We’re diving deeper into the national parks with a spotlight on the people who connect with them internally whether that’s through a career, a lifestyle, a passion, or simply being a local.
Kayla Allen is an artist who has a goal of painting in all 63 national parks. You can follow her parks journey through her TikTok and Instagram pages @thecolorfulkayak along with her Youtube channel.
Q: How did you start painting and what brought you to your most recent project of painting in the parks?
A: For as long as I remember I wanted to create. Whether that was drawing, modeling clay, coloring, or using oil pastels. However, my painting journey didn’t really begin until my freshman year of college when I met my first ever roommate in 2016. She showed me how she would paint to relieve stress throughout the semester and once I started painting with her I guess I just never stopped. About a year later, I started my art account on instagram and began selling my work to friends, classmates, and friends of friends. Around this time, my grandmother invited me and all my sisters and cousins to take the summer to travel with her in a little RV. I went on every trip she thought up–some of which led us north to Acadia, and west to the Badlands and Yellowstone. It was this summer that I decided I was in love with the National Parks. While I didn’t paint during any of those trips, the seed for my current journey was planted.
My senior year of college, I decided to add an art minor to my degree and started taking my art more seriously. I started hatching a plan to travel the United States and paint for a living, yet it wasn’t until COVID forced my professors to conduct our classes either online or outside that I was introduced to plein air painting (painting in open air/outdoors.) My drawing professor held almost all of our classes outside and had us paint various landscapes around the campus. This led me to corners of campus I had never been to in all my four years of school. I started thinking about our classes as a form of journaling. I could look at my finished pieces and remember conversations I had engaged in with classmates, what the air felt and smelled like, what plans I was looking forward to that weekend. This is when the plan to plein air paint on the road started forming. But it really wasn’t until my journey began that I knew I needed to experience EVERY National Park in this way.
Acadia National Park was the first stop on my list of travels. I figured since I had already visited with my grandmother, it would be a perfect introduction to my year of traveling. Little did I know that my experience with this beautiful park would lead me to decide I wouldn’t just travel to every state in the US, I would paint En Plein Air at every single National Park–I would journal the entire experience in paint.
Q: When looking back at Acadia, what makes it different from other parks you’ve been to?
A: Now that I have painted 27 other National Parks, when I reminisce on Acadia I am reminded of the feeling of magic in the air. Maybe that sounds a little silly and maybe I’m a little biased since Acadia is the park that started it all, but I like to think that feeling of magic in Acadia is almost as tangible as the autumn breeze that split through my winter coat while painting atop Cadillac Mountain. Or as vibrant –and just as fleeting– as the yellowing leaves falling only a little too fast to capture with a stroke of my brush. Acadia has a way of drawing one in with a promise to share her secrets except once it's time to leave there is more to the sense of mystery than upon arrival.
Q: How do you scout out your location for the paintings in each park?
A: For some of my paintings, I find my perfect location while on a hike. The lighting or composition will strike me and I instantly know that view just has to be painted. But most of the time when I first arrive at the park, I will ask a park ranger, “what is the view or hike you feel best represents this entire park?” This almost always leads to an answer Google could have never given me.
Q: If you could listen to one album in Acadia while painting, which would it be and why?
A: I would listen to The Pleasant Trees by Tom Rosenthal. This has always been one of my favorite albums but it is a particularly perfect album for both being outside and for painting. Plus, something about Tom Rosenthal’s music is just begging to be listened to on a chilly seaside peak in the middle of fall. And what better seaside view than those in Acadia?
Q: What’s in your bag for a day of painting in the national parks and how do you make sure to leave it better than you found it when all is said and done?
A: When I hike into a National Park to paint I always bring:
A few canvas boards (incase I get carried away)
A small, medium, and a large square brush.
Red, Yellow, Blue, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, and white acrylic paints.
A reusable paint palette
A glass jar or cup of water with a sealable lid
Water for drinking
I always leave the parks better than I found them. I only hike and paint on approved sites and if I ever have doubts about where painting is allowed, I ALWAYS ask a ranger. Of course I also pack it in and pack it out– anything that comes into the park with me also leaves with me. This includes paint water! When I am finished with my jar of paint water I reseal my jar and bring it out of the park with me.
Q: What’s next on your list?
A: In early 2023 I hope to tackle all Utah, Colorado, and Nevada National Parks. My exact route is not yet planned but I hope by the end of 2023 I will have painted all of the National Parks in the Contiguous US. With 28 under my belt as of the end of 2022, I think it is pretty possible!
We’re diving deeper into the national parks with a spotlight on the people who connect with them internally whether that’s through a career, a lifestyle, a passion, or simply being a local. Kayla Allen is an artist who has a goal of painting in all 63 national parks. You can follow her parks journey through her TikTok and Instagram pages @thecolorfulkayak along with her Youtube channel.