Finding Healing and Art on the Road

outdoor painting
“Catalina Wash” (watercolor, 6 x 9 in.)

Mike Simpson spent years working as a cowboy, managing land in Montana and Wyoming, but in 1984 he hurt his back. When his doctor asked, “What else can you do?,” the answer came quickly: “Well, I can paint pictures.”

At the same time he had to give up ranching, he had to step away from his beloved Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited motorcycle. Then, in 2009, he tried again, and found that something about Harley-Davidson motorcycles actually helped his ailing back. “I don’t know why that is,” he says. “Maybe it ’ s how the vibrations of the road affect my lower back, or because riding in nature is relaxing.”

outdoor painting
“September in Jackson Hole” (watercolor, 9 x 12 in. )

He has owned four Harley-Davidsons since 2009, and he currently pulls a trailer behind — that he assembled from a kit — that carries art supplies and other equipment. “If you are camping off-road, then the use of a bike like mine is not as great; off-road isn’t ideal for this particular motorcycle,” says Simpson. But he likes Harley-Davidsons because of their ride, because they barely depreciate in value, because they are American-made, and for the camaraderie among Harley enthusiasts.

“It’s mostly the idea of being outdoors — motorcycles and plein air painting are both part of it,” he says. “Being outdoors and riding a motorcycle and painting — I don’t know how you get much freer.”

outdoor painting
“Escalante Sunset (watercolor, 9 x 12 in. )

On his Harley, the breathtaking views are all around him while he rides. Still, Simpson’s attention to detail pulls him into the smaller subjects and to those not traditionally considered beautiful. “Many are naturally drawn to the grand vista, but what I ’ m looking for more is the effect of light,” he says. “I can see shadows cast across the storefronts and find it interesting, and just pull my bike over and sketch it out. I’m not as drawn to a particular subject as I am to the effect of light.”

Watercolor is the right medium for a motorcyclist who has limited space for materials, even with a trailer in tow.“ Watercolor is so much more convenient,” says the artist. “I can get water from a creek, not have to worry about solvents. I can do sketches in a sketchbook anytime, while my wife is getting her nails done, or anything.”

To hear Simpson tell it, he gets a jump on a painting before he even pulls out his paints, thanks to his Harley-Davidson. “When I travel by motorcycle to my painting destinations, I’m ahead of the game. I’m already acclimated,” he says. “I’m one with the environment already. I’m subject to the weather, out in the environment, for both good and bad, smelling the smells, noticing the temperature fluctuations from valleys to high roads. I notice things. My senses are far more alert, and it translates very well to my paintings.”

Mike Simpson painting roadside

Mike Simpson is a nationally known artist with work in many private collections as well as public and government displays notably the National Park Service. He is a signature member of the Plein Air Artist of Colorado and the Western Colorado Watercolor Society and the Plein Air Painters of New Mexico. He is also a member of the National Watercolor Society, the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, the Oil Painters of America and the American Impressionists Society. He was featured in the February-March 2017 issue of PleinAir Magazine.


  1. I just want to thank you for your EXCELLENT email newsletter. You do such a great job educating and encouraging artists, while elevating the medium of watercolor. At a time when I’m unsubscribing from many email lists, I look forward to each new edition you send!


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