How Do You Paint a Natural Wonder?

Plein air painting by Curt Walters
Springs Caprice by Curt Walters, 36 x 36.
Content adapted from an article by Allison Malafronte.

Arizona artist Curt Walters is well known and recognized for his plein air impressionist paintings of one of the most inspiring natural wonders in America–the Grand Canyon. But how does a plein air painter, no matter how talented, embody the awe and power of such an amazing site? For Walters, his familiarity with his favored plein air painting subject definitely plays a part. “Being raised in the Southwest, Grand Canyon images were a constant part of the visual culture,” Walters says. “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.”

But while painting the Grand Canyon is certainly an unforgettable event, Walters points out that the challenges in painting on the rim are common to plein air painters the world over. “I have a tendency to stake down larger paintings with bungee cords, due to sudden gusts of winds that can arise,” Walters says. When painting on trails, or floating on the Colorado River, Walters choice of plein air easels differs–he uses an Open Box M pochade box.

When Walters has found an outdoor painting composition that he finds interesting, he’ll hang out at that same spot for several days.

Mile Four, Colorado River by Curt Walters, oil, 9 x 12. Courtesy Trailside Galleries,Scottsdale, Arizona.
Mile Four, Colorado River by Curt Walters, oil, 9 x 12.
Courtesy Trailside Galleries,Scottsdale, Arizona.

This is one of his most rewarding practices: 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,” he says. “Sometimes there is reworking in the studio, but I do try to keep this to a minimum.”

For Walters, just being around the Grand Canyon is a renewing experience. No matter how often he paints it en plein air, he finds something sublime that evokes a new point of departure in his work. Regardless of the subject, the common thread in all his plein air paintings, and what leads to an inspired and inspiring outdoor painting, is Walters’ desire to know more about the subject itself.

Beyond that, Walters says that what distinguishes his work from that of other plein air painters is his attention to the middle ground in almost all of his landscapes. That area is most often avoided by many plein air artists, who focus more on the detail of the foreground and drama of the background. Walters’ focus on the middle ground allows a scene to unfold naturally, and creates a center of interest that immediately catches the eye.

For more highlights on what makes a successful plein air painting, consider downloading a digital copy of Plein Air Painting. Its stellar painting information is sure to put you farther on the road to becoming the artist you want to be. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.