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Standing In Reverence Of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon—And Thomas Moran

Mountain Journal Columnist Sue Cedarholm Takes 'Watercolor Diary' To The Visual Birthplace of Yellowstone

Okay, so I realize it’s an audacious thing to even dare to paint a landmark. I get it. 

In his first outing, Thomas Moran painted the view from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Many mistakenly believe the perspective came from Artist Point.  With his work, Moran set the standard against which all paintings of that scene afterward would be measured. 

In my humble opinion, his portrayals will never be surpassed.

I am not interested in translating details or reinterpreting his interpretation. Painting to me reflects various kinds of moods I feel. Color is the tool I use for understanding other things that are going on around me and in my personal life. 

Hence, this little simple quick-brush watercolor and the companion piece, a portrayal of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, below.

There are few vistas more iconic than the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. Recently I took an October drive through Yellowstone. I had been avoiding a park visit all summer due to the over-abundance of visitors loving it to death.  It’s a pity how many locals live close to Yellowstone because we so enjoy being there yet something in our psyche tells us to stay away during those weeks we most savor.

As I walked down the path toward the scenic overlook for the Lower Falls I reflected on what it must have been like to be Moran and William Henry Jackson, arriving on this unbelievable yet magical landscape in 1871 when it was raw.  The only trail leading to the view would have been one created by deer or elk.

The paintings and photographs from the expedition were instrumental in the creation of our first national park in 1872. As a painter and photographer myself, I appreciate both of their perspectives.

One of Thomas Moran's paintings of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, visions that were instrumental in convincing Congress to create Yellowstone as the first national park in the world.. Click on painting to make larger.
One of Thomas Moran's paintings of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, visions that were instrumental in convincing Congress to create Yellowstone as the first national park in the world.. Click on painting to make larger.
I usually try and stay away from these most notable panoramas. It is a daunting task to paint something so well known. If you don’t get it right people know. Artistic license does not work as an excuse.

When I got to the overlook and let my thoughts stretch into the chasm of space that defines the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the massive falls in the far distance, there was plum of mist rising above the crashing water.

I knew I would attempt to capture this scene with the illusion of pigments on paper.  I did not have time that day to paint plein air. I made some photographs that I used for reference later in my studio.

Before I started painting I browsed Moran’s historic works.  I was in awe, as I am with every viewing. Even though they are embellishments, they meet us fresh.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Sue Cedarholm
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Sue Cedarholm
Hoping to tap into my inner Moran and more than slightly intimidated almost to the point of paralysis, I put the brush to paper and used my mind’s eye to summon the day when I stood gazing at the falls, letting the soundscape help to set the palette.

What was I feeling? The wind, the cold air, the sounds; with watercolor you only get one chance.

That is the main reason I love the medium, forced spontaneity. You set the paint down; you do it as an expression or, in my case, a response, maybe even a cathartic one. You don’t succeed or fail. You just gain a little more clarity.  We can all stand to become more “aware”.  Awareness is the opposite of being numb.

Although there are occasions when I paint a landscape numerous times before I reach a point where I can live with the result and not toss it, I learn from each attempt.  Paint, photograph or write.  Have a conversation. Let nature talk to you.
Sue Cedarholm
About Sue Cedarholm

Jackson Hole-based Sue Cedarholm is a multi-media artist—painter, photographer and maker of nature-themed, wearable apparel.  You can find all of the works in her ongoing series at Watercolor Diary.
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