Capturing water: For 15 years, one artist has captured Tahoe’s essence in brightly colored canvases

Dozens of blue, green, purple, pink and even metallic gold hues of acrylic paint cover artist Michelle Courier’s pallet as she paints the ever-changing crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe.

“Clear water is the hardest thing to paint. It’s easy to paint ponds or lakes with ripples, but when it’s still or partially moving in one section and hitting the rocks, there’s almost three distinct layers that you have to capture,” explains Courier. “You have the bottom of the water, which sometimes you can see very clearly, then you have the reflection of the sky, and then this section where the water is moving against the rocks and you almost have the reflection of the rocks.”

Painter Michelle Courier has been spending summers in Tahoe since she was 12 years old. Today, she devotes much of her work to capturing the crystal clear waters of Big Blue.
Provided Photo

Courier has spent her summers in Lake Tahoe since she was 12 years old and her father, also a painter, would drive the family from Michigan to Kings Beach. These days, Courier continues the annual tradition, loading up her trusted van, Bessie, and following a new route to the Jewel of the Sierra from her home in Denver, Colorado.

After starting her career as a fashion illustrator and portraitist, Courier ultimately turned her brush to the landscapes she’d been inspired by since she was a child. One painting of Sand Harbor 15 years ago spawned an insatiable desire to continue capturing the beauty of the Sierra Nevada.

“I think it’s just the color of the water. I’ve never seen anything like it. The greens and the blues. Every day it’s a different lake. Every season it’s a different lake. It’s completely different in March than it is in July. It’s always changing,” says Courier, who takes off in her kayak with a camera in hand to capture different parts of the lake. Back in her studio, Courier translates the pictures into brightly colored large scale paintings that take anywhere from 25 to 100 hours to complete.

Those intimately familiar with the backcountry of the Sierra will recognize other bodies of water, like Eagle Lake, Lake Winnemucca and Lily Lake, in Courier’s work.

Courier is entranced by the water’s ever-changing colors and textures. Photo / Michelle Courier

“​​The Sierras feel like mother to me, and Colorado feels like father,” explains Courier. “There’s a different feeling to me. I paint both of them equally, but I feel like Tahoe and the Sierras with the granite and the soft pine paths really make me feel very safe out there.”

Since starting to paint Tahoe, her career has taken off, notes Courier. She now has work available for sale at Emanate Gallery and Framing in South Lake Tahoe and Art Obsessions Gallery in Reno, as well as her own gallery, Westward Gallery, in Denver.

“Michelle’s style contains subtle realism and impressionism,” explains Angela Cabrera, co-owner of Emanate Gallery and Framing. “While Michelle paints water and landscapes, what allures many to love her art, is her ability to recreate beloved images of iconic and obscure locations.”

Cabrera describes Courier’s ability to capture water as “bold and invigorating” with a color palette that “inspires us to reflect on the magnificent freshwater bodies and stunning landmarks in the Sierras.”

For Courier, Lake Tahoe and its surrounding environment are a constant source of inspiration — and a challenge she can’t imagine ever turning away from.

“I just feel like each painting is a lesson, and I get a little stronger in knowledge of how to translate paint into looking like transparent water,” says Courier. “I never get tired of the lake. I never get tired of looking at the water. It’s a subject I’ll probably never stop doing.”

Claire McArthur is a writer for Tahoe Magazine, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun

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