Plein Air Painting Hawaii - An Artist's travels to Hawaii - The Big Island

This Spring (2012) it was time to do plein air painting Hawaii. This is my 13th State in my Quest to Plein Air Paint in all 50 States.

Over the course of many years I have been to most of the Hawaiian islands – Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Hawaii, also known as The Big Island. Each has it’s own personality and unique character. My favorite island by far is The Big Island of Hawaii. It is the largest, most diverse and least impacted by development. Because of the large size of the island, the development of land into tourist resorts is least apparent. There are places where you can experience Hawaii as it has been in the past. A taste of Old Hawaii.

My companion on this trip was my husband, Dennis. We decided to spend most of our time on the western side of Hawaii in the Kona and Kohala Districts – this is the dry side of the island. The land here is dominated by dry ancient lava flows that came from the very active Kilauea Volcano.

We also spent 3 nights/days in the Hilo area on the eastern side of the island. This is very lush and wet with tropical rain falling most days. Wonderful tropical botanical gardens and amazing waterfalls are to be seen in this area. It is therefore a totally different experience than the western part of the Island.

A third, and even more unique environment exists in the middle of the island – high altitude volcanic peaks – Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at almost 14,000 ft. are sometimes covered in snow during the winter and are anything but warm. I was able to paint on the Saddle Road between these two volcanos on this trip, something I had wanted to do for quite some time. I would like to thank my cousin, Mary Smith and her husband David for being the catalyst to achieving this goal. Their 4 wheel drive Jeep was used to go up on Saddle Road. A 4 wheel drive vehicle is needed to go up to the top of the Mauna Kea peak and observatory. If planning to visit the Volcano National Park during your visit, be sure to take some warm clothing and a wind breaker.

What follows are my travel and painting stories – I hope you enjoy reading them and get inspired to visit the Islands soon. The people are wonderful and I never tire of visiting this State.

Kailua-Kona Beach Park

All over Hawaii you will see numerous beaches and parks with picnic areas. The locals and tourists alike use these beach parks extensively for BBQ parties and just hanging out with friends and family. This painting was done at a small beach park right next to the Kona Reef Condos where we stayed for 5 days. This was the view from our condo - I was able to take my plein air painting gear and set up and paint within a few yards of our patio or lanai (as it is called in Hawaii).

I had my bare feet in the warm sand - the temperature was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit and light Trade Winds were blowing from the ocean. The smell of coconut oil suntan lotion wafted up from the beach to compete with my oil paints. Lovely stuff! and what a great way to spend a March afternoon!

Since this was may first Hawaii painting, I took special note of the different greens, the way the moisture in the air and the southerly light affected all the other colors. The black lava extrusions on the beach area will be seen in other paintings I have done. Some of the beaches have black sand, not white. This little beach had a small amount of white coral sand - but underneath it all are the needle sharp claws of black lava. Watch out for those bare feet.

For a whole list of great plein air painting spots on the Big Island of Hawaii, click here.

Save On Airport Parking


This is an amazing plein air painting site "at the end of the road" on the most Northerly point of the Big Island of Hawaii. One of the visitors to my easel the day before, a young man called Steve, recommended this spot – he said it would be “awesome” to paint there. And he was right.

On the Way to Pololu, we stopped in the small town of Hawi for lunch at The Bamboo Restaurant at noon – the place had been recommended by a couple of our friends in Kailua. It is a fun and funky place with excellent fusion cuisine. The service was efficient and we got in and out quickly and back on the road to the Pololu Valley Lookout which is about 6 miles further on a small road.

We parked on the ocean side of the cliff – about 600 ft or so above the ocean. The wind was fierce and view was worth braving the wind. I anchored my tripod down with my backpack and started painting. I was forced to paint with one hand holding my painting panel.

While I painted Dennis took a walk and then took shelter from the wind in the car – the patient guy!

After finishing my painting session I took a hike half way down the very steep trail to the black sand beach below. I wanted to check out the possibilities for painting halfway down – and I did find a larger, flatter area that would be OK as a painting spot. It gave a wonderful view of layers of cliffs going towards the Waipoo Valley. This spot was also protected from the wind, an added bonus!

Mauna Kea State Park at 8000 ft. and The Saddle Road

We were ready at 9am for my cousin Mary Smith and her husband David, to pick us up at our Kona Reef condo on Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona. They live in Kailua and are avid hikers. Mary is also a plein air painter. They have a 4 wheel drive Jeep which was the vehicle of choice for our adventure of the day on Saddle Road – State Route 200. We stopped at a Subway on our way out of town and got sandwiches for our picnic lunch up on the volcano.

The U.S. Army has a tank training area down the road from the Mauna Kea State Park (at 8000 altitude) where Mary and I unloaded our plein air painting gear. We heard the sounds of tank artillery shells being lobbed and exploding in the distance – very surreal. David and Dennis left us at the park and proceeded up to the peak of Mauna Kea – 13,796 ft. above sea level. There was snow up there.

Initially it felt like being dropped off on the surface of the moon – barren black lava flows with cones of ash and pumice all around. A clump of dead trees in the foreground. Clouds scudded over the peaks and we couldn’t see much at first. We set up our gear but were very challenged by the cold and wind. We were able to paint for about barely an hour before being forced to quit due to gusts of hurricane like wind that tossed our gear around. My paint brush was not under my control as the wind blew it around on my panel. At this point in the painting process I had enough information, plus what was in my mind, to enable me to finish the painting later on in the day in a more tranquil setting.

While we waited for our guys to return from their 4 wheeling adventure on Mauna Kea peak we watched Mauna Loa peak reveal herself as clouds draped themselves artfully around her snow streaked flanks. Mary did Zumba moves to keep warm!

The infamous Saddle Road is now newly paved most of the way with the exception of side roads and the road up to the Mauna Kea Observatory which still requires 4 wheel drive and is very steep. It can be 80F on the coast but up on the volcano anything goes, so come prepared with warm cloths and a wind breaker if you venture up there.

Kona Coast Sunrise - and Cruise Ship Day

Our condo was about a mile away from the center of activity in Kailua-Kona - The King Kamehameha Hotel and the pier area – which is the starting point for the swim for the world famous Ironman Triathalon, and a mecca for the Disciples of Ironman (as I call them) – the rock hard bodies of the hordes of triathletes who gather each morning to swim the 1 mile course out and back in the warm Hawaiian waters of the Pacific. We would see them later riding their bikes on the road through the lava fields, fighting the wind and heat in their quest for training glory. I used to be a triathlete many years ago but have now come to my senses. I’d rather spend hours painting than sitting in the saddle riding my bike.

This morning I got up extra early to be ready to paint the sunrise coming over the volcano from the east. Parking is almost impossible to find in this area but because of the early hour, I got lucky and found a spot right opposite the pier - $5.00 for 2 hours – that should be enough time to get a quick sunrise painting done.

As I carried my gear onto the pier I found out that every Wednesday is Cruise Ship day – and sure enough, a large cruise ship was anchored off shore with little boats full of eager cruisers swarming ashore for their shore excursions. They were disembarking at the pier and then going off in many different directions by bus, car or smaller boats.

I set up my plein air painting equipment as far away as possible on the end of the pier. This scene would make a different sort of Hawaiian painting because of the backlit mountain and soft greys. The town of Kailua-Kona was still in shadow as the sun slowly rose over the high peak of the volcano. In order to have a chance to see the volcano, I needed to be there early – before the Vog (Volcano Fog) got going and shrouded the whole mountain in cloud. The Vog usually stays put all day.

As I painted, the outrigger canoes came and went with their morning paddlers enjoying the sunrise and cool air. Cruise ship passengers mostly left me alone at the end of the pier – thankfully! I had a wonderful time painting, no wind, no heat and no easel visitors.

Later, back at our condo, I went for a dip in the ocean before having breakfast and a big cup of that wonderful Kona coffee. The grounds of coffee remind me of ground up black lava - Divine!

In the evening we met our friends, Curt and Jeanie Russell at their beautiful place before going out for dinner together at Sam Choy’s Restaurant. Amazing views and open to the elements – excellent fusion cuisine – I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Kona area. Another fabulous day in Paradise.

Hilo – On the Rainy Side of the Island of Hawaii

Hilo is more like a rain forest with botanical gardens, waterfalls and lots of precipitation most days. After 6 days of 80F and sunshine all day on the Kona (western) side of the island, we were ready for a change.

We stayed at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel on Banyon Drive – right on the ocean and next to lovely Japanese style gardens. The banyon trees and Monkey Pod trees in this park are fabulous specimens of their type.

Our first full day in Hilo was mostly rainy – sometimes it came down in impressive quantities. I went for a short run around Coconut Island and the Japanese Gardens – I ran in the rain and enjoyed the tropical warmth – it’s only water after all.

We went into downtown Hilo and found a large and thriving Farmers Market in process. Papayas – 3 for $1.00 – bunches of tiny, sweet bananas – 1 bunch for $1.00. We bought a bunch of the bananas to have in our hotel room.

Later that afternoon I discovered an area south of the hotel with many small beach parks and what looked like fish pond areas. The sand in this whole area is a blue/black color from the lava. It was actually sunny in this one spot so I decided to take advantage of the brief break in the clouds to do a quick painting.

I set up my gear near a BBQ area. A group of young Hawaiian locals were playing loud Reggie music from their Toyota pickup truck. I started painting and was rocking to the music. Then my neighbors lit up their ganja weed and the smoke blew in my direction. I was forced to “inhale” – that stuff was strong! As I got to the end of my painting process, the tide came in, the wind picked up and the rain began. That little hole of blue sky was now gone. Time to go back to the hotel down the road and have a nap.

Akaka Falls and the Tropical Botanical Gardens

Our second full day in the Hilo area led us to Akaka Falls State Park – about 10 miles from Hilo on a side road. I was determined to do one more Hawaii painting there even though it rained on and off again most of the day.

The falls can be glimpsed from the parking lot but in order to get up close you need to hike in about a mile on a paved trail. Some places have many wooden steps. I wore my large sun hat which doubled as an umbrella in the rain. Upon arriving at the viewing platform of Akaka Falls, I discovered that there is a covered shelter! Praise be! So I could paint in the rain after all. This painting was done in between downpours under the shelter!

The Falls themselves are spectacular at 420 ft. high – most of the lower part of the Falls were hidden in a spray of water and mist and not visible on that particular day. The combination of the black lava that the torrent flows over, plus an interesting streak of yellow water in the middle of the cascade made this really fun to paint – lashing out with all that white paint and having fun with the opposite ends of the Value Scale! I was having so much enjoyment from the process I hardly noticed the rain.

Having painted the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone in Wyoming and Burney Falls in California made this, my third big waterfall painting, easier. Paint and repeat. Practice does help.

Back to the Real World

After our sojourn in Hilo we drove back to the sunny Kona region via the road to Volcano, past the Volcano National Park (obscured by clouds and Vog that day) and then south, around the bottom of the island and up north again towards Kona.

We stayed 2 nights with my cousin Mary and her husband David at their lovely condo near the ocean before flying home to California. We visited the Place of Refuge and various interesting spots in the coffee growing region of Kona.

David invited me to go out paddling at 6.30am one morning with the Outrigger Canoe Club that he belongs to down the road from their place. I was in a 12 person double hulled canoe and quickly got the hang of the paddling sequence – 15 strokes on one side and the – HO! – switch sides. Watched the sun rise from the ocean – wow! What a great experience. If I lived there I would join the Canoe Club and come out paddling often.

Thank you Hawaii for a wonderful trip and the 6 plein air paintings I got to do while visiting your beautiful islands. I will be back one day soon. Thank you site visitors for reading this travelog. Keep traveling and keep plein air painting. Life is beautiful.

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