Arizona’s vast cerulean skies and majestic mountains have lured artists throughout history to capture the state in paint. In 1859, German-American painter Albert Bierstadt invited us to gaze upon an unknown landscape by daringly traveling West, rendering a romantic vision of Arizona’s mysterious expanse. And while William Henry Jackson documented the West’s splendor with photography beginning in the 1870s, artists continued their sojourns to record the wide-open plains, as well as its curious Native American and cowboy inhabitants.

Capture the moment

pleinair3.pngToday, artists still venture out to paint the images and icons of the state, setting up their easels and palettes under the Arizona sky – albeit with cell phones in their pockets and their cars in the trailhead’s parking lot. In fact, many nationally and internationally recognized plein air painters (French for “open air”) have made Arizona their home.

Painting directly from nature adds vibrancy to the captured scene, although plein air artists must paint quickly before the fleeting light changes the shadow patterns on their subject matter. Each year, hundreds of amateur and professional artists try their hands at capturing Arizona’s beauty on canvas at Arizona Plein Air Paint Out events. Eleven state parks – from Sedona’s Slide Rock to Safford’s Roper Lake – host these fun-filled four-hour painting fests throughout the year.

Stealing the scene

Professional plein air painter Matt Smith, whose house and art studio sit at the edge of Tonto National Forest in north Scottsdale, has rendered many of Arizona’s icons out in the open – including the towering red rocks of Sedona and the dramatic Grand Canyon. However, the painter admits, “I’m drawn to the subtle beauty of the Sonoran Desert.”

His strikingly realistic paintings of sweeping desert vistas, punctuated with saguaro cacti and flowering desert brush, put the viewer smack dab in the middle of the scene, feeling the warmth of the sun and immersed in the silence and beauty of the unspoiled landscape.

Exploring a few of Arizona’s arts districts

pleinair1.pngMatt Smith’s paintings, as well as works by other Arizona plein air artists, are showcased at Scottsdale’s Trailside Galleries (located in Old Town Scottsdale, an area boasting a broad collection of galleries), and Tucson’s Settler’s West Gallery, part of the city’s thriving gallery scene. From Tucson, arts enthusiasts often travel just 45 miles south to Tubac, a quaint historic arts community where visitors stroll among dozens of galleries, eclectic shops and cafés. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors enjoy attending the Tubac Festival of the Arts – Arizona’s longest running arts festival.

Journey to the golden age of Arizona’s roadside culture

Not all artists who feature Arizona imagery focus on the state’s natural scenery. In the 1940s and ’50s, glimmering neon signs lured motorists to Arizona’s mom-and-pop diners, motor lodges and souvenir shops. These kitschy signs and roadside attractions were, and continue to be, as much a part of the state’s appeal as its grand landscape.

pleinair2.pngPrescott artist Dave Newman scours junkyards, garage sales and antique swap meets for Arizona license plates, faded Arizona maps and vintage photographs of iconic Arizona locales to create collages and mixed-media paintings for exhibition in Newman Gallery in the heart of Prescott. Part of the fun in viewing his works is identifying various Arizona icons and attractions in his pieces, such as Sun Land Motel in Mesa, the Sundial Motel in Cottonwood and a historic Route 66 shield from Seligman. “I enjoy the whimsy of the ’50s,” he says.

Contemporary interpretations of Arizona icons

While the work of Phoenix artist J. E. Knauf does depict the romanticized iconography of the American West (cowboys galloping on horseback or American Indian beauties in flowing fringed dresses, for example), Knauf radically departs from the traditional techniques of Western artists in the creation of his pieces.

His portraits are painted with swirling washes of vivid color (versus tight, tiny brushstrokes) and geometric patterns forming a background grid as a static foil for dramatic contrast (instead of realistically rendered sunsets). Trained in both traditional painting techniques and contemporary style, Knauf uses a combination of the domains to create his popular artworks. “Most folks see my paintings and say, ‘I don’t like Western Art, but I like your paintings,’” he says.