– Bob Bahr reporting, Editor PleinAir Today –
Two Arizona painters — Matt Smith and Barbara Mulleneaux — discuss the challenges and joys of painting cactus, just in time for the Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE).
Lead Image: “Dream Big,” by Barbara Mulleneaux
The Sonoran desert. People picture it as a flat, dusty land with iconic saguaro cactuses posing with arms up, like stalwart sentinels. Smith lives in Arizona, and assures them that the Sonoran desert is much more than that.
“It’s the lushest desert in the world,” he asserts. “But it’s very difficult to paint because the plant life is so formless. It’s all thin and wispy. The forms are hard to grab onto. One tree can morph into another, and then you have one big homogenous mass, and that won’t work in a painting.”
Mulleneaux has some specific pointers for depicting the saguaro. “It takes a fair amount of study to really get the saguaro,” says the Tucson painter. “The stumbling blocks for newcomers to the area are the prickly pear and the saguaro. The trick for a saguaro is that they are lighter and warmer on the bottom. I like it when the saguaro is backlit — and the cholla, too. The cholla are just beautiful.”
In April, the month for PACE, the desert will be in bloom. But Mulleneaux and Smith say this is a bit of a misnomer, as the Sonoran desert is a place where something is usually blooming. “The fun thing about our flora is that one thing dies and another thing starts,” explains Mulleneaux. “In general, they bloom in this order: saguaro, prickly pear, cholla, then wildflowers.”
The Sonoran desert is distinctive and beautiful, but Smith says there was a time when people advised him not to paint it. “When I first started painting the Sonoran, people said, ‘No one wants that,’” says Smith. “But I kept doing it, and look what happened.” Smith sees a bigger lesson in this story. “Celebrate the world that is around you, whatever it is. Don’t listen if people say not to paint your world.”