Gary Ernest Smith | On a Large Scale

Smith made this preliminary charcoal drawing on location in rural Oregon. southwest art.
Smith made this preliminary charcoal drawing on location in rural Oregon.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

In the beginning there is a sprawling white canvas that stretches 10 feet across the north wall of Gary Ernest Smith’s sunny studio. While other artists might find such an enormous blank canvas daunting, the Utah painter says he relishes the creative task that lies ahead. “Any time I face a new challenge, I can hardly contain myself,” he says.

It is October 31, 2000, and Smith is standing before his tabula rasa contemplating the composition that will unfold in the months ahead. He plans to render a large-scale version of a wheat field he saw while driving through rural Oregon in August. “The field was a brilliant yellow on an unusually bright day. I stopped the car and got out to sketch it. I knew immediately I wanted to paint the scene,” he says. What attracted him to the landscape was its colors and textures—both will become key elements in the painting.

Smith gradually paints his way down the large-scale canvas. painting, southwest art.
Smith gradually paints his way down the large-scale canvas.

For three decades now Smith has rendered scenes of rural America—images of ranch hands, potato farmers, and pumpkin harvesters. The nostalgic works recall another era, a more agrarian economy. At times his paintings are also reminiscent of works by Depression-era artists Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. For Smith, years of art study and a rural background have combined to create a trademark style that blends realism with abstract design.

On this particular day, Smith’s 1,200-square-foot studio is sprinkled with 20 other smaller canvases, all works in progress. Smith will eventually ship most of them to Overland Gallery of Fine Art in Scottsdale, AZ, for a February show. But on this day the 6-foot-tall, 10-foot-long canvas has his undivided attention. Intuitively he decided that the bold and brilliant Oregon scene called for a large-scale canvas. Because of its size, he estimates the painting will take about three months to finish. His target date for completion: the first week in February 2001.

Mounds of paint sit on Smith s palette. southwest art.
Mounds of paint sit on Smith’s palette.

Smith starts as he usually does, alternately staring at the blank canvas and studying a charcoal drawing he made on location. Then he begins the painting, using burnt sienna paint to slash a horizon line nine inches down from the top of the canvas. He continues by laying in the initial design of the work. The process of establishing the mass, values, and shapes takes several days. If that process seems quick, he says, it’s because the work has already gestated in his mind for several months.

Once he finishes sketching in the design, Smith mixes the cadmium yellow and titanium white paint that he will use in the days ahead. He must anticipate the amount of paint he needs in advance, because the chances of duplicating the same color and value later are slim. The resulting mound of yellow paint stands 8 inches high on his palette, which is often so heavy and unwieldy that he has to rest it on a table near the canvas, Smith says. To store the paint when he is finished for the day, he covers the palette in plastic wrap.

The wheat field continues to take shape under Smith s painterly eye. southwest art.
The wheat field continues to take shape under Smith’s painterly eye.

After the initial burnt sienna design dries, Smith abandons his brush in favor of a 3-inch palette knife to complete the rest of the work. The knife is his main artistic tool; he has shaped it himself to be convex on one side and concave on the other. “I use the knife to apply color because the color never muddies with it. It also allows me to lay in broad areas and build texture quickly,” Smith says.

He applies the first splashes of yellow paint near the horizon line, and he will work from left to right, gradually moving down to the bottom of the canvas. Smith often brings other colors into the scene while the paint is still wet. He believes mixing the paint on canvas results in greater vibrancy than using pre-mixed paints. In this case he brings in a mixture of cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and burnt sienna to create the patterns he desires in the painting.

Smith poses with his completed painting. southwest art.
Smith poses with his completed painting.

His mission: to capture the harvested wheat field as he first experienced it—abstract patterns created by flattened ter-rain and standing stubble. “I want each area to have interesting shapes and colors so the eye has something to look at and rest on,” Smith says.

If a shape or line isn’t working, Smith corrects it by rubbing it out with turpentine. The process creates a thin wash underneath. New shapes or design patterns can unfold as a result, and that’s all part of the creative process, Smith says.

By December 18, before a holiday break, Smith has painted his way down three-fourths of the canvas. During the holidays he works on other paintings but returns to the large canvas periodically if he wants to make a change. “I like to walk by it. If something suddenly pops out, I pick up the knife and go to work,” he says. Throughout the three-month-long process, Smith works alternately on the large canvas and smaller ones.

A detail shot spotlights the texture and the all important artist s signature. painting, southwest art.
A detail shot spotlights the texture and the all-important artist’s signature.

A week after Christmas, we catch up with Smith as he is headed to Minneapolis, MN, for research and a meeting with his agent. He says the Oregon wheat field is on hold while he finishes up paintings due at Overland Gallery for his upcoming show.

Several weeks later Smith returns to the large-scale panoramic work and paints the remaining quarter of the field. He then adds a thin blue sky above the horizon line. “To the average person the painting looks finished. But I will now go back in and occasionally put in a dot of paint that will make a difference, and I will continue to work on the textures,” he says.

A small dab of white paint can add a spark of interest. An extra layer of thick paint with a glaze can add texture. Smith’s diluted wash, or glaze, consists of alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue in equal amounts. The glaze serves to unify the painting, Smith says. It settles in the recessed areas; he then uses a knife to scrape the glaze in multiple directions, forcing it down to lower areas of the surface. For the next two weeks Smith applies the finishing touches and continues to review the painting.

On February 8 he signs the work in the lower right-hand corner. After studying it, he decides to call it Sun-burned Stubble. “I don’t hunt for clever titles. I just want titles that describe the work,” he says. The project has taken three months, two large tubes of cadmium yellow, and five large tubes of titanium white. “I haven’t worked every day on the painting,” he says. “Large paintings evolve over time. It’s a process. I prefer that slow evolution because I get better paintings that way.”

There are many levels on which to appreciate Sun-burned Stubble, Smith says. On one level he hopes the work conveys a celebration of open space to the viewer. “But the painting takes on an even broader meaning if we contemplate that the earth is the mother of all living things, where all life comes from, and where we all return,” Smith says. “However, if someone wants to appreciate it as simply a beautiful landscape piece, that is fine with me.”

At press time, Smith was making plans to ship Sun-burned Stubble to Overland Gallery, where it would be on view in April. In August the painting travels to the Dubuque Museum of Art in Dubuque, IA, for inclusion in Fields, a one-man show of Smith’s works. Following the exhibit, Sunburned Stubble will likely move quietly into a collector’s living room. “A really big living room,” Smith adds.

Featured in June 2001