Painting in Yosemite - OutdoorPainter.com
James McGrew “After an October Storm at Valley View”

Artists from the California Art Club share their experiences from — and advice for — painting in Yosemite.

submitted by Ellen Howard

The California Art Club (CAC) held its annual retreat in Yosemite the first weekend of October. Ellen Howard, Paul Kratter, and Richard Lindenberg, SF Chapter Chairs were the hosts for this event, which included 60 artists from all over California, including Mendocino, the Bay Area, Pasadena, Sacramento, Riverside, and Los Angeles. We arranged our stay at the beautiful Yosemite View Lodge, and managed to fit everyone in the same building. We were blessed with spectacular weather this weekend — the mornings were chilly till 10 a.m., but as the sun came across Yosemite Valley we enjoyed painting on a great Indian Summer day — no jackets required! The light hitting Cathedral Rock and Half Dome was amazing, as were the reflections of these magnificent rock structures off the rivers running through the park.

Yosemite landscape painting

CAC held a wonderful event that Friday night, which featured an incredible presentation from James McGrew – who was a seasonal park ranger for 23 years – on the history of Yosemite, including the artists who first painted here and an overview of James’s incredible paintings. James’s knowledge was truly impressive, as were his paintings and photos of the wildlife in the park. Everyone came away inspired for their painting time the next morning.

Painting outdoors in Yosemite
Artists at work

As one of the organizers of the event, it was a great pleasure for me to see everyone socializing and talking art. In my opinion there is nothing like going painting with another artist or group of artists. Each of us sees things differently, and even though each artist could be painting the same scene, the paintings will be different. Everyone has a different way of expressing themselves. Painting in Yosemite is challenging. The rock formations are very recognizable and have been painted many times. An artist needs to pay attention to details but also bring their own unique perspective to the scene. I found that the light changed very quickly, and it was important to take a photo or draw a thumbnail sketch to make sure you captured your shadow and light correctly from your first impressions.

Yosemite landscape painting
Plein air landscape painting by Ellen Howard, standing on Sentinel Bridge.

Advice for Painting at Yosemite

James McGrew had some helpful tips and wonderful insight on painting in Yosemite. James said that you should expect the crowds to influence some aspect of the experience. On one hand, painting in front of park visitors creates wonderful opportunities to engage visitors about the art as well as the role of artists in establishing Yosemite as a state, and later, national park. On the other hand, if you want to avoid the crowds, only a little effort on the hiking trails is required to find peace and solitude while painting and affords the opportunity to experience amazing wildlife. Also, plan to travel to the park during slower times (outside of weekends, holidays, and summer) and plan to paint early or late in the day or even at night when the moon lights up the granite and waterfalls for a magical experience.

Yosemite’s unique, iconic features are so widely published that painting a Yosemite landscape can be similar to painting a celebrity portrait. Accuracy in draftsmanship grows more important than when painting other natural landscape scenes. Conversely, Yosemite’s incredible scale causes us to perceive towering granite features as larger than a camera captures them relative to a wide-angle foreground. So, finding subtle ways to express the feeling of grandeur, power, atmosphere, and light in Yosemite while also maintaining balance with a sense of place and representational accuracy has always challenged artists who attempt to paint Yosemite.

Here’s what some of our attending artists had to say about their experience, including their advice for painting in Yosemite:

“When it comes to painting the landscape here, less is more — and how to learn to simplify,” says Inna Cherneykina. “We can see every leaf on the tree, every petal in the flower, but in order to portray landscape, flower, or tree, you don’t have to paint each detail; the viewer’s brain will recognize and recreate the subject even if it’s just a few simple strokes. Painting in Yosemite with CAC was an amazing opportunity to practice this approach for me. Trees, mountains, reflections — we had amazing scenery around us. It could be overwhelming at times, so for fellow artists, I would suggest scouting your locations before you unpack. Sometimes you can find a spot where you can paint a few studies without moving far.”

Plein air landscape painting by Inna Cherneykina
Plein air landscape painting by Inna Cherneykina

“Painting in Yosemite Valley can be a challenge; the scenery is unmatched,” says Julia Seelos. “Because the valley is so deep, the light in the fall is extremely dramatic, but fleeting. The sheer granite walls are stark against the deep blue sky, and their shadows change as you watch. The painter needs to be aware that wherever they set up they may be in shadows within an hour and their subject might be as well.”

Plein air landscape by Julia Seelos
Plein air landscape by Julia Seelos

“I enjoyed learning more about the history of the park, especially from the perspective of painting,” says Cleo Vilett. “It has endless possible subject matter with light bouncing off granite in every direction. No wonder it is such a mecca for artists. No matter how many paintings have been done, or how many people have stood in awe in front of Half Dome or Valley View, the novelty never wears off. It takes my breath away every time!”

Plein air landscape by Cleo Vilett
Plein air landscape by Cleo Vilett
Plein air painting by Chuck Kovacic, near Swinging Bridge
Plein air painting by Chuck Kovacic, near Swinging Bridge
Plein air painting of Glacier Point by Richard Lindenberg
Plein air painting of Glacier Point by Richard Lindenberg

Our wonderful retreat ended with a morning critique from Chuck Kovacic, Signature Member of the California Art Club. Many of our artists came to share their work and get some feedback on their paintings. It was great to see what everyone had painted and to hear Chuck’s views on their work and also understand, through the critiques of others’ work, how to make improvements of our own. A huge thank-you to Chuck! Below are just a couple of the paintings that were shown. Stay tuned for CAC’s next artist retreat!

Yosemite plein air paintings


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