A Brush with Danger: Plein Air Painting in the Backcountry

During the summer months here in Idaho, I spend a lot of time exploring and plein air painting in the mountains. Plein Air painting is the French term, which literally means, ‘painting in the open air’.

Just like the Impressionists, artists venture out from the comfort of their studios and into the field in order to study the effects of light on a subject. But, painting pretty pictures in the backcountry isn’t as easy as it looks. It takes hard work, planning and  knowledge of the area and its hidden risks

The story and inspiration behind the painting High Country Cattle is one worth sharing. I am proud to say that only minutes away from my home remains some of the wildest backcountry left in the lower 48 states. In these rugged Northern Rockies, wolf packs, large herds of deer and elk, wild horses, pronghorns, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, black bears and an occasional grizzly bear flourish alongside free roaming cattle. It is a common practice in Central Idaho to allow ranchers to graze their cattle upon BLM public lands. It is not uncommon to see these rugged cattle grazing high upon a ridge over 9,000 ft. These savvy, free range cattle are not your average barnyard cow. They face challenges much the same as any wild game animal including freezing temperatures, lightening storms, drought, and hungry coyotes, bears, wolves and mountain lions. I have gained a new respect for these domestic beasts.

Late June, after record rainfall, I went out four-wheeling into the remote Big Lost River mountain range with my friend and backcountry guide, Chris Burget from the online outdoor magazine, BullsandBeavers.com.

chirs & quad

high country cattle pic

(reference photo for High Country Cattle)

With my camera in hand, we scouted for animals and plein air painting ideas. I had just snapped the photos for High Country Cattle when at 9,800 ft we witnessed the harsh reality of ‘survival of the fittest’. Only a stone’s throw away, we observed an enormous black bear running toward us while chasing down an elk calf into an aspen thicket. Everything happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to get a photograph of the event! This was very unnerving because there are two rules of thumb regarding bear encounters:

  1. Never get between a mother bear and its cubs.
  2. Never get between a bear and its food source!

Even though Chris was armed with a Smith & Wesson 357 we knew it was best to play it safe and leave the area. In fact, this close encounter with the hungry bear compelled me to the informative and ‘must read’ post, Survival Tips for the Outdoor Painter & Enthusiast.  It is good to have a healthy respect for Mother Nature and her creatures so we can have an enjoyable outdoor experience.

Two weeks later, we returned to the scene with my 30×40 canvas. It was quite a challenge to haul such a large canvas, pochade box and equipment into the back-country. But, I had started High Country Cattle in my studio and needed some more onsite reference.

start High Country Cattle

(start to High Country Cattle)

working in field on High Country Cattle

After several hours out in the field, I returned to my studio with the information I needed to bring the painting to life. High Country Cattle not only depicts a memory and a moment in time, but also captures the West and its hardy animals that still roam free.

I hope you enjoyed this story!  ~Lori 🙂 PS. Please, let’s meet on Twitter and my FineArtTips Fan Page.

Read more: https://www.finearttips.com/?p=8952#ixzz1Ge4CHfm3

You might enjoy reading these informative posts:

Painting & Playing in Provence, France

Plein Air Painting with Utah’s Finest

How to Use Good Reference Photos for Landscape Painting

How to Build a Pochade Box from a Cigar Box

Survival Tips for the Outdoor Painter & Enthusiast

How to Interpret the Landscape in Paint

Plum TV Presents, “A Day in the Life of Artist Lori McNee”

Save Studio Space! How to Make Your Own Painting Racks

New Zealand: Painting and Playing in “The God Zone”

How to Pack For Painting – Tips for the Painter Traveling by Airplane or Car

2012-04-10T12:23:49+00:00 July 30th, 2009|Art Travels, General, Plein Air|8 Comments


  1. chris July 30, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Thank you for letting me share this wonderful day with you. I have a whole new appreciation for artist and plein air painting. This was one of best days in the Mountains and to have a close encounter with a Black Bear and to expierence the High Country Cattle picture and to see it come to life makes me proud to have been a part of this day.


  2. Beth Parker July 31, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Lori, thanks for sharing your experience. I am heading up to Wyoming and Idaho in September and am planning some plein air painting. Your bear experience will keep me on my toes. Your work is very beautiful, by the way!


    • admin August 9, 2009 at 2:21 pm

      Hi Beth, thanks for the comment on Painting in the Back-country. I always enjoy bumping into wildlife, but it is good to know what to do when it’s a preditor. Luckily, they are usually more afraid of us than we are of them. Enjoy your painting trip in September…it is especially beautiful that time of year. 🙂

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