Plein air painting -
Landscape artist Charles Muench, painting a Sierra sunrise

Charles Muench explains why it’s worth it to deal with bugs, high elevation, wind, and weather while painting outdoors in the Sierra backcountry.

Listening to Nature en Plein Air

By Charles Muench

Why deal with the bugs, high elevation, wind, and weather trying to scratch out a painting in the Sierra backcountry? Why not simply fill some memory cards with digital photos and relax?

For me, the process of going to the source and painting from life is the only way I know how to achieve a sense of truth in my art. The process of creating paintings requires an understanding of basic principles and diligent practice. It also requires a sensitivity to hear the quiet murmurs and revelations of nature. When I paint outdoors, I liken the experience to having a conversation with nature. It is as if she throws out a topic and we discuss it on canvas. I am listening to the thoughts of nature and, almost subconsciously, heightening some aspects of our conversation while eliminating others.

Plein air painting -
Charles Muench, painting en plein air at an elevation of 10,000 feet

When painting at a high elevation such as the Sierra, it is important to pace yourself and take time. I usually do not paint on the first day of a pack trip. I do not rush to get as many small studies down as I can. In searching for paintings, grasping at the stream of experience will leave you with nothing but empty fists. Taking the time to use cupped hands to draw the water of true inspiration is the best method.

I walk around, look at the shapes and colors of the landscape, and ask myself, “What is it that I have to say about this place?” I note the time of day and angle of the sun and think, “When will the light express the inherent beauty of this scene. Is this a morning painting or an evening painting? Sunrise or sunset?”

When I set up to start my painting, I try not to concern myself with getting a finished painting (I always hope I do, however!). I strive for the basic foundational elements of painting (composition, value, color, etc.), but I do not treat the experience like it was a plein air competition. The goal is to learn about a place. The goal is to find something unique to say about a place. The goal is to paint, not necessarily finish.

If fatigue, weather, or the sheer challenge of painting at 10,000 feet overwhelms me, I try not to beat myself up. I take a break, put the unfinished study away, and remind myself how lucky I am to be up in the Sierra. If I become frustrated with a painting, I do not wipe it out. You will be surprised how much life and truth exists in what may appear to be a rough mess of paint.

If I am painting the transitory effects of sunrise, I prepare. I will spend a morning walking around at sunrise and watching the light. Later in the day, I will mass in the basic shapes of my subject. When I set up in the following morning’s pre-dawn, I will have the drawing already completed and can focus solely on placing pigment and studying the true color of sunrise.

During my Sierra painting trips I want to put pigment on canvas. I want to create studies that will inform future studio paintings. Simply put, I want to paint. But while painting these Gothic granite cathedrals, I am also listening to the spaces in between the brush and the canvas. I believe to create good paintings and develop as an artist it is essential that you listen to nature. The result of this dialog is a distillation of everything that is before you into a statement of heightened reality. Through a contemplative interaction with your subject, you create something that is truly independent of yourself and nature: Art.

Plein air painting -
Charles Muench, “High Sierra Afternoon,” oil on linen, 12 x 12 in.
Plein air painting -
Charles Muench, “Sierra Sunrise” study, oil on linen, 10 x 8 in.
Plein air painting -
Charles Muench, “Sierra Calm,” oil on linen, 12 x 12 in.

To learn more about Charles Muench, his upcoming shows, and art workshops, please visit

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