What Struck me in Yellowstone

For the past two weeks, Andres and I have been a bit lost in the reverie of Yellowstone. Internet is hard to come by, so aside from managing our shop, we took a little digital break to lose ourselves in America’s first national park. I wouldn’t call this park beautiful, that word doesn’t feel right.

No, if I had to use one word to describe Yellowstone, it would be simply unique. Where else can you find geysers, mountains, wild buffalo, bubbling creeks, wolves, vast lakes, eagles, pine forests, sagebrush flats, and hot springs in one place? Of course the individual pieces are stunning in their beauty, but the narrative as a whole is a one of a kind landscape. Yes, an idyllic wonderland. To top it off, it’s all made possible by a super-volcano churning just beneath the surface. That’s exactly what makes this landscape unique.






West Thumb Geyser Basin.

It never ceased to amaze me how much variety we could see in one single day, and it was on one such day when inspiration struck me. Father’s Day, to be exact. We spent the morning around Old Faithful to watch her dramatic eruption, then headed around to see Yellowstone Lake for the first time. It was here at the West Thumb Geyser Basin that a new idea for an illustration came to me. I remember staring into the depths of a hot spring and marveling at the layers of textured color around its edges. Somehow my thoughts turned to the mighty bison who often walk around thermal features and sometimes become quite injured in the process.

In that moment of reflection I decided to honor this park with a portrait.

It feels symbolic to share my own artist story in the park where art played such an important role in protecting these habitats and species.

24″ x 36″ Digital Painting © Karla Sanders, 2016.

Did you know our National Mammal – the last true wild bison on Earth – is routinely slaughtered under pressure from the livestock industry? This legal and controversial management program keeps the Yellowstone population under 4,500 by herding, capturing, and killing some wild bison who stray beyond the artificial boundaries of this park. The fear is they will transmit brucellosis to cattle. Ironically, the disease was originally introduced to the wild from domesticated animals.

Between November 2014 and June 2015, 735 wild bison were slaughtered. I found this out from the Buffalo Field Campaign, an advocacy group we learned about while visiting West Yellowstone. Folks, bison have not had it easy since humans arrived in their lands. This ancient animal once ranged in the millions but was massacred down to a handful by the early 1900s. Yellowstone is the only place where truly wild bison roam. Thankfully this keystone species has a refuge, but their existence relies on people who have fought and continue to advocate for their existence. It seems they can only safely survive in a landscape where human development is prohibited.

Reflecting on this story, I illustrated two images that can stand alone or together as a pair. The right is a stylized imagining of the night sky with 735 stars to symbolize the bison I mentioned earlier, a romantic commemoration for animals who rely on human voices to protect them. This scene reflects stories that tell of souls entering the night sky. The portrait is of a female bison, based on a photo Andres took during the many days we had to study these animals up close through our camera lenses. These are digital paintings that have nothing to do with our Centennial Poster Series, merely an expression for the simple sake of expression.


24″ x 36″ Digital Painting © Karla Sanders, 2016.

I created and individually placed each line in a manual process using digital painting techniques. Though I could have used technology to speed up the process, I decided to do this pixel by pixel, like a painter uses a brush. Just because we can do something fast doesn’t mean we should. I suppose that sentiment was inspired by the bison who move with a slow grace, despite their ability to run fast if need be.

Observing bison while eating a quick breakfast in Lamar Valley.
Observing bison while eating a quick breakfast in Lamar Valley.


View from Artist Point, Yellowstone.
View from Artist Point, Yellowstone.

It feels symbolic to share my own artist story in the park where art played such an important role in protecting these habitats and species. Thomas Moran is famously known for his paintings of Yellowstone, which helped convince Congress and President Grant to create the world’s first National Park. Andres and I savored the moment of standing at Artist Point where a grand view of the lower falls and the Yellowstone River overpowered the crowds of fellow visitors around us. The words of Fernando Botero perfectly captures the feeling that compels us to create:

A painted landscape is always more beautiful than a real one, because there’s more there. Everything is more sensual, and one takes refuge in its beauty. And man needs spiritual expression and nourishing. It’s why even in the prehistoric era, people would scrawl pictures of bison on the walls of caves. Man needs music, literature, and painting – all those oases of perfection that make up art – to compensate for the rudeness and materialism of life.

What struck me in Yellowstone was not really its beauty, or the crowds, or one particular feature over another. What struck me was the diversity of this landscape and its power to challenge my imagination in ways no single mountain or river can. All of its colors, textures, smells, wildlife, and bits of history weave stories to inspire you when you least expect it. That experience is priceless.


  1. I continue to be inspired by your beautiful words and photographs – thank you for sharing. You and Andres are making a difference, and are shining examples of stewardship.

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