En Plein Air: A Conversation With Curt Walters

Welcome to “En Plein Air,” the new Plein Air blog on American Artist’s new online community! The former Plein Air section of www.myAmericanArtist.com lived off our main homepage for nearly a year, and during that time I enjoyed sharing Q+As with the top plein air painters in our country, tips on improving landscape-painting technique, articles on the plein air painters of the past, and news on regional landscape-painting events and exhibitions. I’m even more excited to be continuing that content on our new public forum, which will allow you to offer direct comments and feedback on the articles being posted, ask questions, and initiate forum discussions on the plein air artists, tips, and events that interest you most.

The first “En Plein Air” blog post features our October Plein Air painter of the month, Arizona artist Curt Walters. Walters is renown for his plein air impressionist interpretations of the Grand Canyon and has been referred to as the greatest Grand Canyon artist of our time. But, as I learned in this recent interview with him, the Grand Canyon is not the only subject that inspires him. Whether he’s deep in the rim of the canyon painting what he calls “the most sublime place on earth,” capturing the mountains of Colorado, or traversing the hills of Tuscany, this artist has his plein air process down to a science, and he assures the rest of us that success as landscape painter results from staying true to the subject matter you love most and visiting other locales and landscapes to continually stay inspired.

Respectful Ascent
by Curt Walters,
oil, 36 x 36.
Courtesy Trailside

Allison Malafronte:
You are probably best known for your Grand Canyon landscapes, how long have you been painting the canyon, and what was your initial draw to it?

Curt Walters: Being raised in the Southwest, Grand Canyon images were a constant part of the visual culture. My first actual experience with the Grand Canyon was at age 19. That extremely humiliating painting experience at that young age challenged me to learn the depth and form of the canyon. And, in an odd sort of way, that experience was an epiphany that ended up directing my work for most of my life.

AM: Do you ever tire of painting the same subject matter, or do you find the inspiration renewing itself every time you paint?

CW: I truly am renewed every time I see the Grand Canyon and its beauty. I am, however, inspired by many subjects and have traveled a great deal and painted large images of many other countries and subjects. But my Grand Canyon paintings have continued to receive the most attention and accolades. The Grand Canyon is simply the most sublime place on earth.

AM: What are those other landscapes that you enjoy painting? What is it about a scene that draws you?

CW: Over the years I have done a tremendous amount of paintings of the California landscape, the Intermountain Regions of Colorado, and the Colorado Plateau. Some of my favorite painting trips have included France, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, England, Bali, and Jordan. Regardless of the subject, the common thread in all my work is my need to know more about the subject itself. Beyond that I would say I have a tendency to paint the middle ground in almost all my landscapes, which is often the most avoided area by many landscape artists.

Mile Four,
Colorado River

by Curt Walters,
oil, 9 x 12.
Courtesy Trailside

AM: Is it difficult to paint the Grand Canyon en plein air, in term of logistics? How long to do you spend on location and how much is finished back in the studio?

CW: The issues of painting on the rim are issues that are common to plein air in general. I have a tendency to stake down larger paintings with bungee cords, due to sudden gusts of winds that can arise. Painting while on trails, or floating on the Colorado River, brings up very different issues. I usually use an Open Box M pochade box for these types of canyon-painting trips. 

I have a tendency to find one location with an interesting composition and hang out at that same spot for several days. It has been my plein air pattern for several years to paint a smaller sunrise or morning painting, a small midday painting, a larger afternoon painting, and a small last-light painting. I usually concentrate most of my attention on the afternoon painting, sometimes over two or three days. Sometimes there is reworking in the studio, but I do try to keep this to a minimum.

AM: As far as the business of art is concerned, do you find that your canyon pieces sell better than some of your other subject matter? Would you encourage or discourage artists from developing a specialty on one subject?

CW: I think it’s human nature for the public to identify an artist with a singular subject matter. This, of course, is a result of what the artist first produced and focused on in his or her career and what he or she is most interested in. My marketing friends always tell me that you need to be known for something before you can be known for anything. As all artists know, this is a double-edged sword. Often, many of my clients practically insist on purchasing a Grand Canyon image as their primary piece from me. Only then will they choose something from my other subjects. I think that the current demands of the art world do not help artists in their exploration of ongoing personal interests and eclectic subject matter and style.

September Afternoon
at Lake O’Hara

by Curt Walters,
oil, 36 x 36.
Private collection.

Over the years I have noticed that the artists who have had the great privilege of jumping between subjects and styles find it difficult to establish a firm collecting base and reputation later in life. That can be an incredibly difficult and sometimes resentful choice as the years go on. I am incredibly envious of those artists who can follow their whims whenever they chose and, in many ways, I grieve heavily for those days of my youth when experimentation and subject matter were at the apex of my work.

AM: Is traveling important to you as a landscape painter?

CW: Yes, traveling is the most important thing that an artist can do, in my opinion. Painting new subject matter on the spot sharpens our skills, renews our attitudes, and makes the drudgery of the studio work easier to handle. I haven’t even begun to fulfill my travel wish list. It is my lifelong dream to spend all of my time traveling and painting.

AM: Who would you say most influenced your painting style at the beginning of your training/career?

CW: My painting style was developed from both early critiques from the most academic of painters, Wilson Hurley, to the ideas of the most creative and instinctual painter I’ve ever known, Rod Goebel. Those two opposing approaches to painting, combined with a love of early French and American Impressionism still come screaming to the surface in the oddest of times.

AM: Who are you favorite landscape artists, past and present?

CW: I love the paintings of Guy Rose and Willard Leroy Metcalf. I have a great attraction to the work of John Singer Sargent. I love the palette and composition of Frederic Remington. I am absolutely nuts for any work by Claude Monet. My favorite Grand Canyon painter is Gunnar Widforss. This diverse list also comes with a great admiration for Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Edwin Church.


Autumn’s Reward
by Curt Walters,
oil, 36 x 36.
Collection the artist.
by Curt Walters,
oil, 48 x 48.
Private collection.
Wistful Autumn
By Curt Walters,
oil, 36 x 36.
Collection the artist.

Related Posts:


Plein Air Painting Blog
Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

7 thoughts on “En Plein Air: A Conversation With Curt Walters

  1. This Plein Air Blog is a great idea and you chose a very fine artist for the first installment. I loved seeing the large studio paintings, but I wish there had also been more photos of small plein air paintings. And a question for Curt—do you usually use one palette for your plein air paintings and what might that be? Is it quite a limited palette?

  2. I love the idea of this blog. Very nice work, Curt. I saw the Grand Canyon for the firwst time this past spring and it took me about two hours to realize that it was real. It looked too big to be real, I was completely overwhelmed with the scale, distances and magnitude. I would love the opportunity to paint it. Amazing color.

  3. Thanks for the feedback everyone. Good to know about wanting to see more plein air sketches, Kathryn, that is something I can definitely start incorporating in future posts. It’s oftentimes a lot easier in the print publication to show the plein air sketch next to the finished studio work because we have a lot more room in the layout, but we can certainly make sure the artists are sending a least a few on-site sketches to compare with the studio work that we post. Keep the comments coming, they’re much appreciated and welcome!

  4. I never thought of sticking to one subject only was as important as it seems to be. This turns out to be a very thought provoking interview and I thank you for it . I love the powerful paintings he does and was struck by the extremely evident change in style between Mile Four and the rest of the paintings; I wish this had been addressed in the blog.