Frank Huff | Capturing the Real

By Corinne Brown

Plein-air painters are a special breed, capable of staying focused while enduring the whims of wind and weather and changing light. That may be what sets them apart from their peers as they create their own interpretation of a scene. Frank Ray Huff is such an artist, a plein-air painter whose selection of artistic elements transforms a mere likeness into fine art. His diverse worlds on canvas transcend any given moment in time or space.

Huff makes his home in St. George, UT, a burgeoning community in the southwestern corner of the state, just 45 minutes from Zion National Park. Here the drama of red cliffs and orange desert provide sharp contrast to the endless cobalt skies. “I chose this area because of the natural beauty,” explains Huff. “And because the weather is warm and constant, I can start a painting one day and usually go out and paint on it again the next. In Salt Lake City, where I grew up, the weather changed frequently, and storm clouds often blocked out the light.”

Tireless in his pursuit of his next subject, Huff has dedicated himself full time to his art, a passion that has taken him across the western United States and to other countries and continents. “I absolutely love travel,” says Huff. “I’ve painted in Egypt, Scotland, and France, where I had a one-man show at the American Embassy in Paris. But my favorite place is Carmel, California, especially Point Lobos, one of the greatest places to paint anywhere. The Southwest, of course, provides endless subjects to paint. In August of 2007, I went on a 10-day river trip down the Grand Canyon and painted views that will be the heart of a one-man show at F. Weixler Gallery in Salt Lake City this fall.”

A self-proclaimed “contemporary realist,” Huff is firmly grounded in his field, having studied fine art at the University of Utah from 1977 to ’81 and again from ’87 to ’88. He studied under Utah artist and figure painter Paul Davis and was also fortunate to take the final class given by the legendary British portrait artist Alvin Gittins, who was teaching at the university then. But Huff believes his most significant mentor was painter Tony Smith. From Smith he learned invaluable lessons in observation as well as a lasting piece of advice. “He told me: ‘The world doesn’t need another pretty landscape,’” says Huff. He learned instead that what was needed was a personal statement, something unique that reflected what the artist wanted to express. Smith insisted that Huff find something exceptional in the subject, not what other people saw, but what was unique about the moment—what he saw.

In 1982, Huff married Jean Russell, an artist from Glasgow, Scotland. While on their honeymoon in Carmel, they stopped at Fireside Gallery, known for its stellar collection of award-winning artists. “During my conversation with owner Dorothy Bowman, I mentioned I was a fan of painter Donald Teague. She said that he lived nearby, and next thing I know, she’s arranged for us to meet,” Huff recalls. “It was a memorable encounter that changed my approach from that day onward. For one thing, Teague encouraged me to paint smaller—a simple change that enabled me to work faster and capture more while on location.”

Huff is adamant about painting outdoors, believing that it promotes creativity. “In my opinion, working from a photograph is limiting. Even though the physical restraints of wind and light outside are real, I have at least two to three hours of immersion in the space. That makes all the difference,” he says. “When beginning a painting, I usually start with whatever is going to change fastest, especially clouds.”

Comfortable painting with oil, watercolor, and acrylic, Huff’s subject matter is as diverse as his media. His landscapes seem to have a deep, three-dimensional reality all their own, often with vast and sweeping viewpoints. His cityscapes are snapshots of a time and place—places that in many cases no longer exist. “To me, the urban landscape is our world, too. It’s as significant as a mountain scene, just more ephemeral,” he observes. “In a way, I’m almost a photojournalist, a documentarian, considering that many of the places I painted 10 years ago in small towns throughout the West simply aren’t there anymore. The architecture, the signs, the neon they’ve completely changed.”

Huff’s urban paintings show parking lots, stores, signs, traffic intersections, sidewalks—a collection of everyday views that, with his brush, take on new meaning. On his canvas, the everyday is forever transformed through strength and simplicity of composition. There’s usually no obvious human element in his cityscapes, except the visible evidence of man’s imprint on the land—pavement, buildings, billboards, and such. Figures, if included at all, are rarely dominant, simply evidence of humanity as a part of the greater world.

“What draws me to set my easel down is a sudden clarity I get about a place, or a feeling that just comes over me,” says the artist. “When that happens, I know it’s something I have to paint. It might be an abstract pattern, the emotional impact of a certain color, or the rich combination of several colors together. What I’m really fascinated by are color harmonies.”

Huff lays down his dark colors first. “Intuitively, that’s just what works best for me,” he notes. He’s not sure how he started painting that way, but he researched other artists’ approaches and found that master painters such as Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and Winslow Homer also started their compositions by laying down the darks. “Once that’s done, I build richness through a series of glazes,” he says.

“I especially like the drama of bold shapes and the contrast between light and shade. These speak to me,” continues Huff. “In fact, my indirect goal is to find the abstract patterns that connect into abstract form. My instincts are to look for intersections, and like Frank Stella or Richard Diebenkorn, I often start a series based on pattern and color.”

In 2002, Huff was included in a retrospective of 150 years of Utah art that was put together for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The Springville Museum of Art in Springville, UT, named him as one of the most influential 100 artists in Utah. And he was commissioned by Zions Bank to create a series based on the most inspiring sites in Utah, no small feat in a state that abounds with scenic beauty.

In addition to his art and his family—he and his wife have five children—Huff is passionate about golf. He went to college on a golf scholarship. He still plays and has been known to shoot par. And, of course, golf keeps him in his beloved outdoors, no doubt scanning the scenery for his next painting.

Should the curious collector have occasion to visit Huff in his studio, a cavernous space in a reconstructed log house, he or she should be prepared for a palpable intensity behind the artist’s boyish exuberance. All around him, his various paintings fill the walls with color. He carries large canvases, many of them measuring up to 4 by 5 feet, to and fro with the energy of an athlete, as if painting were a physical sport as well as an art that requires mental concentration and focus.
It seems significant that Maynard Dixon, the great mythic painter of the West, once lived and worked nearby. Dixon’s compelling renderings of desert landscapes, in all their dramatic simplicity, paved the way for other artists willing to explore how to capture earth and sky and rock on canvas. Frank Ray Huff is no stranger to the call. He is furthering a tradition of boldly painting the world as he sees it.

He is represented by F. Weixler Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT; David Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT; Mariposa Fine Art Gallery, St. George, UT;

His next show is at F. Weixler Gallery, October 16-November 30.

Featured in October 2008