Hiking, Painting, Plein Air

Recently, the Gainesville Fine Arts Association call for artwork for an “Earth” theme encouraged me to paint three inspirational mountain views with acrylics and two using a palette knife.

Mt. Hood view from Palmer Glacier

I admired and painted the view of Mt. Hood both from downtown Portland and from lavender fields during the Willamette Valley Lavender Festival last July. From those distant views, Mt. Hood looks majestic with a smooth, snow-covered peak.

But I had a much different view and painting experience of Mt. Hood when I visited Timberline Lodge, at the base of Mt. Hood.

I hiked a mile up in the clouds from the Timberline Lodge to the edge of the Palmer Glacier. The hike was steep, going from 5,960 feet to more than 7,000 feet within the mile. At 7,000 feet, the other people who were at the glacier had ridden the ski lift, soaring above the tree tops. What is called the Magic Mile.

As I sat on the sharp lava rocks on the mountainside, I sketched my view of Mt. Hood as the clouds parted.  From this vantage point, I saw a different view of Mt. Hood. The top of the mountain was craggy. Sections of the mountain were snow covered but large sections were jagged brown and gray rock, reminders that Mt. Hood is a volcano.

I had carried my Moleskine art book and watercolor pencils with me (as any avid urban sketcher might do). I had cut my watercolor pencils in half so they would fit into a small tin making them easier to carry on the hike. I used water from my water bottle to create the blend of Indian red, perelyne green, burnt umber, ultramarine blue and yellow ochre.

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I was there! I was sitting at the edge of Palmer Glacier painting Mt. Hood. Mind you, I was shivering and tired, but elated from the steep hike.

Palmer Glacier on Mt Hood
Palmer Glacier on Mt. Hood

Even with the clear July sun, the air was brisk by the glacier and a strong wind blew. I watched the clouds wrap around the mountain and then unfold quickly to reveal it again. I was incredibly cold. As I sketched, my hands were shaking – which helped form some of the craggy peaks in my painting.

Recently my paintings have been with acylics, and I’ve wanted to revisit that view of Mt. Hood with Palmer Glacier in the foreground. It was a delight to use the palette knife to catch the colors of the rocks, snow and cold.

Smokies mountaintop sunset

My second mountain painting was a sunset view from Cliff Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains Park.

Reaching this location involved hiking the Alum Cave Trail to Mt. Le Conte, about 5.5 miles, and then hiking the quarter-mile trail to Cliff Tops.

I was among the 20+ guests at the LeConte Lodge and hikers from the nearby shelter had gathered to watch the sunset, sitting on the rocky cliff top.

When I painted the view in plein air with my portable watercolors and moleskine (which I always carry with me), the challenge was the time limit. I could paint until the sun set and dark crept around. Even then the sky changed rapidly and the colors morphed quickly.

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I finished painting just as the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the glow in the clouds began to disappear.

Sunset at Cliff Tops
Sunset at Cliff Tops

By the time I enjoyed the last moments of the sunset and packed up my paints and artbook, the other sunset watchers were gone.

We had the mountaintop to ourselves.  Amid the swirling wind.

We used our headlamps to hike the rocky trail down to return to our cozy cabin at LeConte Lodge.

Now, I have revisited that memorable view and sunset  from Cliff Tops through painting with acrylics.


Montserrat mountains

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve painted the mountains of Montserrat with watercolors since I have seen them.  Or how many times I have painted moments from Barcelona after having been blessed to visit.

The very first time I painted the Montserrat mountains was in plein air, sitting on a stone bench, looking toward St. Michael’s cross.  And it was very very windy.

That was my first visit to Montserrat in 2017. We had spent our day visiting the Basilica, hiking the trails, and going on the tour of the museum. I had taken hundreds of photographs and recorded video of our trek to the cross, out on a cliff on a mountain.

It was the end of the day with an hour before the last cable car descended from Montserrat to the train station for the ride back to Barcelona.

Sketch of the mountains
Watercolor of Montserrat Mountains

I sat on the bench as the sun set, trying to capture the mountains and St. Michael’s cross, which was in the distance. I used my Lamy pen and my Moleskine art book. When I look at that drawing now, I can feel the cold wind and the coming nightfall.

At Montserrat
At Montserrat

Following the trip, I made numerous watercolor paintings of Montserrat, trying to capture the mountain views at different times of day and from different angles.

I had the opportunity for several watercolor plein air paintings of the Montserrat mountains during another trip to Montserrat in 2018 when we were able to spend the night at a hotel in the Basilica courtyard.

I painted from the hotel window, which had a wonderful view of the Basilica, the mountains and the Llobregat Valley.

Then there was the moment I sat beside the path leading to Sant Michael’s Cross.  The police patrol came by to see what I was doing — I wondered if I had violated some bylaw about sitting on the ground. But they asked questions in broken English about my painting and expressed delight with my work and one said she wished she would have time to paint.

Montserrat Sunrise
Acrylic painting of Montserrat Sunrise

My most memorable plein air painting was a watercolor I painted as the sun was rising and the cathedral bells were ringing – a most early hour painting.  I have since revisited that moment by painting the sunrise with acrylics during out “stay-at-home” orders during COVID-19.

One day we hiked to Sant Jeroni, the highest peak in the Montserrat Natural Park that surrounds the Basiclica. Such views! I didn’t have the time to stop to paint, but I did have time to take photographs of the unique views with the intention of painting when I had some time.

Once home, I have again painted the Montserrat mountains many times – both with watercolors and with acrylic paints. Although I had used brushes previously, for this submission to the GFAA gallery, I used only palette knives to create the texture and tones I so delighted in seeing firsthand.

Monstserrat Natural Park is filled with amazing rock formations. One of the iconic rock structures is referred to as the Elephant and another as the Mummy due to the rock shapes. I’d seen the rock formation from a distance from Sant Michael’s cross.

On the hike to Sant Jeroni, I saw the formation much closer and could see the small building that is a retreat for the monks of the abbey located at Montserrat. That was the view I chose to paint.

Four different palette knives with different shapes and sizes helped to capture the different shapes and dimensions of the mountains.

On day two of creating this painting in the studio, I was listening to one of my classical music playlists as I completed details and final touches to the mountains.

Acrylic Painting Montserrat
The Elephant, the Mummy and the Monk at Montserrat

With a final touch of the brush to painting, I said to myself, “I think the painting is done and I’m quite pleased with it. ”

Just as I was deciding where to sign the painting,  Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus began to play. Whoa!

The Joys of hiking and painting — Plein Air

I enjoyed both the challenge of hiking and the joy of painting each mountain scene: Montserrat Mountains, Mt. Hood, and the sunset from the mountaintop in the Smokies.

Each mountain has required preparation from me both as a hiker and as an artist. None of the hikes are for the faint hearted.  Working with acrylics is a significant change from understanding how to work with watercolors.

The planning needed to arrange for the hikes was noteworthy. The preparation needed to make each hike – from the fitness required to the hiking gear and the art materials to carry.

Visit the Gainesville Fine Art Gallery online. Enjoy the work you see there. And know that some of that artwork is far more than palette knife meeting paint!


  1. Thanks, Cheryl. If anyone would understand the beauty and majesty of Montserrat — you would. How many times have you been there now? And you did that incredible hike to the top. You were there at the very spot when we saw the closeup of the Elephant, the mummy and — what color was the monk’s robe? Or was it too far away and hard to tell?

    I often think, if it weren’t for you, I’d never have had the joy of being there… twice!! So glad all of us got to share that incredible experience.


  2. Loved reading this, Judy! I am so impressed with all of your work and growth. You truly captured the beauty and majesty of Montserrat.


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