When one begins to list those artists considered to be among the best landscape painters in America, Matt Smith’s name is usually on that list. Yet, when asked if money, fame, prestige, approval and recognition of peers, or a desire to have his work purchased by a museum has been his motivation, he is quick to acknowledge, “They matter, but it’s the call of the next painting that fires me up. I rarely think about works once they’ve left the studio, but I am constantly thinking about future paintings.”
Smith has had a long career. He considers his early sales to be a result of luck, but as time went on, when he decided to make fine art his profession, he treated it like a job, starting at the bottom. He showed his work in some questionable galleries and shady shows, but as his work improved he sought better galleries and shows. It was a slow process. He kept his prices as low as possible and focused on gaining collectors rather than dollars. As sales picked up, he slowly raised his prices. “The price structure was based on supply and demand rather than what the next person was charging for their work,” he says.
If he was starting all over today, he would start by focusing on improving as a painter. “Too many people take up painting and immediately start thinking of selling their work. Hold off on the sales thing as long as possible and focus on learning. As your work grows, opportunities will come forth…gallery representation, shows, commissions, etc…but it all starts with quality.”
Smith says he’s pretty content with where he is today. He continues to see growth in his work and enjoys learning. “I’ll just keep shooting for better work and take what comes my way.”
I really like Matt’s practical, no nonsense approach. It’s refreshing, coming from someone of such immense talent. I’m truly honored that he agreed to this interview, for it’s definitely a sacrifice of time…something I don’t take for granted. So, thanks Matt Smith.
Now, let’s hear for this remarkable artist.
You’ve been a professional artist a long time; other than perseverance and hard work, what other things have helped you stay the course? A love of the process. I began painting years ago because I enjoyed it and that excitement hasn’t slowed. I also enjoy the business side of art which is a very important aspect of this if you plan on doing it for a living.
What determined the path you have taken in art more than anything else? It started before my memories began. I always loved drawing and I never stopped….I refused to because I was having too much fun. As for subject, I was always outdoors so it was a union of two of my passions, painting and the landscape. If I wasn’t making a living at this I’d still be painting in my free time.
What’s your definition of art? That’s a tough one to define. I’d say a balance of subject or idea, finely tuned craft and an individuals sensitivity to the two.
“The challenge, the travel, my time in the field, the people, and most of all a painting that exceeded my expectations are the most satisfying things about being a fine artist.”
You have a very identifiable style; other than subject matter and choice of palette, what other things make one’s work uniquely their own? Vision, approach, confidence, calligraphy, style. Every one of us is unique and has something interesting to say so start by capitalizing on that. Tell us about you, your world, your background. Your story is very different than anyone else’s and you’re the person to tell it. When you do it’ll set your work apart.
Is most of your work done en plein air, and when working outdoors, are you going for a finished piece or are their additional refinements made in the studio? Roughly one third of my work is done in the field. I’ve always found a balance between studio and field work to be ideal. Outdoors I respond quickly and intuitively to what I am experiencing and indoors I slow down and focus more on the academics. It makes for a nice balance. When I am outdoors I go for a finished painting rather than a study. I can later use them as reference in the studio or send them off to a gallery. Back in the studio if they do need touching up I won’t hesitate to do that as my focus is on the best work possible rather than someone else’s “rules for Plein Air”.
Is it your goal, when working on location, to capture what you see, or is there some other objective that is of more importance? I attempt to capture a feeling of location and time rather than a scientific rendering of what’s in front of me. I also move elements around in an effort to create a stronger composition as well as exaggerate value, color or both to emphasize mood.
I have heard that you are continually experimenting with new ways of applying paint, is that true? Has there been some breakthrough that has been more meaningful than all others? Surface quality, as John Carlson called it, has always been important to me. This includes character of the medium, layering of paint, the mark of a given tool and calligraphy to name a few. This adds interest that goes beyond subject and adds a great deal of interest and richness to a work of art. As for a breakthrough, it would have to be my early exposure to the works of Edgar Payne and Carl Rungius. Their work was so painterly and it encouraged me to use more paint. At first I was out of control with it but I begin to learn and I continue to experiment with pigment to this day.
“If I weren’t an artist I’d probably be a woodworker or landscape designer.”
Fear of failure is an issue with many artists; how did you overcome the fear of trying new things? By giving myself the freedom to fail. Failure is going to happen anyway so embrace it as part of the process and you won’t beat yourself up as badly when it does. And trust me, you’ll learn more from your mistakes than your successes as you don’t want to repeat them.
When you’re on the move looking for something to paint, what makes you stop, get out your paint gear, and get to work; and then with all that is before you, how do you decide what ultimately goes on the canvas? First of all when I set out to paint I try to keep an open mind as to what I will choose as a subject. In other words I let the subject present itself to me.This has provided me with ideas and options that I never would have considered had I come up with them in the studio then set out to find them. Generally, when I do land on something it’s due to contrasting value or color which allows me to quickly identify a series of simple masses or shapes.
Do you do any preliminary work before beginning a painting? What form does it take? Not in the field. Outdoors I just get to painting and make the necessary changes as I go. In the studio I will often times do thumbnails or small preliminary paintings to see if the idea is valid.
What colors are typically on your palette, and why these particular ones? I use a warm and cool of each of the primaries and green along with several colors that I refer to as modifiers because I use those to alter other colors.
Titanium White, Cobalt Blue pale, Ultramarine Deep, Viridian Hue, Cad Lemon, Cad Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Cad Orange, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Sienna, Mauve Blue Shade, Thalo Yellow Green, Thalo Blue and Cerulean Blue Hue.
The warm and cool thing helps me to think in terms of light and shadow, foreground and background. The earth colors are great for graying other colors and the synthetics give me a little more horsepower when needed.
Please describe your painting process. Large to small, dark to light, thin to thick. I know this sounds simplistic but it works well for me and is a solid way to construct a painting.
Please put these words in order of importance: color, technique, drawing, concept, value, composition, edges, framing. Concept, drawing, value, composition, edges, color, technique and framing
“Consistency is the most difficult part of painting for me. I want all my paintings to turn out as well as my best, but they don’t.”
How do you overcome issues of rapidly changing light when painting on location? Anticipate those changes and stick with your original idea. If it’s a subtle change go with it, but of it’s a dramatic shift you may want to start over. As you spend time in the field you’ll learn where those changes will take place and how to plan for them.
When you’re in the studio, do you approach painting the same as when you’re in the field? For the most part I use the same process. I spend a little more time building up texture on the indoor work and even do a little glazing, but the process is mostly wet into wet.
Any interest in tackling other subjects matter…still life, figurative, cityscapes, etc.? I consider it from time to time, but it quickly fades when I look out the window. The landscape is an amazingly diverse and complex subject and it continues to hold my interest.
What are the most important lessons you learned through your independent study of Maynard Dixon, Edgar Payne, and Herbert Dunton? Collectively how they all grew as artists. From faithful observers of their subject to world class designers. Edgar was direct and bold with his application, Maynard’s strong sense of design was almost graphic in its simplicity and Dunton’s work was very decorative. You won’t see a similarity in my work to theirs, but I continually consider their strengths as I paint.
What advice do you have for those wanting to make rapid and significant improvement in their work? I wish I did have advice on quick growth, but I don’t. Just focus on the basics, look at as much GOOD work as you can and paint as often as possible. And please, don’t discount the enjoyment of where you are and growing as a painter.
What advice do you have for those wanting to try plein air painting? As with any subject you have to work from direct observation. The problem with the landscape as a subject is you can’t bring it indoors with you. So out you must go. Keep things simple when working on location. Start with a small, simple Pochade box, a good tripod and only the supplies you absolutely need. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t work out at first, it’s part of the process. Once you do get comfortable with working outdoors you will learn plenty about your subject and yourself as an artist. Working en plein air will quickly become a great joy to you as a painter.
How would you advise artists in selecting the best galleries for their work? Decide which market or markets you want to show in then go there and walk through the galleries. Get a feel for which ones you like and which ones you honestly think your work would fit in. Return home, make a list of the top five galleries and start contacting them. If number one says no then go the the next until one says yes. My experience is galleries don’t like folks to just show up with paintings in tow. It’s awkward for them and you too. It also never hurts to have a reference or two, or someone who can facilitate a meeting.
Matt Smith’s paintings ring true. He is able to capture the very essence of any landscape he paints and he does it with such grace and apparent ease. Anyone that paints knows just how difficult that is and how much hard work it takes to create at such a high level. He’s a true master, worthy of any accolades he may receive. I’m confident most of you will agree.
Thanks Matt for applying that same grace to this interview.
For more about Matt, his work, and events, click HERE
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE.