The Instagram post stops you mid-scroll; it must be trick photography: Against the backdrop of a spectacular Colorado mountain landscape, a hand holds up a tiny metal box that contains a miniature painting of the scene. The painted portion appears to be a seamless continuation of the photo, but it’s no trick, just the handiwork of plein-air artist Heidi Annalise.
A self-taught painter, Annalise was working in Washington, D.C. as a Chinese translator when she turned to oil painting as a creative outlet just four years ago. A mountain girl at heart, she returned to Colorado (where she’d been raised) in 2015. She was drawn to landscapes, but found the traditional plein-air setup expensive and cumbersome. “It’s a lot of stuff to carry,” she says. “Plus, I was self-conscious. When you have the full outdoor setup, people will naturally peer over your shoulder, and I wasn’t ready for that kind of scrutiny.”
So she streamlined her approach. Inspired by an artist she discovered on Instagram, she began transforming recycled breath-mint tins into mini art kits and bringing them along on her weekly alpine hikes. At home, she fills the bottom of each tin with small blobs of oil paints (which are highly stable and won’t run during the hike). For her canvas, she tapes a primed piece of wood (purchased at a Michaels craft store) into the lid.
The 2-by-3-inch metal tins are well-suited to travel painting. Finding the right location is trickier. “If anyone followed my hikes with a drone they would think I was crazy,” Annalise says. Her strategy is to find an eye-catching vista with an interesting context around the to-be-painted scene. “If you look closely, sometimes I frame the painting exactly and sometimes the whole thing is a bit more abstract,” she says.
On a good day, Annalise might paint three or four scenes during a hike. Which raises the question: Does she have the freshest breath in Colorado? “Even I couldn’t eat that many mints,” Annalise laughs. “I have some generous Instagram followers who send me their tins, and I’ve even found some people on eBay who’ll sell them in bulk for pretty cheap.”
It’s been just a year since Annalise began creating her mint-tin paintings and sharing them on her Instagram account (@heidi.annalise.art). But 427 posts later, she’s accumulated 72,000 new followers—and sold about 125 tiny landscapes (for $55 each) on her website. “People are very curious about the paintings,” she says. “It’s very encouraging; it shows how much interest there is out there in original fine art.”
Though Annalise credits that chance encounter on Instagram with inspiring her unique format, it seems that destiny may also have played a role. “When I look back now, I realize I’ve always been drawn to miniatures,” says the artist, who once decorated her dollhouse with tiny original artwork. “I guess that’s where it all began.”