By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Anna Middleton embraced watercolor for a few reasons: the supplies are easy to pack for mountain adventures, the paints are simple to clean up and, when she’s out painting en plein air, the medium allows her to slow down and see the landscape she grew up around in a new way.
Today, you can find Middleton’s sweeping landscape renditions at the Hungry Moose Market and Deli, Montana Supply and on her website, but her journey to becoming a professional artist was sparked by a day not many in the Big Sky community will forget—the day COVID-19 halted operations at Big Sky Resort last March.
Middleton, working her first season as a ski patroller, suddenly found herself with nothing to do. Fueled by her boredom, the Big Sky native decided to pour her energy into a talent that started as a hobby four years prior—a leap she says she never would have taken if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.
Although she has no formal background in the arts, Middleton has always been an artistically minded individual. She owned and operated her own photography business, Anna Middleton Photography, right here in Big Sky while in high school before moving to Walla Walla, Washington to attend Whitman College. The rhetoric studies major earned her EMT certification, moved back to her hometown and worked summers as a backpacking guide for teenage girls with Sanborn Western Camps in Colorado. Watercolors were low maintenance enough to pack on her backcountry trips, and it provided her with the gift of slowing down and appreciating the mountains around her in a new way.
“When you see something beautiful, there’s an immediate response—you pull out your phone, take a picture and walk away,” Middleton said. “Watercolor is a much slower process and as you spend more time with it, it becomes more beautiful. There’s potential for that to become more interesting and watercolor has really taught me that. I find complexities and detail that I would miss in a photo.”
Now in her second season as a ski patroller, Middleton is fortunate to be able to work 40 hours a week among the crags, headwalls and peaks that act as her unceasing muse.
“It’s where I’m from,” Middleton said. “I’ve seen Big Sky grow and change a lot as a community but the landscape has stayed the same, and I think people come here [and] are blown away. This is gorgeous but it’s even more beautiful if you spend time with it and I’ve been really lucky to have had my whole life to experience this place.”
Middleton works mostly in small dimensions—11×14, 5×7 and 4×6—in a series she calls Tiny Notebook (which you can follow on her website) and began as postcard gifts to friends and family. She has since been experimenting with panorama style pieces as well. She’ll watercolor or sketch in a small notepad while out in the field, capturing the light and strokes and spending time getting to know the landscape, then translates and refines her work later on in the studio.
The young artist credits her community for the inspiration that drove her to success. From fellow artists such as Kene Sperry, Ryan Turner, Arianne Coleman and Jill Zeidler, to businesses, like the Hungry Moose, whose marketing manager, Andrew Robin, first encouraged Middleton to display her postcards for sale in the market.
Just as Middleton uses her skillset as a ski patroller to make a bad situation better for those who need help getting off the mountain, she has embraced the sudden changes COVID-19 presented in her life. Although she’s unsure what this summer will bring, she hopes to continue leading trips into the backcountry.
“Learning to ski is a little bit about the sport but it’s also about learning something new, testing your abilities; it’s about feeling terrified and learning something scary, gaining confidence and playing in the snow,” Middleton said. “I’ve come to love ski patrol for a reason I didn’t expect—it’s inspiration for my painting and allows me to see the mountain in a way I never thought I would before. Getting to stand in the cirque as the sun is rising and it’s -10 degrees but everything is bright pink—I think: ‘oh my gosh I have to paint this.’”
Middleton sells giclee prints, postcards, folding cards and stickers on skycolorart.com. Postcards, stickers and folding cards are available at the Hungry Moose Market and Montana Supply. You can follow her in Instagram at @skycolorartMT.