the Yellowstone River to fish. Since this was just the sort of thing that was on my bucket list, I said yes.

Painting en plein air -

I met one of the guides the next afternoon in Gardiner, Montana, at a place called the Flying Pig. Being from Cincinnati, I figured this was also a good sign, since the flying pig is a Cincinnati mascot.

We drove my car to the get-out location and I climbed into his truck. We drove quite a few miles back to our put-in location. I was excited and a little concerned seeing the raging water. He said it was normal, and we set out. He started by telling me I needed to cast to within six to ten inches from the bank for these fish. I was concerned my skills would not be good enough to do that, but I was pleasantly surprised. The very first cast I caught a cutthroat. I got even more excited hoping the whole trip would be this easy. Well, to my surprise again, I caught a lot of fish! It seemed like every other cast I caught one. The guide told me halfway through the trip that he’s had some good trips but nothing like this as far as catching fish. He said the business owner would have been proud of that trip. As we got close to our put-out location, he said, “OK, last cast.” I placed my fly almost exactly six inches from the bank and, boom, a brown trout struck it. I fought it all the way to our landing! This trip could not have been more perfect! I had never caught so many and such nice sized fish on any guided float trip ever. My arms were tired, and I was smiling big.

I drove back to town smiling from ear to ear. I got a nice steak dinner and ate while watching the sun set down the same Yellowstone River I had just fished.

Part 4: Tetons

The next morning I made my way through Yellowstone National Park to the Tetons. That park is crazy crowded and it took me much longer than I had anticipated. Oh, yes, I stopped and fished a little on the way. I got to my host home around 7 that evening.

This part of the trip I was doing the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters “Paint the Park” in Grand Teton National Park for a couple weeks. I had stayed with the same host last year and quickly had become friends. One of the same artists from last year, Jim Wodark, was staying there as well. They both were great company the whole time.

Painting en plein air -
The first thing I saw the first morning. My bedroom faced this scene and I could actually see it from my bed. Wow, had I been blessed!
Painting en plein air -
One of my painting buddies for the week. Big Mike Rangner was a gentle giant of a man, and a great painter.
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Sleeping Indian Peak at sunset.
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Standing in front of the Robert Bateman painting at the National Wildlife Museum in Jackson.
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One of my paintings from along the Gros Ventre River.
Painting en plein air -
My quick paint painting for the event.
Painting en plein air -
Fern Lake. I hiked in a couple miles with Michelle Burn and Kathy Anderson.
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A plein air landscape painting I did of an old abandoned ranch near the Snake River.
Painting en plein air -
Another from along the Gros Ventre River. There was a momma moose with two babies there.
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Some of the Teton Gang I painted with at the opening at the Southern Visitors Center at the south gate entrance to the park.

Part 5: Green River, Bridger National Forest

On July 22 we took our show down, and I made my way to the Green River to camp for a week.

I had already picked my campsite using the internet and Google Maps. I hoped it would be as good as it seemed online. I was not disappointed. I camped right on the river.

After setting up camp, I fished for a bit before dark. The more I saw, the more excited I got about the beauty of this place. I had no idea how beautiful it would be. For most of the week I camped alone again. Each day I painted and fished. I was blown away at the beauty and couldn’t get enough.

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Towards the end of the week, my friends Rebecca and Randy Hartong joined me for a few days. They were so gracious and made breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

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My set-up at the end of the campground lookout over the first of the Green Lakes.

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The Hartongs invited this couple to join us for dinner one night. We all had such a great time and connection. They were intrigued that I was there painting. The next morning they asked to see my work and ended up buying one of my paintings.

This whole trip was amazing on so many levels. While in the Tetons I met this fellow at the opening. He invited me to have dinner at his house one night while at the Green River. Turns out he lives just outside the national forest gate. So, I took him up on the offer. Not only did he give me a great dinner, but allowed me to shower and wash my clothes. Not sure if he was just being nice, or it was out of necessity. I had a pretty good deet and smoke smell going by this point. While there, I learned he was a huge art collector and was trying to set up an artist in residence for the area. I also learned he had a badger that came around every day, and I got to see it just outside his dining room window during dinner.

Part 6: Pack Trip, Wind River Range, Bridger National Forest, Wyoming

This is where the biggest part of my bucket list comes in. July 30 I climbed on a horse and packed into the Wind River Range!

The day before, I dropped off my stuff to the Thompson Outfitters near the Green River Campgrounds and lake. They needed to pack stuff up the day before to our base camp at Three Forks high in the mountains.

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I can’t tell you how excited I was to climb on my horse and head out. I was ready a year before. Lanny Grant had asked me to go the year before. I jumped at the chance! He also asked Niles Norquist and Robert Hagberg to go. So there were four artists going. I knew them all from the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters. All great guys and artists!

It took some time to get all the mules packed and to head out. Once that was done, we got set up with our horses. Being a big guy they gave me a big horse. Old Tom, as they called him, was huge. The stirrups were above my belt, so I had to use a rock the first time. Once I was up on Old Tom, I was like a kid ready for adventure.

The trip in was around 4.5 hours. We crossed a few creeks, which I had never done on a horse. I loved it! I have a fear of heights and it got tested more than once on the way in. But I quickly adjusted and dealt with it.

Painting en plein air -

Painting en plein air -
Me on Old Tom. As a kid I used to dream of being that guy in the picture.

Heading Out

I felt so happy to have been there. I hated to leave but knew I needed to get back to reality. It was another 4.5-hour ride back out, and I felt so perfectly at home on my horse. I was proud of myself for getting this trip under my belt. I was even more proud when I conquered my fear when my saddle went sideways on the side of the very steep cliff and I calmly righted it myself and moved on like nothing happened.

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A 35- to 40-minute painting at a place we dubbed Rungius Pond. We left quickly due to a very cold rain. It was a wet ride down the mountain.
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A 15-minute study, again due to rain. I felt lucky to get this much done. It started sleeting on us before I could get back to our horses.

This was our last and biggest river crossing. A great ending to a perfect dream trip. This photo is from Niles. I am so thankful for it! It lets me feel like how I felt the whole trip. Amazed, in love with the area, and grateful!

I looked up at the millions of stars one night while there with almost tears in my eyes and said thank you!

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Some of the paintings from the trip. Some sold and some I left out. I also had a blister or two from riding to remember the trip by. I’m ready to go back again. There was talk of next year (I am buying chaps!). Now to make more art from these studies!


Do you have a similar trip on your bucket list? What’s the smallest step you can take toward making it happen? Share it with us in the comments below!

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  1. This sounds amazing Chuck! After Telluride and my other summer festivals were canceled or modified I stood in front of the US map that hangs in my dining room with pins in it marking where we’ve been (And haven’t) and started planning. Myself and the family did a much wider loop around the country this summer heading south from NY to the Gulf of Mexico, through TX, NM to the Grand Canyon then through Bryce and Zion and into The Tetons and Yellowstone where we just couldn’t catch up to you. We headed back through the SD badlands and so on. I got a few plein paintings done along the way and plan to do more studio paintings from the pictures and studies but I’m itching to go back and spend less time driving and more time painting! If you plan another trip and are taking other painters with you, give a shout!

  2. First I hope your mother recovered from her fall. I cared for my parents and falls are a game changer. I lost my dad four years ago and my mom in March two days before Covid shut down America. Being able to go camp and fish this spring and summer was such a relief.)

    I always dreamed of painting out in the wilderness yet as a woman I hesitated to just head out. Thankfully my now retired husband is a fly fishing addict; so I watercolor as he fishes in UT (where we live) ID, MT and WY. We just got back from four weeks in Yellowstone and time on the Snake and Salmon rivers.

    My painting gear fits in a backpack that weighs just under 10 lbs, fully loaded. It holds my aluminum easel, a Shock cord chair, my art supplies and an umbrella hat that gives me full body shade without worrying about wind or reapplying sunscreen…it only weighs a few ounces and is so comfortable I forget I have it on.

    Painting with bear spray on my lap, bug spray on face, fly fishing gloves on my hands (to avoid sunburn…don’t like risking oil from sunscreen on my paper and got tired of burnt hands after a day painting by the river!), bison and Osprey checking me out puts a huge grin on my face. Plein air in the West is the best!


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