An Interview with Plein-Air Painter and Outdoors Adventurer Emilie Lee

By New Wave in Misc > Artist Interviews

Where are you located?

I just moved to Santa Barbara, CA two months ago!

Your full-time job and/or education?

I’m a painter, and I went to Rhode Island School of Design/Grand Central Atelier.

What is a little known fact you would like to share?

I won my first art contest when I was 2!

You’ve mentioned that creating art is really a lifestyle for you. How do you integrate art into your life?

I fell in love with plein-air painting when I realized how naturally it fit with my outdoorsy lifestyle. Whether I’m camping, rock climbing, surfing, or hiking, I can take my painting kit with me and capture the beauty of the places I love to explore.

EmilieLee OnSiteShot

With my latest project in Montana’s prairie country, I’ve realized that painting has allowed me to access a much deeper, more meaningful experience—one that goes far beyond painting pretty scenes and has given my work a sense of purpose.

Tell us about the colors on your palette and anything new you have been experimenting with.

I started visiting the American Prairie Reserve two years ago when I became fascinated with the unique story of this conservation effort and the remote landscape it is working to preserve. Located south of Saskatchewan and north of the Missouri River, this zone of eastern Montana has seen very little human impact which makes it feel eerily removed from time.

ELEE Prairie MissouriRiver

I’ve made three visits to the prairie, totaling six weeks in all. During my time there I worked with a group of wildlife researchers to help me gain a deeper understanding of the place. In my first three days, I covered 24 miles on foot checking camera traps on game trails, monitoring sage grouse mating sites, and mapping prairie dog towns.

Outside of this, I spent the majority of my time painting and exploring by myself. I was two hours from the nearest paved road, surrounded by 5,000 square miles of flat land and open sky. It made me feel small, wild, and free. I went running for hours and miles into the endless sea of sage, crossing paths with bison, antelope, and coyote. I woke at three AM to trek through the darkness looking for sage grouse doing their mating dance at sunrise. I camped out next to the sounds of elk bugling through the cottonwoods while the northern lights played across the sky.

EmilieLee PrairieSunset oil 2015

It was, by all accounts, an exhilarating adventure that has captivated my imagination and re-affirmed my belief in nature’s ability to heal when given the chance.

To paint this landscape, I used a lot of raw umber, yellow ochre, ivory black (which I consider a blue), ultramarine blue, titanium white, and cad orange. I also have alizarin crimson, cad red, viridian, raw sienna, and cad yellow on my palette.

What is your process when painting?

After collecting forty plein-air paintings and drawings on location, I got started on a series of larger studio pieces to complete the show. I’ve been making these without the use of photographs, intentionally limiting myself to the information I could capture in my sketches made from life.

Memory plays an important role in my process. I don’t have the exact quote, but I read that Thomas Cole believed his memory filtered out all unnecessary clutter from a scene, leaving only the essential information that actually made an impact on him at the moment of inspiration. I’ve found this to be true, and with practice over time, relying on my memory has strengthened my observation skills, improving my painting efficiency by leaps and bounds.

Lee Emilie Prairie Drawing

My teacher Jacob Collins describes this as a feedback loop – when you’re in the studio, you’re realize what you failed to notice when you were outside, so that next time you’re outside, you pay better attention.

It can feel like a punishing process at first, but the skills gained are worth it!

When I’m in the studio, I try to transport myself back to the prairie, feeling into the depths of my emotional memory, and when I can feel the wind in my hair and the vertigo of the endless horizons, then I start painting.

What are your tools of choice?

I use Gamblin colors, an Open Box M easel, Jerry’s Artarama pro-stroke brushes, and when I’m in the studio I love using my New Wave Palette, specifically the Expressionist Confidant Palette.

StudioShot NewWavePalette

My painting backpack was made by my friends at Buck Products in Bozeman, MT. It’s the perfect size for all my gear and it’s one of a kind!

Any upcoming shows or workshops we should know about?

I teach regularly in Santa Barbara. I teach an intro to working en plein-air with a focus on drawing and composition, and another is for painting. We are typically on the beach!


You can sign up for my upcoming plein-air painting classes by joining my mailing list at

In addition, my entire collection of prairie paintings will be at Old Main Gallery in Bozeman, Montana, November 2017.

Special thanks to New Wave Art for contributing this interview! To learn more about New Wave’s line of ergonomic wood painting palettes, visit


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