plein air artist Mitch Baird
Mitch Baird paints in the shadow of High Sierra's Picture Peak.

Painting landscapes en plein air > Natural color and light effects punctuate the work of Arizona oil painter Mitch Baird.

Most of us have either heard artists say that painting is mainly about learning to see, or we have figured it out for ourselves. In order to create something compelling, painters need to forget that they are seeing a tree, for example, and paint shapes and colors. Knowledge about the species of the tree can enable one to create small details that add a ring of authenticity, but the danger of focusing on its “treeness” can result in the painting of a symbol of a tree, rather than its actual appearance.

For Mitch Baird, seeing a scene for what it is includes focusing on the variety and abundance of light effects and colors. He is captivated by “bounce light” – the color of light that has bounced off surrounding objects and landed on the subject – and he knows that when we paint color, we are painting colored light reflected off surfaces. It is one of the most satisfying aspects of artist life – training oneself to (or being lucky enough to naturally) see the world as it actually is. The subtleties are beautiful and rewarding. And it makes “painting it as one sees it” a very rich experience for both the artist and the viewer of the painting.

Painting landscapes - Mitch Baird, "Essex Tie Up," 2017, oil, 12 x 9 in., collection the artist, plein air
Mitch Baird, “Essex Tie Up,” 2017, oil, 12 x 9 in., collection the artist, plein air

Attentive to Nuance

“I teach optics in conjunction with design,” says Baird. “I tell students, ‘Abandon the symbols, and paint what you see.’ When you look at a broad mass, like an interior wall, it will hold as a single plane, but if it is long or large enough, it will change its color in places because there is light bouncing around that affects the way it looks. The plane may take on a glare from a lamp, or another kind of reflected light in the room, and change color. I am always conscious of these color changes.

“For example, you may see a blue sky, but typically the blue will change color – not only from the horizon to the zenith, but from left to right, depending on where the sun is.” Baird continues, “There is almost always some type of movement based on the environment. I stay aware of what a form or broad plane is doing both horizontally and vertically.”

Painting landscapes en plein air
Mitch Baird, “Taken by Storms,” 2018, oil, 11 x 14 in., collection the artist, plein air

Can one focus too much on this aspect of picture making? Baird says he sometimes feels it can get in the way of the whole, but he clearly works to channel it and not let his fascination with nuance get in the way of the process.

Painting landscapes en plein air
Mitch Baird, “Mount Wilbur Study,” 2018, oil, 10 x 12 in., collection the artist, plein air

“If it excites me, and it’s in the scene, I want to put it in, but there are times I have to hold off before putting those small passages of reflected color in the piece, depending on whether it matters to the painting as a whole. I am trying to use a little more artistic expression, but in general I’m a naturalist, playing nature’s colors as they are. To truly get what’s there – to mix the right color and use it properly – is a challenge and a favorite thing to accomplish for me. That little bit of reflected light, that change in color tem­perature, may not be significant to the painting, but ifl see it, I like to point it out to the layman who may miss it. I’m a sucker for subtleties, and I find myself chasing nuances because I love them so much.”

A Simplified Approach

Baird began his professional career in illustra­tion, a field that he says heavily favors intense color. When he moved into fine art, it took him two years of working consistently from life to begin to use tone effectively and back off the saturation of color he was used to using.

“Color in nature is not as colorful as we think it is,” says the artist. “There is harmony in the temperature of the light between the subjects in the scene. That green is not as bright as we think it is because colors in nature have a lot of complementary tone in them. We should fol­low suit in our paintings: let tonality read more than color. Look at Sargent’s work. Many think his palette is really colorful, but it’s the warm and cool temperatures and the tones in the grays that make his paintings look so vibrant. The grays let the color show, and vice versa.

“For example, an isolated stroke may appear gray overall, but can have more purple based on what is surrounding it. Don’t be deceived by local color or the initial vibe of the view. There are times when the light is a certain cast, say a cool light with warm shadows, but nature can throw a curve ball and bounce a warm reflected color into the cool light area to a small degree. What excites me about painting is finding these little shifts and using them with control to enhance the work.”

Mitch Baird, "Mired," 2017, oil, 72 x 76 in., collection the artist, plein air
Mitch Baird, “Mired,” 2017, oil, 72 x 76 in., collection the artist, plein air

It’s common to hear the names Sargent, Zorn, and Sorolla when talking with plein air painters about their favorite artists. Baird is no exception. But although many pieces by Baird have some downright ravishing brushstrokes in them – a hallmark of Sargent’s work, for sure – Baird says he most admires Anders Zorn. One can see this influence in Baird’s color sense, especially the subtle temperature changes that turn the form of objects in his paintings.

“Zorn truly is my favorite painter of the three,” Baird says. “Sorolla once said of Zorn, ‘This is how painting should be; this is a true artist.’ When I see a Zorn painting, I am in awe of how deceiving he is in his simplicity. You are seeing what he saw with his eyes half closed or squinted.”

“I saw the Zorn exhibition in San Francisco (2013, Legion of Honor Museum], and was surprised at what I viewed in the work,” Baird continues. “Up close, his surface was so simple and non-flashy that I almost felt let down. While Sargent showed off beautifully, some­times taking three tries to put down a single stroke just right (even though he made it look dashed off), there was no consistent bravura or bold brushwork throughout Zorn’s paintings.

“I no longer believe he arrived at those pieces through a quick application of paint as I had imagined. Rather, it seems he used thin washes in areas, scumbling, and yes, some bold, confi­dent strokes, but the overall feel is more about simplifying. And that’s what we are all trying to do – to drop down those forms and keep them simple. I find that trying to go this route, forcing myself to give up those nuances for a simpler statement, is the most difficult thing for me.”

Painting of the Grand Canyon
Mitch Baird, “Canyon Angles,” 2017, oil, 8 x 8 in., collection the artist, plein air

Room to Play

Baird admires the quiet, flat passages in a Zorn painting, but he may never give up on those bravura swipes with the brush. “When someone walks up close to one of my paint­ings, I want them to see a bold statement. I want them to see that it’s made with paint -put down with confidence and in a particular way to make it interesting. Then, when they pull back, they see the image as a whole.”

Mitch Baird, "Boat Builders Shop," 2017, oil, 16 x 20 in., private collection, plein air
Mitch Baird, “Boat Builders Shop,” 2017, oil, 16 x 20 in., private collection, plein air

What brush does Baird use for those key bravado strokes? If painting on location, he may just use the same brush he used for his block-in and the rest of the painting. “Plein air is about speed,” he says. “Sometimes I will use a single brush, and paint and clean that one brush over and over again. I don’t have time to think about what brush size is needed for every little thing. I am off to get the statement down, no matter how I may get there.”

He used to favor hog bristle, especially for blocking in the big shapes, but Baird is increasingly enjoying synthetic hair brushes. “I like the feel of them,” says the artist. “You can load them with a lot of paint, yet get a soft feel from them. I have always been concerned with how to put some­thing down boldly in a single brushstroke, but that can become monotonous. Now I’m trying not to be so accurate in the beginning, leaving me the ability to scumble or otherwise play with paint application later.”

This adjusted approach to applying paint is part of Baird’s overall push to both start with big shapes and slowly break them down to the degree of detail he desires. It also helps in his goal of strategizing about how he will approach a passage later in the painting process. “In my mind’s eye, I keep looking for what an area of the painting needs, and deciding how detailed, how far I’m going to go with it. How will the shapes line up? I’m trying to keep myself four or five shots ahead, like one would do playing pool.”

Mitch Baird, "Break in the Storm," 2017, oil, 8 x 10 in., collection the artist, plein air
Mitch Baird, “Break in the Storm,” 2017, oil, 8 x 10 in., collection the artist, plein air

A Sense of Mystery

Plein air painting is a means to an end for Baird. He considers plein air pieces to be notes. He also considers painting outdoors to be great fun. “For me, plein air is play,” says Baird. “It’s about gathering information. IfI get a successful sketch, I will frame it for sale. Otherwise, the paintings are for future reference, and the experience is filed in my mind’s visual bank. I approach studio work much differently. Technically, most paintings done on the spot are not as strong in design, because you are simply reacting to the scene and your senses. It is note-taking for a larger idea.”

When asked what he wishes to communi­cate through his paintings, Baird mentioned what has been on his mind lately, then went to the heart of the matter. One thing he wants to tackle in the short term is suggesting or creating more mystery in his paintings. “As a naturalist I try to capture what I see, so I don’t leave a lot of mystery in my paintings,” he says. “I want to do that more – but it’s hard to do, because we seem to settle into our style and our way of thinking.”

His overall motivation is more fixed and long term. “I want the viewer to have an impression about the scene and feel something that they can relate to,” he says with conviction. “I want them to see the beauty in something in the work – hopefully in the whole work. I want to communicate something universal that they can latch onto and enjoy. Design is the vehicle to communicate that universal thing, and the stronger I can design, the more the message will get across. Art is a spiritual process for me, and I want to share God’s creation to uplift people and make them aware of the beauty we live in.”

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