Mitch Baird’s painterly works evoke sounds and smells as well as sights
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the January 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art January 2013 print edition, or download the Southwest Art January 2013 issue now…Or just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss an issue!
In the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, Mitch Baird stopped beside a crystal-clear river that demanded to be painted. “[The river] was coming out of one of the high alpine lakes, and my whole purpose became to show how transparent that water was,” he recalls. “And just upstream, there was a fallen pine lit by the sun, with its warm colors playing against the cool greens and blues.” He set up his portable easel and paint box, capturing a quick plein-air oil sketch. That sketch, along with photos he took, became the basis for a studio oil he titled BEARTOOTH RIVER.
The finished 24-by-30-inch work possesses remarkable presence, as if the viewer is seeing the scene in real life. So strong is its visual impact, in fact, that other senses beyond sight may be stimulated: the music of gently flowing water, the heady scent of evergreens. Even those who don’t experience such aesthetic synesthesia may still be taken in by the remarkable dimensionality Baird conjures, extending from the dark recesses of the woodlands to the crystalline clarity and depth of the water.
Yet, as the artist hastens to explain, he achieved such convincingly realistic results by consciously stepping away from the reality he perceived. “When I’m out there observing,” he says, “I’m trying to see [my subject] the way the optics of my eyes see. I’m just painting shapes and colors and values, not rocks or water. If I paint it right, though, things just fall into place, and it almost looks more realistic than if I tried painting it the way my mind was telling me it looked. Sometimes, when I step away from the canvas, it even surprises me.”
Baird has been conjuring such artistic surprises for most of his 41 years. Some of his earliest memories involve drawing the vistas he saw during the weekend drives on which his dad liked to take the family. They would venture into the mountains not far from their homes, first in Utah, then Colorado, and later Washington. “When I was in first grade,” he recalls, “my teachers approached my mom and told her, ‘This kid has an innate ability. We’ve never seen anyone draw perspective so well at his age.’”
By third grade, in Littleton, CO, his mother enrolled him in a private weekend painting class for children. “But that only lasted a week or two,” Baird says with a chuckle. “The next week, the teacher moved me into the adult class.” His paintings soon began to win awards at school and in citywide competitions.
Adolescence put his avid extracurricular artistic pursuits on hold for a while. “At that age, I’d rather be out doing something physical and active,” he says, recalling his passions for skateboarding and competitive ski racing. But in school, he continued to draw and paint. “I was going to be an illustrator,” he recalls of his clear career path. “That would be my way to make a living as an artist.”
After high school graduation, Baird entered Brigham Young University’s design department to specialize in illustration. “They were much more geared to realistic painting and drawing [than the art department],” says Baird. “I even knew students who came over to study illustration because they wanted to pursue traditional realist painting.”
Baird considers himself fortunate to have soon been welcomed under the mentorship of Ralph Barksdale, who taught figure drawing at BYU and saw talent in the young undergrad. “I always thought that to paint traditionally, I’d have to be an illustrator. But he told me that there was a whole other market out there for representational fine art, and he would help me pursue my love of painting. I was always in his office, picking his brain. He taught me to see form, understand line, repetition, and rhythm, and find abstract designs within the realist subjects I was viewing. It was a whole new world to me.”
After graduating in 1997 with a bachelor of fine arts, Baird first supported himself as an illustrator, creating background animation for an educational software company based in Salt Lake City. But the allure of life as a painter eventually grew too strong to resist. In September of 2001, Baird gave his two weeks’ notice and moved to Oregon with his wife, Emily, to begin pursuing a solo fine-art career. He devoted months of painting to assemble a worthy portfolio. And the leap of faith paid off. “The first gallery I approached, going in cold, took me right on the spot,” he says. (Though that gallery has since closed, its director, Kevin Weaver, still sells Baird’s works as director of Art on the Boulevard, a gallery in Vancouver, WA.)
From that first success, Baird’s career steadily grew as he gained still more gallery representation and his works won recognition in regional and national exhibitions. A year ago, seeking an even wider audience, Baird and his family—now including two young children—moved to Mesa, AZ, just east of Phoenix. No offense intended to his old base, he says, but “art in Oregon is very regional, and it was time to make a move into a stronger market.”
Despite the move, he’s still following the same creative process that has brought him considerable success so far. As much as possible, he’ll start and end the daylight hours plein-air painting—though such outdoor excursions are limited during the intense heat of Arizona’s summers. Whatever area he goes to, he’ll first scout for the most interesting vantage point and watch the light for the best-illuminated moment. “If there’s something that moves me, whether the quality of light, the shapes and patterns, or the design, I’ll then take some photos and do a plein-air sketch that usually takes a couple of hours.”
Baird doesn’t, however, view the results of such open-air sessions as ends in themselves. “I’m just out there to get notes and really try to grasp what I’m seeing. That takes the pressure off me. If I get back and see it’s a good, frameable piece, then I’ll sell it. But usually it’s not, and I’ll re-evaluate it and prepare a larger canvas, using the color sketch and the photos for reference.” That larger work, executed in his 16-by-16-foot backyard studio, may take, by his estimate, anywhere from six hours to two or three days, depending on its size and complexity.
Each piece, of course, presents him with its own unique challenges and satisfactions. SKETCHING IN THE BOATYARD—a work begun on a plein-air visit with artist friend Eric Jacobsen to a Columbia River boatyard on the Oregon- Washington border—found its inspiration in the shadow of his fellow painter. “The light was casting this great abstract figure on the ground,” he says. So Baird proceeded to fill the lower half of the canvas with rough brush strokes of grays and tans, slate blues, and whites, creating “a rough textural pattern that was really scrubby and unrefined”—and that, by contrast, makes his renderings of the boats and the woodland behind them seem all the more vividly realistic.
Two other paintings, inspired during a five-week trip to Europe he and Emily took a few years ago, demonstrate other types of creative tests Baird relishes. Two figures walking through the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris excited his desire to capture, in the painting PARISIAN CONVERSATION, a sense of fleeting action juxtaposed with the solidity and stillness of a monumental marble statue. “I wanted to capture the quality of movement, so I didn’t want the man’s or woman’s legs to look crisp and sharp.” Light and values motivated him to paint WET CLAY, a scene he came upon in a potter’s workshop in a small Tuscan town. “What captured me, besides his beautiful craftsman’s touch,” Baird recalls, “was the warm sunlight coming in from the windows to his left, combined with cool, blue-green fluorescent light from the right side. And the whole studio was covered in a grayish clay-colored dust, which made it a very tonal painting.”
Summing up the fulfillment he feels from clearing such creative hurdles, Baird explains that he sees his long-term artistic quest as one of “exploring and changing my approach as a painter and the look of my paintings. I want to push my work in a more abstract direction, to place shape and design much more in the forefront while keeping it realistic.” Describing the style he strives for as “abstracted, impressionistic representation,” he aims “to make the design quality as strong as possible [in each painting], while keeping the work realistic. I want it to have feeling and punch. It’s got to look painted, with brush strokes and textures.”
Ultimately, his goal is to create paintings that “stand out and look different than others,” he says, so that he has his own voice as an artist. “I want to make sure my work sings my own song—and people recognize it.”
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