Artist hikes in Sierra Nevada to paint landscapes firsthand
Clouds enshroud the peak of Mount Tallac as Charles Muench sets up his easel at the edge of Fallen Leaf Lake. After trekking through a light dusting of snow, the painter settles on a view of the iconic mountaintop from a beach with small waves lapping against the rocks.
“This is interesting,” he says while snapping a few shots on his camera. “The clouds up there. The shape of the trees.”
A Ruhenstroth resident, Muench is a self-described “American traditionalist” who finds inspiration painting outdoors in the Sierra Nevada and surrounding high plains desert.
He moved to the region in 2001 from San Jose to be closer to the panoramas that inspired his work.
Muench has been painting since he was 15 years old. At San Jose State University, he studied under Maynard D. Stewart — named for the famed American West painter and son of renowned Utah landscape painter LeConte Stewart.
“While taking college courses with him we’d get together on weekends so that’s when I started really painting outdoors,” said Meunch. “He influenced me to study nature, to see how the colors of nature are always harmonious.”
Over the last two decades, Muench has taken trips into the Sierra to paint, carrying his supplies by hand or with pack mules for longer treks. Sometimes he completes an entire painting, other times a color study that he will flesh out in the studio.
“I’m not so much looking as I’m listening. I let nature tell me,” he says, recounting the time a gnarly tree stump in Hope Valley beat out the sweeping meadow landscape he originally set out to paint.
Currently he completes around 40 paintings a year, which sell, depending on their size, anywhere from $1,000 to upward of $25,000.
While Mount Tallac begins to take shape on his canvas, Muench talks about his decision to move to the Sierra and its influence on his work. He paraphrases a quote by writer Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”
Meunch’s work has earned him dozens of awards over the years. Most recently his painting “Sierra Cathedral” was included in the California Art Club’s 106th Gold Medal Exhibition at the Autry Museum of the American West in Lost Angeles.
“The Sierra backcountry, with its Gothic shapes and spires, evokes similar emotions to those experienced in the presence of the great cathedrals of Europe,” says Meunch of the painting. “This rider with his pack mule, tired from the switch back trails of Kearsarge Pass, cannot help but feel truly humbled in the presence of this Sierra cathedral.”
In addition to mountainous landscapes and alpine lakes, Muench has drawn inspiration from the high desert of Northern Nevada in a series he calls “My Lonely Nevada.” He’s painted wild horses moving across sage-dotted plains, an old car on the side of The Loneliest Road in America (U.S. 50), winding dirt roads and Nevada ghost towns.
With a brush in hand and the clouds finally cleared from the peaks around Fallen Leaf Lake, Muench laments the fast-paced world we live in now.
“When a painter like Albert Bierstadt, a 19th century American painter, would unveil a painting, it was like a movie,” he says. “We would sit and the curtains would be drawn to reveal this big grand painting of Yosemite or Yellowstone. There would be ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ A big spectacle. We don’t live in that world anymore.”
Nevertheless, the romance of capturing the American West is still very much alive for Muench.
“I make no pretenses in striving for any type of national fame,” he says. “In my own little world, if I can make a living painting my passion and creating beautiful and thoughtful images, that might be enough.”
Back in his studio, Muench puts the finishing touches on the painting he created at Fallen Leaf Lake. He names it, aptly and simply, “Clouds Clearing – Mt. Tallac.”