A Conversation with Rick Kennington on his Experience at the Mad Wolf Artist Retreat
August 10th through the 13th, 2023 marked the first annual artist retreat hosted by Cassens Fine Art at Mad Wolf Ranch in Browning, Montana. This breathtaking locale, nestled just beyond the Eastern boundary of Glacier National Park, served as an idyllic backdrop for six accomplished plein air painters.
Among these talented individuals is Rick Kennington, a seasoned painter hailing from Utah with over two decades of artistic experience under his belt. Rick's artistic repertoire spans a wide spectrum, ranging from a loose, impressionistic style characterized by vibrant, exuberant colors to intricate, detail-rich compositions that draw the eye with their precision and finesse. He opens up about his experience at the retreat, his artistic process in the plein air environment, and the emotions he’s aiming to evoke with each piece created in this exclusive conversation with Cassens Fine Art.
What were your initial impressions upon arriving at Mad Wolf Ranch and experiencing the surroundings of East Glacier in Glacier National Park?
It was beautiful. It was amazing. It was a long drive for my wife and I, but it was worth it. I just really enjoyed the openness, the vastness, and being able to look at the peaks and glaciers. The ranch and surroundings was just refreshing. The trees, the stream–it was gorgeous. As an artist, it was just fun to see all the little sights and scenes of the ranch. It was thoroughly enjoyable and pretty magnificent. It was my first time at the ranch and it was stunning.
What were your expectations for the retreat, and how did those expectations evolve as the days unfolded?
Initially, I didn't have any specific expectations for the retreat, to be honest. My main goal was to have a good time, relax a bit, connect with fellow artists, and get a little bit of painting done. Those were my primary expectations going in. However, I must say that the ranch exceeded those expectations by a long shot. It turned out to be even more beautiful than I had imagined. Michelle, her family–her mom, her husband, and everyone else were incredibly welcoming and accommodating. The overall atmosphere of the grounds and the surrounding area made for a truly enjoyable experience. I'd jump at the chance to go back anytime.
Were there any particular moments or aspects of the retreat that left a lasting impact on you?
Absolutely, there were a couple of moments during the retreat that truly left a lasting impact on me. One of those standout moments was the buffalo herd excursion. The sight of those majestic creatures was awe-inspiring. We also had the opportunity to drive up to the highest part of the property and gaze down at the peaks of the park. It was a breathtaking view, something I doubt I'll ever forget. What made these moments even more special was the fact that I was surrounded by like-minded individuals, all fellow artists, who were equally captivated by the stunning surroundings. Being in the company of such kindred spirits in such a beautiful place made the experience incredibly memorable.
What elements of the East Glacier landscapes resonated with you the most and served as inspiration for your artwork?
Well, that's a great question, and it's a bit tough to pinpoint just one thing because there were so many aspects of the East Glacier landscapes that struck a chord with me. You see, I've always been fascinated by the natural beauty of the outdoors. Growing up in Utah, I had the privilege of seeing the stunning peaks of the Wasatch Front every day, whether it was in Salt Lake Valley, Provo, or Ogden. It's something that many people from Utah might take for granted, but I never did. I was constantly in awe of those mountains.
When I visited Glacier National Park, it was a similar feeling, but with entirely different peaks. The beauty was just as captivating, and I couldn't help but admire it. I love the contrast of the light when it’s hitting the canyons, trees, rocks, rivers, and streams. There’s so much up there that you can do with as an artist–so much to look at and admire.
Honestly, it's hard to put into words because the possibilities for artistic expression felt endless. It's challenging to capture the essence of such a place on canvas because the beauty is almost indescribable.
Can you describe the emotions and feelings you aim to capture in your paintings that you created at the retreat based on the retreat experience?
Certainly. The emotions I aim to convey in my paintings from the retreat revolve around a profound sense of peace and love. To achieve this, I focus on elements like design, values, and color. I believe that if you can craft a landscape in a compelling design that resonates with your eyes and stirs your heart, it naturally evokes these emotions. It's about creating a visual experience that connects with viewers on a deep level, drawing them into the scene.
Were there any specific challenges you faced during the creative process? And if so, how did you overcome them?
Well, one of the primary challenges I encounter during plein air painting is dealing with the sun. It's a constant, ever-moving element, and you have to adapt quickly. The sunlight affects everything—shadows shift, colors change, and it happens by the minute. To overcome this challenge, you need to make swift and accurate decisions and apply your brushwork deliberately to capture the moment as it unfolds. Sometimes, you have to rely on your memory and skills to continue working after the scene has changed. If you keep painting exactly what you see, you'd be at it all day due to the constant changes. So, being quick, decisive, and skillful is key in plein air painting.
Did you discover any unexpected sources of inspiration that influenced your work differently from your initial expectations?
Well, that's a bit of a tricky question, but I can certainly share some insights. One thing that caught my attention during the retreat was the realization that I struggle with painting trees. To address this, I intentionally focused on trees—exploring their shapes, colors, and various values, particularly how they change with warm and cool tones depending on the time of day. It was a personal challenge I set for myself over the weekend, and I believe it did help me grow as an artist, even if it's just a small step forward. In my art journey, progress often comes in tiny increments, and any bit of improvement or newfound knowledge is a significant win for me. It's all about those small steps adding up over time.
How did your interactions with fellow artists during the retreat contribute to your creative process and the evolution of the pieces that you created on site?
Oh, it was a fantastic experience. It was something I truly needed. Being surrounded by some of the top outdoor plein air painters was incredibly enriching. I had the opportunity to observe their approaches, watch how they problem-solved, and witness their brushwork and unique styles.
Now, I'm not looking to copy their styles, but it really highlighted the diverse ways to handle paint and approach a canvas, which was immensely helpful. I must admit, it was humbling to be among such skilled artists. It made me feel like I needed to elevate my work in various ways.
Beyond that, being around fellow artists was a blast. You see, as artists, we tend to be rather isolated in our work. We don't clock into a workplace and interact with colleagues daily. So, being in the company of like-minded individuals was refreshing. We had conversations that you just can't have with family members or even some friends who aren't artists. It was great to "talk shop" with them, learn about their approaches, and gain insights into their mindsets, all of which can be incredibly beneficial for one's work.
Were there any breakthrough moments or insights you gained about your own artistry while working on your paintings at Mad Wolf Ranch?
You know, I can't say there were any major breakthroughs per se. However, there were a couple of instances where I had the opportunity to paint on overcast days. This challenged me to perceive the surroundings differently, without the strong influence of sunlight, and it gave me a new perspective on color.
But, I don't think there was any single breakthrough moment that I can pinpoint. Instead, I collected a series of small but valuable insights and experiences during my time at the ranch. These little nuggets of knowledge and added experience may not seem like much individually, but they can make a significant difference in my work in the studio and down the road.
Could you share a behind-the-scenes glimpse into your artistic routine during the retreat, from the initial concept of a painting to the final strokes?
Were there any breakthrough moments or insights you gained about your artistry while working on your paintings at Mad Wolf Ranch?
That aspen painting made me realize the significance of taking chances and embracing what you may fear or have been putting off, especially if you're driven to explore it. Sometimes, you just need to take that leap and see what unfolds because you might be pleasantly surprised. This, for me, was a profound realization during the retreat.
Could you provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into your artistic routine during the retreat, from the initial concept to the final strokes of a piece?
Certainly. My approach to outdoor painting during the retreat is a bit different from some artists. I don't usually aim to complete full paintings on-site. Instead, I view it as an opportunity for intense learning. It's a chance to grasp accurate colors, focus on design, and understand precise values, which can be challenging to achieve through photographs alone.
When I set up my easel outdoors, I'm not thinking about creating a finished piece ready for framing. My mindset is all about learning and studying. I aim to absorb as much as possible and consider how I can apply these insights to my regular studio work.
So, to answer your question, during the retreat, I used the time to learn, experiment with concepts, and work on pieces in progress. Typically, I'd take those works back to the studio to assess them more closely, make necessary design adjustments, and refine them before considering them finished. It's often tough for me to label any piece as truly "finished" because there's always something I feel I can improve or explore further.
That's interesting, though. I appreciate your perspective on treating this as a studying opportunity, focusing on the process rather than striving for a finished piece. There's certainly power in that approach.
Yeah, it's true. Some artists like Ken and Richie can create a finished, frameable, high-quality piece on the spot. I'm not quite at that level yet, but these opportunities have been immensely helpful. Throughout my artistic journey, some of my mentors have emphasized the importance of painting outdoors. Whether it's a landscape or even a live horse, the idea is to gain invaluable knowledge by observing things in real life, capturing accurate colors and shadows, and painting with greater deliberation. It's one of those practices I'll continue to pursue to improve my studio work in the years ahead.
Each artwork tells a story. Can you elaborate on the story or emotion you aim to convey through any specific pieces from the retreat? Is there a piece where you were trying to convey a particular story or emotion?
Well, not really. I didn't have a specific emotion in mind, except for the love and beauty I see in Mother Nature. When I'm out painting, I focus on the design and how the landscape comes together to create a sense of beauty, peace, intrigue, and the desire to step into the scene. I aim to create artwork that people can relate to, evoking emotions or transporting them to a specific place and time. For me, it's personal too; I spent a lot of time outdoors growing up, fishing with friends and my dad near streams. So, when I paint scenes with streams, willows, cottonwoods, it stirs up that nostalgia and excitement. I want to do justice to these places and maybe help others feel the same emotions I do and take them to those beloved places.
Were there any personal connections, memories, or experiences that you infused into your artwork, making it uniquely yours?
I did create a small, quick study of the larger cabin during the retreat. I did it mostly for myself, as it holds a special memory of my stay there. It might not have been my strongest piece, to be honest, but it meant something to me. The way the morning light touched the cabin and the contrast between the tree colors and the cabin's red wood was quite appealing. I wanted to capture that memory, so that was probably the one piece with a personal touch.
Looking ahead to the upcoming show at Cassens Fine Art, where your pieces from this retreat will be showcased, what message or experience do you want viewers to derive from your artwork and the collective retreat experience?
I hope that when viewers see my work, they recognize my deep passion for the outdoors. I want them to sense the genuine love I have for nature and the environment. As an artist, conveying that connection to the natural world is essential to me.
As an artist, how do you feel the retreat has influenced your creative journey, and how do you envision it shaping your future work?
The retreat had a profound impact on my creative journey. It was incredible to be surrounded by fellow artists with different styles, like Turner with his bold, abstract approach and Richie with his detailed precision. While I'm not looking to mimic anyone else's work, the experience was highly inspiring. Seeing their passion and abilities motivated me to put in as much effort into perfecting my craft as they do with theirs. Being in the company of like-minded individuals was truly inspirational. It boosted my confidence and influenced my approach to painting. Being around these artists and feeling inspired is what has helped me tremendously.
During your time at Mad Wolf, what personal insights or growth did you experience as an artist? How do you anticipate these reflections will shape your future art?
It's a bit challenging to pinpoint a specific way I grew, but one significant aspect was the inspiration I drew from the other artists. Being around them, particularly during those moments when the sun was setting, and the colors in the landscape were shifting, was truly invigorating. They'd point out how the values were changing in the sky and mountains. So, my major takeaway was the camaraderie and the energy I absorbed from their enthusiasm, which, I believe, will greatly influence my future work.
Is there a specific memory or moment from the retreat that you think will remain etched in your memory forever?
That's a tough one because there were so many memorable moments. However, if I had to choose one, it would be the first morning when I drove up to the ranch's entrance, looked out over the peaks on the east entrance of Glacier, and was absolutely stunned. The way the morning light played on the cliffs, creating shadows and casting them over the remaining snow from the winter—it was breathtaking. I don't think I'll ever forget that scene.
“Stories of the Soil: Scenes From Mad Wolf Ranch” featuring works from the annual artist retreat hosted by Cassens Fine Art will be on display at Cassens Fine Art for the month of October, with an artist's reception taking place on October 6th, 2023. Gallery patrons are invited to come to the reception to view the pieces and meet the artists behind them, including Rick Kennington.