Matt Smith | Desert Vistas

By Dan Crouch and Patti Hutinger

Saguaro and Granite, oil, 10 x 12.,painting, Southwest Art
Saguaro and Granite, oil, 10 x 12.

Five hundred years ago in the Arizona desert that is now metropolitan Phoenix, the Hohokam people built more than 200 miles of irrigation channels, then vanished. Today their desert, too, is vanishing, swallowed by miles of pavement and gated residential communities. The magnificent beauty of the remaining desert, however, with its oddly shaped land formations and varied plant life, is being preserved on canvas by longtime Arizonan and plein-air painter Matt Smith.

From his studio window, Smith looks out on a patch of desert, a giant saguaro cactus, and huge boulders. But the landscape often draws him out of his studio. A frequent message on his answering machine is, “I’m out painting this afternoon.” Smith places great importance on working on location. “What I feel outdoors is as important as what I see,” he says. “My paintings are more than just a re-creation of a particular view. I try to imbue them with the feel of the wind, the sounds of wildlife, and the smell of the fresh air.” The result is a painting that depicts not only a scene but also time and mood, an accomplishment rarely achieved in a studio working from photographs, Smith says.

Bulldog Saguaro, oil, 24 x 18.,painting, Southwest Art
Bulldog Saguaro, oil, 24 x 18.

Plein-air painting became popular in France and Italy as early as 1775 and is currently experiencing a renaissance in this country. Painting on-location is intended to render the effects of atmosphere and light as observed in nature.

Out in the field, Smith carries a metal photographer’s case packed with tubes of paint and brushes as well as prepared canvases, an umbrella, and a French easel. Before he sets up, he decides on a view that inspires him. Sometimes he selects as his subject a close-up composition of the intriguing patterns of cactus and rocks, while other times he chooses a panoramic expanse of space.

Positioning his easel, canvas, paint, and palette in the shade provided by nature or his umbrella helps Smith preserve accurate color in his paintings. He selects a small, oil-primed linen canvas glued to birch plywood and does several thumbnail sketches to decide on the placement of major elements.

Establishing the placement of big shapes, not small details, is crucial to Smith’s approach. He first blocks in thin, transparent, dark shapes and then defines his subject with subsequent layers of paint. He lays in the sky with thick paint, carefully matching the values of the colors. Smith believes that detailed drawing is secondary in landscape painting.

Divide Creek Winter, oil, 10 x 12.,painting, Southwest Art
Divide Creek Winter, oil, 10 x 12.

In addition to brushes, Smith uses a palette knife to apply paint and define distinct edges, particularly in the foreground, while he uses his finger to soften distant edges. He establishes highlights by varying the pressure on the blade of a paint-loaded palette knife or the tip of a brush handle. This allows the raw white surface of the canvas to show through, exposed by twisting, uneven lines and short strokes obtained from the knife’s edge.

Smith received his BFA from Arizona State University, Tempe, in 1985 after attending Northern Arizona University and Phoenix Community College. He describes his education as “a search for art departments with accomplished instructors and meaningful courses.” Unfortunately, the courses he found emphasized expression rather than fundamentals. “I wanted to focus on a traditional style of painting,” he says. “But my instructors were not supportive—one even told me that painting itself was obsolete.”

Mount Baker, oil, 14 x 20.,painting, Southwest Art
Mount Baker, oil, 14 x 20.

Smith’s disenchantment with academia and its emphasis on abstraction led him to study art in museums and enroll in workshops taught by other artists. “I gained most of my knowledge through intense study of past masters and frequent visits to museums and galleries,” he says. “I continue to be amazed by how much can be learned by studying great paintings.”

Smith took several week-long workshops with artists such as James Reynolds, Clyde Aspevig, Michael Lynch, and Skip Whit-comb. “I learned more in these few sessions than from all of my college art classes,” says Smith.

From Reynolds, for example, he learned how to create a strong design. Reynolds also introduced him to the works of historic painters such as Frank Tenney Johnson, Maynard Dixon, Edgar Payne, Carl Rungius, and William H. Dunton.

Matt Smith. southwest art.
Matt Smith.

Although Smith’s work is anchored in the Sonoran desert, he likes to paint a variety of landscapes. He moves from one region to another, traveling to the Grand Canyon, the Canadian and American Rockies, and, occasionally, the California coast. He sometimes joins a caravan of other artists, including Tim Shinabarger and Ralph Oberg. These plein-air painters follow the weather like migrant workers harvesting the fruits of the landscape on canvas.

For Smith, nothing matches the experience of painting on location. He likes the challenge of shifting sunlight, biting insects, freezing cold, and blasting heat. Nevertheless, he has recently started working on large-scale paintings in his studio. The larger paintings are derived from his field studies and retain the freshness of working outdoors. While Smith would rather finish a painting in the field, scale, time, and atmospheric conditions are sometimes prohibitive.

Among the Redwoods, oil, 24 x 20.,painting, Southwest Art
Among the Redwoods, oil, 24 x 20.

Whether painting outdoors or in his studio, Smith conveys the grandeur of the sky, mountains, and other vistas offered by nature. Even as developers scrape away the mesquite and palo verde to make room for more tile-roofed homes, Smith stands poised at his easel, tuning out the development and listening to the harmonies of the land.

Photos courtesy the artist and Trailside Americana Fine Art Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Simpson-Gallagher Gallery, Cody, WY; DeMott Gallery, Vail, CO; and Turner Gallery, Denver, CO.

Featured in February 1998