There is a glow in the mountains before sunrise sweeps it away, and just after the sun sinks. The outrageous colors of alpenglow bounce off the gray shades of granite.
In the far away valleys lakes are small dots of blue and trees blend together like a carpet of green. It is a scene that is as much about the feeling as it is about the view.
“From up above you have a different perspective of the world that makes the problems down below in the valley quite small,” said Laramie artist Joe Arnold. “It elevates the soul.”
It is a feeling that keeps Arnold, 60, climbing mountains and painting from atop the summits. While capturing jagged peaks and awe-inspiring landscapes isn’t unusual in the art world, Arnold’s work offers a unique perspective. His paintings are the views normally reserved for climbers and mountaineers. His landscapes are what he sees from the summit of Grand Teton, or from a rope while making his way up another Teton peak. It’s why he’s known as “the plein air artist of thin air.”
“An artist can make up stuff, but these perspectives are so bizarre it’s difficult to imagine what would be happening if you aren’t seeing it,” he said. “When you are in the mountains, there is a whole different feel. To be in them is quite different to being on the plains looking at them. That’s a feeling I’d like to convey somehow.”
Arnold has been an artist as long as he can remember, but the defining moment, when he realized art was what he wanted to do as a career, came when he was 7 years old visiting the Louvre in Paris. He stood before a massive canvas painted by Eugene Delacroix and knew he wanted to be a painter.
Arnold was born in Laramie, but grew up moving around the country. He was 13 years old when he learned to rock climb, taking a course with Exum Mountain Guides while vacationing in Jackson with his dad. His older brother was already an obsessive climber, hanging out at the Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch. When he couldn’t find a partner he’d take his little brother.
It wasn’t until Arnold was at the Philadelphia College of Art that it occurred to him he could paint the scenery he saw while climbing. He was painting subways and buildings and wasn’t interested in traditional landscapes, until one day when on a climbing trip he looked out at the landscape.
“And I suddenly realized ‘This is a subject matter,’” he said.
In the mid-1980s, shortly after he moved back to Laramie, Arnold drew in pastels while on the summit of Teewinot. Then it became a bit of an obsession. He wanted to add views from another peak and then another. He’s now worked from almost every major peak south of, and including, Mount Moran. He has painted from Disappointment Peak, the Middle Teton and the South Teton. He’s also painted from the Wind River Range, including the summit of Fremont Peak.
“It’s not about the prestige of the peak, but whether it has a good composition,” he said.
That’s what makes painting from the Grand Teton one of his favorite places. The famous peak is not the subject matter. It’s all the other peaks below breaking up the empty space.
Scale becomes crucial when painting summit scapes. It’s about capturing images that are thousands of feet away. Trees might appear to be only millimeters tall in the valley below.
“That’s wild,” he said. “It’s taken awhile to really get it and make it work.”
He often paints mountain scenes as panoramas, sometimes in a curved shape to help bring a sense of the perspective of standing on a peak. He also works in the field, sketching from summits, and sometimes even while hanging from a rope.
He carries with him a small pastel kit that, with paper and case, weighs about four pounds. A normal pastel kit contains about 400 colors. Arnold will spend hours choosing only a small selection to carry, guessing at the colors he’ll need. The studies he creates in the mountains serve as notes that he’ll turn into larger paintings in the studio.
His immersion into his subject matter comes through in the details, said Michael Stull, an Arizona resident who owns five of Arnold’s paintings.
“He’s a lot like Ansel Adams,” Stull said. “He actually goes out and does an awful lot of study in the field. He goes out and gets to know the light and the outdoor scene he’s trying to recreate.”
Cheyenne resident Susan Gore, who is also a climber, has a painting of a scene Arnold captured at dawn. Alpenglow lit up the mountains. Arnold used an umbrella he’d lugged with him to camp to protect his sketch pad. Gore likes to think about him up in the mountains with an umbrella. But Gore’s love of the paintings goes beyond the backstory and simple subject matter.
“The subtlety to the color on the rocks and the light on the snow and the composition are masterly,” she said.
His work has a tactile element to it, transporting her back to the mountains she’s climbed.
“His paintings give a sense of the actual feeling of what it’s like to be up there among the rocks and snow,” Gore said. “For a mountain climber, that’s what you live for — to be up there.”