Plein Air Painting Nevada - Stories and Paintings from the Quest to Paint in all 50 States

Nevada – the Spanish word for Snow, also happens to be the State most associated with desert and heat, other than Arizona.

In my ongoing Quest to Paint 50 States, the State of Nevada is an easy one day drive away from my home base and studio in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Over the last 2 years I have made a couple of trips to the Silver State to paint.

These trips are described below:

Great Basin National Park, Nevada

In late August 2012 I traveled with 2 other artist friends, Eunice Van der Linden and Jean Thomas to Northern Nevada and then on into Utah. We visited the out of the way and spectacular Great Basin National Park. It is most certainly one of the least visited parks because of its location. We stayed the night in Ely on Route 50. We stopped on our way from Ely to Great Basin N.P. and had a picnic breakfast in the desert overlooking a vast scene of wide open sage brush, mountains and sky.

It takes about another hour or more of driving to get from Ely to the park entrance - so gas up your vehicle in Ely. The small outpost of Baker near the park entrance has a good deli and an unattended gas pump. We were told that this gas pump may or may not be working! Nice campgrounds are available in the park. The next time we come to visit we will camp and paint in the Park. We took the road up Mt. Wheeler (13,000+ ft. in altitude) and enjoyed the amazing views of surrounding desert. We painted at the Lower Lehman Creek area because of the creek and aspen trees, meadows and cliffs of striated rock formations. We were a little early for the Fall aspen color so we recommend late September for optimum color - or call the Park headquarters for a fall color update if you go.

An earlier trip with Skip Andreae and Carol Bower was planned for mid April 2011. We had to delay the trip several weeks because of the late winter weather which kept depositing more and more snow on the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We finally managed to leave on May 1.

Our destination for the first day of plein air painting was just over the California/Nevada State Line. We planned to stop for the night in Carson City, the State Capitol of Nevada.

We got to Reno in early afternoon and headed south on Route 395. The road travels along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It offers pine forests and a cooling respite from the desert landscape that dominates everything east of the mountains. About 10 miles North of Carson City we found a lovely regional park called Davis Creek Regional Park. The park has a small lake with wonderful reflections.

Small groups of fishermen were set up along the shore, and seemed to be catching a lot of trout. The lake was also hosting very noisy Canada geese.

Here are a couple of the paintings done at this first painting site. We painted happily at the lake for over 2 hours.



We had no trouble finding affordable lodging for the night in Carson City. We stayed at the Nugget Casino and got a brand new room for $50 per night. On the way back from dinner we played the 1 cent slot machines – and I hit a jackpot - $31.05 – which is pretty good considering my initial “investment” was 10 cents. Skip and Carol extracted me from the Casino immediately after my win. Which was a good thing!

Day 2 – Route 50 east of Carson City –Plein Air Painting Snow Covered Mountains and Desert Sage

We started out our day by having a large breakfast at Heidi’s Coffee Shop in Carson City – the food was excellent and the helpings very generous.

We ventured into the desert along Route 50 going East toward Fallon. We decided that this was the morning to get the snow covered mountains and sage brush foreground painting.

We drove out of town heading East until we found a spot with a bit of elevation – we took an unpaved side road and finally stopped at an off-road ATV place that had a wonderful view of the snow covered mountains – with a necessary sage brush foreground!

Exactly as I had imagined. The sun was out and intense. We spent over 2 hours in this spot – here is the painting.

Desert Painting and Subtle Beauty

We continued East on Highway 50 – we didn’t quite make it past Fallon to the stretch of road dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America” - we pulled off at a reservoir called Lahontan a few miles west of Fallon Naval Air Station.

We decided to do our afternoon painting in this spot rather than continue on into further desolation and desert.

Lahontan turned out to be an interesting and very challenging plein air painting location. The values of light and dark were all extremely similar and lacking in contrast. This left the painter with few tools other than changing the temperature of color from cool to warm to achieve some contrast. It was certainly an exercise in restraint and subtlety and very different from anything any of us had painted lately.

Most of the vegetation was scrubby and not yet in leaf – this added even more challenge to the scenery.

In painting the desert landscape, it seems to take some time for the eyes and heart to start to see the beauty. It is hidden, and slowly reveals itself like a shy little animal. Waiting patiently and with an appreciative eye, you will be rewarded as the pastel colors and the texture of the brush and trees become apparent. Many birds and small creatures take refuge in the scrub and are well adapted to the harsh conditions.

After our desert painting experiences of the day, we headed to higher altitude and Virginia City. To get there we took a curvy, steep two lane road up to 6500 ft. in elevation. The old gold mining town of Virginia City is still a mining town with the Comstock Gold Mine in operation – you can see open mining pits and terracing as you drive up into town.

We decided not to spend the night in Virginia City. One hotel we looked at was particularly seedy and we wondered if the rooms rented by the hour. Not quite what we had in mind for a peaceful evening recovering from the rigors of plein air painting all day in the desert.

After some discussion, we decided to head West across the mountains and spent the night at South Shore on Lake Tahoe, which is in Nevada. Nevada and California share a border at the Lake.

Nevada Side of Lake Tahoe - Zephyr Cove

The next morning we found a fantastic painting location on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. It is Zephyr Cove Resort.

There is a marina for boat launching, a long sandy beach, picnic tables set up under the Ponderosa pines looking out over the lake towards California. A paddle wheel tourist boat was being refurbished for the Summer season while we were there in early May.

Zephyr Cove provides a 180 degree view of cobalt blue and emerald green Lake Tahoe. Snow covered mountains surround the lake.

After the muted desert scenes of the previous day, we had to change our palettes and thinking. I got out my Thalo blue and viridian green tubes of paint. It felt like a splurge and riot of joy to be able to use these delicious brilliant colors – and get away with it.

I still have one place I want to paint in Nevada. It is the remote Great Basin National Park. The park is located on the border of Nevada and Utah. It was more driving than I wanted to do on this road trip. Maybe next time.

This 4 day Spring trip with my excellent painting buddies was a pleasure. Just the right mix of driving and painting. Thank you Skip and Carol.

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