Interview by Das Bork

Das Bork: To get started, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what got you started in plein air painting, or even painting in general.
Matt Smith: Sure. But itís also interesting to note that Iíve been pegged as a "plein air painter", because I mostly started out as a figure painter, and then transitioned into landscapes. But the whole plein air scene has gotten so popular that they seem to look for artists to cubbyhole as the ideal for plein air people. However, I have many painter friends that get out and paint outdoors all the time, but yet they are not necessarily looked at as being plein air painters. Iím a bit curious as to why certain artists get labeled as being plein air while others donít. But before I get into that, just briefly, I started painting when I was a kid. My mother was an art history major, so she dabbled in painting, and I had a great grandmother that also painted. It was something that was always around the house. So I started drawing and painting when I was a kid, and I got pretty serious about it when I was teenager; mostly figures, and I pursued that into college.
DB: Oh, really? I didnít know that.
MS: I did a lot of figurative work in school. I went to Arizona State and got a BFA in painting. I had a lot of problems there because it was an abstract-oriented program. But I knew that going in, so I canít blame them totally. I was always fighting that because I wanted that traditional foundation before I decided if I wanted to go into an abstract arena or not. But fighting with them was kind of fun.
Both: (laugh)
MS: I met an instructor at a Phoenix college named Merrill Mahaffey. Merrill was right on the edge of traditional, but he had an abstract angle to it, which was pretty interesting. So he was a part of my transition from figures into landscapes, because that was really where my heart was. I was a guy that loved to be outside all the time, so I started pursuing landscapes and getting out. I was painting outside all the time. I was getting the same advice from all these artists I admired, like Merrill, Clyde Aspevig, and James Reynolds. They were saying, "Matt, if you want to get serious about this and really understand your subjects, youíre going to have to get outside." Back then, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, plein air wasnít even being thrown about. It was just a bunch of guys saying, "You want to go outside and paint?"
Both: (laugh)
MS: So that is where the foundation came from, and it just stuck because I enjoyed it so much. Then around the mid-Nineties, the whole plein air movement became sort of a popular term among galleries and museums because, in a way, they wanted to cubbyhole artists. So that movement took off. And that was good for all of us landscape painters, because it brought attention to what we were doing.
DB: Why do you think it is so popular? Is it just because people are being educated on it?
MS: I think that is a big part of it. I think that people really enjoy being outdoors. Most people that play golf donít play because they want to be a professional golfer. They just enjoy being outside and doing that. Itís the same thing, I think, with landscape artists. They enjoy being outside and painting. Itís the best of both worlds. I think there is a certain amount of hype involved with it, too. There are environmental issues that are brought to attention to it. Itís also helped to showcase what is important if you're going to be a landscape painter, which is get outdoors and study your subject firsthand.
DB: Are the conservancy issues important to you?
MS: Sure. I mean, I moved to Arizona in 1963, and the growth in this valley has been absolutely phenomenal. Iím way out in the northeast of the state, right up against the forest services. I'm about as far out as I can get without having the landscape around me being eaten up by development. Now, I understand that growth and development is going to happen. Iím real enough to understand that. But itís how people develop the landscape. What's happening here in the valley is that you get a lot of people that come out here because they enjoy the weather. When they develop their homes, they just blade the landscape-- they scrape everything off-- and then they build homes and plant grass and water-drinking trees. Itís sad to see the desert changing, because it is such an extraordinarily beautiful environment and ecosystem. Itís relatively small compared to the big picture. So Iím seeing some development out here, especially in this area where I am. But thatís part of it, and youíll see a lot of these plein air events pop around environmental issues, like the Land Trust for Tennessee, or shows in California where portions of money from the shows go to preserve segments of land, or are donated to a certain environmental group. I think that's all fantastic!
DB: Definitely. I see a lot of galleries and shows supporting that.
MS: Sure. They go hand in hand, so why not.
DB: And Iím reminded of the history of landscape painting. In a way, thatís how they founded the National Park System.
MS: Exactly. I mean, look at Thomas Moran painting Yellowstone back before it was made into the National Park, around 1872. Thatís how people can relate to it and see it through an artist's eyes. If an artist gets excited about it, then there must be something to it.
DB: Thatís definitely one of the coolest things about it.
MS: The plein air movement has been great in terms of bringing attention towards the landscape. The problem is that itís almost become a caricature of what it really is, almost to the point where it can become clichť. People see plein air as a style of painting, but it really isnít. As Iíve mentioned before, if you look at an artist like Christopher Blossom-- a contemporary painter, and primarily a marine painter-- when he goes outside and does plein air paintings they are very different than paintings from [painter] Walt Gonske. Chris Blossomís paintings are tight and rendered and beautifully done, yet with a painterly influence in them. And Walt Gonske is very painterly and expressive, almost to the point of being abstracted. So both are plein air painters, but both are very different in terms of style. So itís been very difficult for me to see collectors try to cubbyhole me or some of my artist friends as being plein air painters. What they are trying to do is label that as a style, but it really isnít.
DB: The styles are totally different, and they have different approaches to them as well.
MS: I mean, if you're painting the figure from life, itís not a style of painting. Indoor air maybe?
Both: (laugh)
MS: Youíve mentioned Scott Burdick-- who is known primarily as a figure painter-- but when he gets outside, my gosh, he does beautiful paintings.
DB: Definitely. I love his work. In talking about style, how do you describe your style?
MS: I would describe it as a traditional impressionistic style. In other words, I have elements of impressionism, but I donít take it quite that far. Itís a cross between that and a classical style, so it's somewhere between the two. I may wake up one morning and want to work more rendered. But then two weeks later Iíll want to be more expressive. I suppose if you analyze it enough, you could break it down into two different styles. But I would say itís classical traditional painting.
DB: How did you arrive at your technique and style?
MS: I started out painting in the studio before my mentors and teachers told me to get outside and paint. To this day, I spend as much time in the studio as I do outdoors.
DB: Really?
MS: Yeah. Thatís where the academic aspects of what you're doing happens, and those necessary long periods of time to study what you're doing in terms of composition. That happens often in the studio, where you have the benefit of time on your side. Outside, when you're looking at a two-hour window of time before the light changes, you're forced to really respond on an emotional level to what you're painting. Something Iíve discovered over the years is how important being outdoors is to my studio work, and how important my studio work is to my plein air work. There is a balance between the academics and the more emotional response to something. It is absolutely fundamentally important for a landscape painter to spend time in the studio as well, just as it is to be outside. You develop your craft at a finer level indoors, where you take the time to explore different things. You might want to do glazes in the studio, or layer your paint and create textures that you canít make outdoors because itís all alla prima. But I do feel strongly that I continue to find myself as an artist outdoors while Iím responding on that gut level to whatís in front of me. You donít have time to overanalyze everything; itís more of an intuitive response.
DB: You might develop new ways of paint application.
MS: Well, you do. Itís funny, because you might be sixty percent into a painting outside, and then something happens where you realize you might have only ten minutes to finish. Like maybe a big rain cloud rolls in, or a bunch of people that you know are going to be noisy move in, so you wonít be able to concentrate. So you begin to simplify and do things that are really gutsy. You might discover something in doing that. In the roots of impressionism lies that more suggestive dashy style of painting, because you are forced to do that in a short period of time.
DB: Exactly.
MS: So you have to edit it down and get to the real fundamental parts of what you're doing before you finish.
DB: Like laying down the first mark and letting it be.
MS: Sure.
DB: I think that's what is appealing about it: that intuitive response, and the excitement in doing that.
MS: I would agree. I like being able to read about what the artist is all about in their work. Itís not just the subject, itís about the artistís response and sensitivity to that subject as well. So I want to see what that artist is thinking-- not only about the subject, but their medium as well. Like, "How can I describe my thoughts and feelings about this subject through this medium of oil paint?" I see a lot of artists that get really tight and rendered, and they become such slaves to their subjects that they forget about that abstract expressive side of what they can do with their medium alone. My friend [painter] Ralph Oberg once said something to me that sort of stuck with me. He said, "There is an implied sense of realism that you can get with an expressive stroke of paint that you canít get by rendering." And itís true! Youíll load up a brush and just suggest something, and there is such a power in that!
DB: Definitely. That leads me to my next question, actually. What do you think is more important: the abstract quality, or the subject as a whole?
MS: Thatís a great question. Neither. They go hand in hand. Once you begin to separate them youíll lose track of what youíre doing. If itís just about the subject, you're so into describing whatís in front of you that itís no longer interesting to the viewer. And if it becomes too abstracted, then a viewer can no longer relate to the subject. Thatís the problem I had in college. People were doing paintings that were so abstract that it had to come with an artist's statement. If you didnít read what the artist was thinking, you'd have no idea what they were trying to say. Once youíve done that, you lose that ability to communicate with your viewer. So youíll always have to keep both of them in mind. They go hand in hand. Itís learning to play one off the other. That's what makes painting so interesting. Whether itís an 8" by 10" or a 30" by 40", there's this pressure of maintaining the balance between the two and still keep it interesting.
DB: I think you are one of the guys that can really make you feel like you are at the place you painted. I was just wondering what you have to say about how you do that.
MS: Well, thank you. Thatís interesting that you would say that, but I donít know.
Both: (laugh)
DB: I figured that would be your answer.
MS: Thatís a tough question. If you really appreciate your subject and enjoy the process of painting, and you can bring those two together, that believability is probably going to happen. You know, Iím looking out the window today and there is not a cloud in the sky. Itís absolutely extraordinarily beautiful right now. The sun is south in the sky, the shadows are long... I can literally paint all day long, and I want to be outside in it. Thatís how exciting it is for me. So you're just that fired up about being there and seeing what's in front of you. I get to spend the day painting, so something is going to come across. We mentioned earlier about spending time inside and developing the craft of painting. I think that's where some artists are falling short. They are spending too much time outdoors or indoors, because itís all about that constant balance. I donít know when it will happen-- itís up to individual artists-- but I know when Iíve hit the wall in the studio and itís time to go outside. And I know when the same thing happens outdoors. I donít necessarily know why, I just know when.
DB: I think I know what you mean. Lately, Iíve been feeling like I have to get outside because Iíve been doing a lot of studio stuff.
MS: Listen to your heart when that happens, and believe it. Itís amazing what happens. There is an incredible quality of light in the Sonoran Desert. Very few artists have painted out here over the past hundred years. Itís really getting a lot of attention now, but I think that really helped me in my career, because when I first started going outside in the Seventies there were very few artists to look at. Historically, there was Maynard Dixon, Carl Oscar Borg, and a few other artists like that who had painted the Sonoran Desert. However, there was not a whole lot as far as contemporary art went, so I had to find my own way. It was still landscape that I was connected to and really appreciated. So I found myself really focusing on what was happening here and how I could say what I needed to say. I think that was a huge help to me. If you go up into the Rocky Mountains there is such a history of artists that have painted that area, and there are so many artists still painting it today that you canít help but be influenced by what they are doing. But, for me, there wasnít much to look at.
Both: (laugh)
MS: So it really helped me discover myself, and it still does. Iím still developing. I figure I still have a tremendously long way to go.
DB: Really?
MS: Yeah, which is a challenge, and thatís what keeps it exciting. When you get proud of what you are doing and start chasing your successes, that's when you're kind of in trouble.
DB: In painting, how do you know when youíve reached that point of where you want to be?
MS: I donít think any artist ever does. I think that a huge success for any painter is to have that one painting say what you want it to say. That happens to me every once in a while. Itíll do everything I was trying to make it say. You're high for about twenty-four hours. Then all you can think about is how you can take that to the next painting.
DB: Exactly.
MS: So it never lasts.
Both: (laugh)
MS: The highest highs and the lowest lows happen in the art world. If you fail, you get equally as depressed. Look at John Singer Sargent, who was a tremendous painter! But I donít think even great painters like him ever reach the point to where they are fully happy with where they are. Again, thatís what keeps us going.
DB: Absolutely. Well, Matt, thanks so much for your time.
MS: Thank you. I appreciate it.