Evening Clouds and Streaks of Sunlight
A retired geologist in Baton Rouge, artist Charles G. Smith paints nature.
After a long career mapping Louisiana’s dark subterranean world of oil and gas reservoirs, retired Baton Rouge geologist Charles G. Smith has turned his attention to painting in the wooded pastures of Southeast Louisiana, the mountains of Colorado and along the rocky coasts of California. His painterly images reveal an imagination freed from the geology of the land to the poetry of light and shadows.
Smith’s studio and home are filled with his small paintings of rural landscapes. They are, in a sense, visual memories of earlier travels in the United States and Europe or simply impressions of cows grazing in a nearby pasture, or rolls of cut hay warmed by late afternoon sunlight along the River Road.
Like the French Impressionists of an earlier time, Smith enjoys painting on location, en plein air, in nature. There all of his senses are open to the landscape. “You notice some sparkling point of interest in the landscape,” he says. “You want to capture a part of that experience. You want to get in a little deeper and make it your own in some limited way. I have sketches of brief moments in my life enjoying both exotic, grand places and also more mundane scenes close to home. Each was exhilarating for the pure natural beauty. A photograph wouldn’t hold the same meaning for me. It might be a better record of the reality of the moment, but my participation wouldn’t be there. I wouldn’t have that memory that painting imprints on my mind.”
Born in 1943 near a coal mining camp in West Virginia, Smith and his wife, Peggy, grew up in nearby Huntington on the Ohio River where they attended Marshall University. She studied math and he, geology plus a few art courses that interested him. Smith then went to receive a master’s degree in geology from LSU in 1969. With the Vietnam War then raging, Smith, like many of his generation, joined the Air Force and spent the next four adventurous years on military bases in West Germany. After his discharge in 1973, the Smiths returned to Baton Rouge, now with two young sons, where Charles went to work as a consulting geologist, specializing first on groundwater resources and then on South Louisiana’s oil and gas deposits.
All during those years in college, the military and his working career, Smith continued to follow his quiet passion for drawing and sketching. By the late 1990s, he started showing his watercolors in annual shows sponsored by a local frame shop and art gallery. Then in 2000, as he contemplated retirement, Smith enrolled in plein-air painting workshops with the Italian-born California painter John Budicin and later with Arizona artist Matt Smith at the Fredericksburg Artists’ School in Fredericksburg, Texas. “I had never painted in oils, so I had a lot to learn,” he recalls. “I figured a workshop would be the best way to speed things up. That was the right decision for me.”
Now with a bit more confidence, he began painting alone in the open fields of a former dairy farm near his home. “They had several large pastures where I could learn to paint without being in the public eye,” he recalls. “Out there, I had quiet, openness and plenty of unsupervised time to paint and screw up without being embarrassed by clumsy results. It was just me, the cows and occasionally a politely curious neighbor. I still paint out there.”
Though Smith’s painting occasionally takes him to the Rocky Mountains, rural France and coastal California, he works mostly close to home in Louisiana. “In my world,” he explains, “I like to find a great live oak making a big, bold, dark green mass in an open field, ideally with a tree line in the distance so I can introduce atmospheric blues and violets into the landscape. It’s always nice to have cattle grazing in the field. I often head to my favorite field in the evening to try to capture evening clouds and streaks of low sunlight in the field. Winter is probably my favorite time. We don’t get the fantastic snow possibilities, but we’re never snowed-in, and I can paint in relative comfort year-round. The lush green leaf masses of summer are gone, and you can see further, past the trees, to tree lines that are now grey and pink and even golden. Our streams are bayous that are slow moving. For a change of scenery, I drive about 40 miles north to West Feliciana Parish, where the land has luscious rolling pastures and clear, running sandy streams.”
Afternoon and early evening are his preferred times for working on location. “The evening brings dramatic color and long shadows and the sun and heat are not so taxing,” he says. “I enjoy evening clouds that progress from cool, faint blues at the base, through the spectrum to warm, golden white tops. I also enjoy the evenings when the rich, warm green flanks of trees face the low, western sun. But time of day doesn’t limit my painting. Midday, when the sun is high, often presents crystalline light with magnificent skies, and the changes in light are slower so that you have more time for concentrating on a big landscape.”
When he heads out into his favorite pasture, he first scouts out a location. “I try to paint an aspect of the landscape more convincingly than I did before,” he says. “I ask how can I use opaque paint to get the effect of sunlight reflecting off the tops of a patch of tall grass, or render the sometimes heavy Louisiana atmospheric perspective, or capture something close to the tonal nuances of a burgeoning storm cloud. Sometimes I don’t succeed or even progress. The next hour or the next day or next week, the scene will change and offer new possibilities. I’ll spread around more paint, make more sketches and slowly, over time, the results improve. It’s kind of like golf with no green fees.”
Smith completes most paintings within a few hours and rarely takes them back to the same location. “I find the scene never looks the same twice,” he says. “It’s more productive to make it one session, one painting.” Once completed, he returns to the studio to apply final touches. “I always bring the painting back to the studio,” he explains, “to touch up a too-hard sky hole in the trees, or soften an edge or try to make the sunlight more brilliant. It’s vital for me to get back to controlled light of the studio to see the painting out of the glare of the sun, even though I almost always set up and paint in a shaded spot, to make final touches, to put it up on the studio easel where I can look closer and move back to see it in a new surrounding.”
Though his location paintings are completed works, he is increasingly using them as studies for larger studio paintings. Art galleries, he says, like big paintings. Nevertheless, Smith says he will continue to work on location. “I would never advance as a painter if I didn’t go out and face the challenges of the light,” he says. “Studios are claustrophobic and you don’t get to enjoy the life of a plein-air painter.”
Smith is represented in Baton Rouge by Ann Connelly Fine Art and in New Orleans by Jean Bragg Gallery. For more information about his work and paintings, visit charlesgsmith.com.