En Plein Air: A Conversation With Matt Smith

En Plein Air: A Conversation With Matt Smith

by Allison Malafronte

Every month I allow you to come into my cube for a few minutes and “listen in” on a conversation I had with a top plein air painter. I try to ask the artist the questions I think you as aspiring professional plein air painters or serious amateurs would want answered, and I am always excited to share the interesting, inspiring responses these talented artists offer.

This month I’m very excited to share the conversation Matt Smith and I had on his painting style, his success as an artist, and where he sees his career headed in the future. In addition to covering the topics we all need to learn about in order to improve—technique, training, and advice on the business of art—I also enjoy asking our Featured Plein Air Artist some off-the-beaten-path questions that allow us to get a glimpse into the his or her personality.

Matt Smith offered thoughtful, articulate responses to both types of questions, and his experience and advice can benefit plein air painters of all levels. If there is a specific question you have for Matt that you would like me to pass on to him, please let me know, and I will post his responses here. In this way, we can all be a part of the continuing conversation that propels us forward in our plein air pursuits!

Lower Falls on the Yellowstone
by Matt Smith, oil, 12 x 12.


Allison Malafronte: What is it about plein air painting that has kept you inspired throughout your career?

Matt Smith: The merging of two of my main interests: Painting and spending time outdoors. The process of painting the landscape while experiencing it in a variety of locations, seasons, and weather conditions never ceases to challenge me as an artist.

AM: You lived in Arizona most of your life and say that you have a particular penchant for painting the warm, dry light and colors of the Sonoran desert, but you are also known for the crisp, clairvoyant mood and atmosphere of some of your Colorado and California subjects. Does your approach stay the same for these varied landscapes?

MS: My interest in painting the Sonoran desert comes from my connection to this landscape. I grew up here, and have spent countless hours roaming and studying the desert, which stimulated these interests. However, I also enjoy traveling and experiencing different locations, and I think that is fundamentally important to the growth and freshness of any landscape artists work. Even though the different locations can be quite varied, my approach to painting remains the same. My palette and process do no change with location.

AM: You are a regular instructor at important art schools/organizations around the country, including the Scottsdale Artists’ School, the Fechin School, and the Fredericksburg Artists’ School. Can you give us a brief summary of the tenets/topics you focus on in your workshops?

MS: My main focus when teaching any workshop is on the fundamentals. When I run into a problem while painting, I can usually trace it back to a lack of attention with one of the basics—drawing, values, design, and color—so its only natural that I concentrate on this when teaching. I also emphasize the importance of working from life and developing a personal vision and technique.

Hidden Jewel–Sonoran Pincussion
by Matt Smith, oil, 11 x 14.

AM: In almost every landscape-painting workshop I’ve attended or discussion on plein air painting I’ve participated in, you are often referred to as an artist who has really achieved an understanding of light in the landscape. Where did this proficiency come from/what advice do you give your students on this subject?

MS: While growing up in Arizona, Ive had the opportunity to study the effects of particularly intense sunlight on the desert landscape. This has been a great learning experience for me in understanding natural light. For instance, I have found when trying to capture the effects of intense sunlight, its often times more important to focus on whats happening in the shadows than in the highlights. The stronger the light source, the more reflected light you will see in the shadows, so its important for students to capture that effect.

AM: Have you studied the science of light in the landscape? Do you think it’s important for artists to understand why things appear they way they do in nature?

MS: Yes, but I never felt it to be a contributing factor in my understanding of light. Id much rather spend two hours in the field observing the effects of light first-hand than 20 hours reading about the science of it. However, each artist is different, so if one feels studying the science of light contributes to growth, then he or she should pursue that interest. As an artist, I focus more on the expressive rather than scientific aspects of my subjects.

AM: You were one of the featured artists in the recent PBS series “Plein Air: Painting the American Landscape.” {Click here for article: https://www.artistsnetwork.com/blogs/pleinair/archive/2008/10/29/en-plein-air-painting-the-american-landscape.aspx#2227 } When you participate in projects of this nature that are receiving national recognition and response, does it make you feel that the plein air movement is in the middle of a bit of a renaissance?
MS: I do think plein air painting has seen a resurgence of interest over the last 10 years. Overall, this has had a positive influence on painting, but to some degree I believe its also become a caricature of what its supposed to be. Im referring to the popularity of plein air competitions and certain individuals belief that the only valid painting is one that was painted en plein air. Remember, no matter what subject you paint its mandatory that you work from direct observation and for landscape this means taking it outdoors.

Peralta Creek
by Matt Smith, oil, 9 x 12.

AM: Of the several master-artist shows and exhibitions you participate in, which has been the most beneficial to you in your career and as painter?
MS: The Masters of the American West at the Autry Museum, in Los Angeles, and the Prix de West at the National Cowboy Western Heritage Museum, in Oklahoma City, are the two that have had the most positive effects on my work. The opportunity to show alongside many of the countrys most recognized artists while meeting literally hundreds of prominent collectors has forced me to really focus on the overall quality of my painting. Participating in shows of this caliber will by itself add credibility to any artists work.

AM: Regarding the business of art, what is your advice to painters on getting into galleries/exhibitions/publications they respect and admire?

MS: First and foremost, an artist must focus on and produce the absolute best work possible. Once the art is finished, the business of promoting and selling it begins. This often requires more time and effort than one thinks, and most artists tend to avoid it. The cliché of artists being closeted individuals working in dark studios didnt come about by accident. When first starting out, its important to do whatever is necessary to get your name and work out so people can see it. This includes establishing a website, networking, attending workshops, joining membership organizations, and submitting portfolios to shows, galleries, and publications. Regarding galleries and shows, there is a belief that being a big fish in a small pond is better than the opposite. But being surrounded by prominent artists is more stimulating than being surrounded by lesser artists. This why we all want to be in the most recognized galleries and shows.

AM: Who are some of your landscape-painting heros from the past? Whose landscape work/style to you admire among today’s plein air painters?

Lemhi Peaks
by Matt Smith, oil, 11 x 14.

MS: I think it is critically important to be influenced by as many artists as possible, both deceased and contemporary. Numerous influences will contribute to a more personal style. There seems to be an emphasis by many younger artists to imitate stylistically a particular artists work. The problem with this is that such a painter will often become a second-rate version of the artist they are imitating. When one is influenced by a variety of artists, there is a tendency to pull the most interesting aspects from that variety of work, and then apply it to his or her own work. Many have influenced my work over the years. Deceased artists include William Herbert Dunton, Edgar Payne, Maynard Dixon, Ogden Pleissner, Carl Rungius, and Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert. Contemporary influences include James Reynolds, Clyde Aspevig, Len Chmiel, Michael Lynch, Skip Whitcomb, and T. Allen Lawson. Remember, these are but a few of those who have influenced my work over the years.

AM: Where do you see yourself as a landscape painter 10 years from now? Is where you are today as an artist where you imagined you’d be 10 years ago?

MS: I’ll probably be out painting the landscape in some obscure location here in the Western U.S. All fun aside, my primary goal is to continue improving the overall quality of my work. Ive learned over the years to stop comparing my work to that of others, because it creates a competitive atmosphere that is destructive to the art spirit. This means I will always compare my work to where I was yesterday, last month, or last year. This presents a true measure as to whether or not I am improving as an artist. Ten years ago I thought by now Id be giving Anders Zorn a run for his money but that didnt work out. Instead it turns out Im just a little better than I was 10 years ago, so Ill just continue the journey of focusing on improvement.

Watch the video: Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs. Opening night interview at the Old Vic with Andrew Scott (July 2021).