Latasha Dunston plein-air painting

Outside Lines

Photo: Latasha Dunston

Catching up with artist Latasha Dunston on using design and painting to promote diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.

If you shop for outdoor gear or follow outdoor organizations’ social media feeds—or ever happen to wander Colorado neighborhoods and hipster hotels—then you’ve likely seen Latasha Dunston’s lush, color-rich work. The 29-year-old artist has done everything from designing T-shirts and shoes for Merrell, to illustrating a book to painting large-scale murals. She counts The North Face, Otterbox, and Access Fund among her many clients. She’s an ambassador for Coalition Snow and a model for Title 9. Additionally, she teaches workshops on plein-air (outdoor) painting in the Denver area, where she is based and runs an online shop selling her original work. In short, Dunston is an artistic dynamo who’s turned her love of the outdoors and art into a booming career.

Becoming an outdoor industry artist wasn’t her original plan. While attending Virginia Commonwealth University, Dunston focused on scientific and medical illustration. But she burned out, “and didn’t make art for almost two years after I graduated,” she says. “I had lost a lot of my creativity.” When she and her partner moved to Denver from Virginia in 2017, though, she made it a mission to kickstart an artistic career in a more creative, naturalistic style. 

It all began when she dropped by a series of panel discussions at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in January 2018, in between shifts at the downtown restaurants where she worked at the time. Dunston ended up meeting several influential outdoor industry insiders, who began connecting her to artistic opportunities. Just a few weeks later, she won a scholarship to attend the Lodged Out creative retreat in Leavenworth, Washington—and she hasn’t slowed down since. “I have been working toward this specific lifestyle and career, truly, since preschool,” Dunston says. “It’s been my only goal.”

We caught up with Dunston to hear more about her design work, how she makes a living as an outdoor artist, and her many plans to expand her creativity this year.

 Latasha Dunston's designs for Merrell Photo: Merrell

On the importance of “just talking to people”

Upon moving to Denver, “One of the things I wrote down on my ‘things I need to do’ list was ‘leave my studio,’” Dunston says. “I told myself that I was going to go to events and art shows and try to network more. So I was just talking to everybody. At the end of every [Outdoor Retailer] panel, I’d go up and chat with the panelists, tell them I was an artist, do my elevator pitch.” 

That networking led directly to invitations to several creative retreats, a gig painting live murals at the next Outdoor Retailer show, and a job with outdoors-inspired hotel chain LOGE Camps. After making a presentation about mountain town entrepreneurship, Dunston happened to meet LOGE founder Johannes Ariens: “He said, ‘Hey, I love your work. I’m trying to open this little hotel in Breckenridge, Colorado, and I would love for you to do the artwork.’ I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ I had only one small mural under my belt as a solo artist, and he was asking me to put up two huge murals and make art that could go in the rooms. That project was what made me quit my last bartending job.”

On getting her start in plein-air painting

Up until 2018, Dunston had been a strictly studio artist. But on her Leavenworth retreat, she felt called to try painting outside. “I don’t know why I chose 14 feet of snow to do that,” she laughs. “It was just such a beautiful landscape. I ended up making this whole collection of paintings while I was out there that got such a positive response in social media. It was the first time I’d been asked to make prints of something—the first time I had actual demand. That’s such a pivotal point for any artist.”

On what led to her Outdoors for All collection for Merrell 

Dunston has been collaborating with Merrell since 2019, creating the brand’s Outdoors for All collection of T-shirts, socks, hats, tote bags, and more. The collection uses vibrant hues to emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. It all started with the brand’s Trail by Design contest, which asked artists to create a piece inspired by their love of the trail; fans then voted on the final designs.

“I designed my first Outdoors for All fist,” Dunston says: a raised fist with four different natural landscapes painted over it. She came in second place, but Merrell licensed her work anyway for a T-shirt and signed her on as a brand ambassador. “That campaign helped me get thousands of followers, a crazy amount of support from the online community, and a lot of visibility,” she says. “Since then, I’ve designed a new illustration with the original concept every summer.” 

Dunston also contributed to the Outdoors for All trail running shoe, a version of the Antora 2. “The shoe designer made a handful of mockups using my illustration, and I gave him feedback,” she says. “And I requested certain eco-friendly aspects of the shoe: The dye process is a waterless dip-dye process, and the sole is made of recycled materials.”

Latasha Dunston paints outside Photo: Latasha Dunston

On making a living as an artist

“When I’m in a really good, creative flow, my online store is a very profitable part of my business,” Dunston says. “But if I get too bogged down with commissioned work, I don’t have time to make my own work that could translate into merch for my shop. On average, my online store is maybe 40 percent [of my business], then there are murals, brand work, and personal commissions. Some seasons are for certain things. The colder seasons and the holidays, that’s a lot busier for influencer work. Summer: That’s mural season.”

On what’s ahead

“I’m getting into my second year of running a Patreon subscription-based art platform,” Dunston says. I’m beefing that up this year and excited to keep it going…I’m going to try to get a mural under my belt each month.” She’s also working to increase her local visibility, installing artwork at a Denver-area bakery and farm-to-table market. 

Beyond that, she’s looking forward to getting married. “And as an artist and a Leo who has control issues, I’m making a lot of my own stuff for my wedding,” she says. “Creating invitations and a lot of the décor.” Past the celebration, though, it’s back to creation with a renewed focus on her YouTube presence. Ultimately, though with the added demand for her unique work, Dunston is looking to “work smarter, not harder,” she says, “so I have more time to live my life.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.