Linda Lillegraven | Painting the Prairies


Wild Horses, Great Divide Basin, oil, 24 x 36. painting southwest art.
Wild Horses, Great Divide Basin, oil, 24 x 36.

By Vicki Linder

Linda Lillegraven is traveling across Wyoming from her home in Laramie to the Buffalo Bill Art Show in Cody, where she will show her luminous pastel and oil landscapes for the fifth year in a row. For Lillegraven, eager to shun the speedy but dull interstate, the less-traveled roads to the show provide a 350-mile opportunity to look for new subject matter. Oblivious to Wyoming’s oft-painted snow-covered peaks and glacial lakes, she is scouting out a slightly more disturbing dynamic—what some might call emptiness: prairie, light, horizon, and dust.

Near Bosler, a small Albany County town where sagebrush prairies run to the hem of low, wave-shaped mountains, Lille-graven shoots a few slides with her trusty, manually operated Mamiya camera. Although this flat, treeless basin a frequent site for tornadoes and hail has often provided her with the unpopulated spaces she seeks, today she doesn’t find a composition that inspires her.

Evening Near Tie Siding, pastel, 16 x 24.
Evening Near Tie Siding, pastel, 16 x 24.

An hour later, she steers the family’s aged but stalwart Toyota Four Runner onto a rugged track off the Shirley Basin Highway, one of her favorite artistic hunting grounds. In this vicinity she has frequently photographed—and later painted—abandoned road-ways that disappear into dry, bristling grass, dinosaur bone yards, and even the paved highway itself, a sign of human intrusion into a land that steadfastly resists it.

Today she spies a bald eagle on a pronghorn carcass, but Lillegraven would rather paint a rock than a noble raptor. Having spent a year in Boulder, CO, earning a meager living painting birds for collectible porcelain, she is not interested in wildlife as a primary subject for art, despite having undergraduate degrees in both zoology and art as well as a master’s degree in biology.

The artist finds the image she is looking for 150 miles farther northwest, outside the small, central Wyoming town of Shoshoni, where a population census would count mostly pronghorn. What catches Lillegraven’s eye and imagination is a dark storm cloud, rapidly building in intensity and volume, barreling toward her from the blue Owl Creek Mountains.

On the Wings of the Storm, pastel, 22 x 32.
On the Wings of the Storm, pastel, 22 x 32.

Six months later, the resulting pastel, On the Wings of the Storm, is in progress in the red-carpeted studio of Lillegraven’s Laramie house, where she lives with her husband Jay, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Wyoming. A golden retriever thumps his tail beneath a light table cluttered with mail, boxes of slides, and stray pastel crayons. Outside, the temperature feels like 30 degrees below zero with the windchill factor. On the easel, however, summer’s complex charcoal storm boils above a vibrant pink-and-yellow prairie, bright and still beneath the vigorously expanding gullywasher. A thin line of light infuses the horizon with an eerie greenish glow, yet the sky outside the margins of the cloud remains transparent blue.

Despite the tumultuous storm the pastel depicts, the image is curiously serene. The storm is distilled and clarified on the easel; more than a cloud, the painting’s real subjects are time, distance, light, and primal ground. “I like to choose a transitory image—one your eyes might slide over,” explains Lillegraven. “I’ve driven that road before and not taken any pictures, but on that particular day I could see the whole body of the storm and its structure rain, rising air, sunshine, shadows, and a strange, golden light on the horizon. It had all the basic elements I needed.”

As in many of Lillegraven’s works, the foreground portrays the texture of dry yellow grass. The individual grass clumps are subtle focal points that offer the viewer a way to enter the expanse of prairie. Another important focal point is the horizon line. Com-pletely empty spaces can be challenging to paint without making them appear blank, Lillegraven says. “It is difficult to paint the prairie because the air is thin, the light is hard, and the transitions of color and tone are so subtle as to be almost invisible.” As she works, she tries to include the minimal amount of detail while still retaining enough visual clues to give the viewer a sense of space.

Although Lillegraven works in both oil and pastel, sometimes changing media in the middle of a piece and starting over, in general she prefers the color range and texture of pastels. “One pastel may be too blue, another too yellow, but when I juxtapose two very different colors, I get an interesting surface,” she says. Lillegraven stretches wet watercolor paper on stretcher bars, then primes it with a mixture of acrylic gesso and pumice for a sandpaper-like feel. “Pastel is basically dust, and it needs a toothy background to adhere to,” she says. “I can build up many layers of color on a rough surface.” Close examination of Lillegraven’s pastels reveals that the surprisingly brilliant hues come from the interaction of several pigments as well as the underlying plane itself. When the viewer steps back, the colors resolve themselves into subtle transitions of light across open spaces.

Lillegraven often takes weeks to complete a painting. “I’ll set one aside and work on another,” she says, “then hang it on the bedroom wall where my subconscious can work on it awhile. Something will click, and I’ll see that part of a cloud should be moved or a shadow darkened.”

Lillegraven is not in a hurry. Distilling the essence of Wyoming’s emptiness, she says, will provide enough work to last a lifetime. “I feel fortunate to live in a place where the sky is alive, where you can see a storm coming for miles. I can’t imagine running out of subjects to paint here.”

Photos courtesy Big Horn Gal-leries, Cody, WY; Kneeland Gallery, Sun Valley, ID; Sutton West Gallery, Missoula, MT; Deselms Fine Art, Cheyenne, WY; and French Creek Gallery, Laramie, WY.

Featured in November 1997