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“Watching you paint is like watching a concert pianist play.”
Those are the words that a local journalist told Duane Hada after he demonstrated his plein air painting to a crowd in Colorado.
Under pressure to perform, Hada took to the canvas and captured the scene before him as quickly as possible. He’s a fast painter, preferring to capture the shapes and lighting of a location over the fine details.
While he was painting before the crowd, one woman stepped forward and asked if she could purchase his painting before it was even done. Agreeing to the sale, Hada finished the painting and began another piece.
The woman stepped forward again almost immediately and asked Hada if she could purchase the second painting as well.
Slightly stunned, Hada jokingly asked the woman, who turned out to be the owner of 4UR Ranch, one of Colorado’s biggest dude ranches, what she would like him to paint.
“Whatever you want. I’m just loving this,” was the response he got back.
As one of the Ozark’s most well-known artists, Hada has done the “10,000 hours of work” needed to become an expert in his craft. His work has been featured all over Arkansas, including its official license plates and postal stamps.
In Mountain Home and the surrounding areas, art buyers enter his Rivertown Gallery to purchase his popular trout and landscape paintings for their businesses and personal collections.
“I don’t paint what I don’t have a passion for,” said Duane Hada at his Rivertown Gallery in Mountain Home. “It’s just my artistic expression of who I am. You can easily walk in here, look around, and see what my interests are, and kind of what my subject matter is fueled by.”
En plein air or plein air paining is the act of painting outdoors. This method contrasts with studio painting or academic rules that might create a predetermined look.
Created by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes in the 1800s, plein air painting enables artists to better capture the changing details of weather and light while focusing on tonal qualities, color, loose brushwork, and softness of form.
“Most of these paintings are painted very fast,” Hada said. “The light is going to change in an hour. Usually, most of these scenes are painted in the morning when the shadows are cast and you got good sunlight on it. You can’t start it and say I’ll work on it in the next few days because it’s going to be a completely different scene.”
Born in Boone County, Hada has spent much of his life in rural Arkansas, fostering a deep love of nature as he grew into an adult. At 13, his family moved to Hasty, a small community near Jasper, Arkansas.
As he grew older, Hada began to develop a passion for art, often drawing in class. And while his teachers were aware of his raw talent, Hada would not take his first official art class until he began attending college at Oklahoma Wesleyan University in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
“Those small rural schools didn’t offer any art back then,” Hada said. “Thank goodness that I had a few key teachers that saw that I had a gift, a talent, and a desire to do that, and so a lot of them did encourage me. It wasn’t until college that I actually ever took an art class, and it was just a basic intro to drawing class, but that kind of put the fire to the gas.”
With that fire fully lit, Hada pivoted and transferred to the University of Central Arkansas to get his degree in education with a focus on art.
From there, he would take up a job in Mena, Arkansas, teaching high school art to young students looking to improve their skills.
“I did it for five years and enjoyed it,” he said. “But there’s always this nagging thing in the back of my head, you know, can I do this on my own? And do I want to teach for the rest of my life? I was a good teacher. I got all kinds of awards and really put that area on the map as far as their students and built up an amazing art program there.”
Hada eventually decided to leave the school and take up a career as a full-time artist.
He said his decision to leave came after he realized that he had stopped wanting to paint on his own after coming home from teaching others all day.
“I would come home, and the last thing I’d want to do is pick up my own art,” Hada said.
With his decision made, Hada began his new career, merging his love of fishing and the outdoors with his paintings.
As a certified instructor for the Federation of Fly Fishers, Hada, who was already teaching fly fishing courses at his local college, also opened up a guide business to cover the expenses of being a full-time artist.
Over the next 30 years, he would spend his days taking fishers out on the water while making a name for himself as one of Arkansas’s best Plein Air artists.
“Over the last 30 years, the fly fishing guiding has shifted more towards the full-time art,” Hada said. “And that’s OK. As you get older, it gets harder to push a boat down the river every day. Most of my clients that I guided were in my art classes. They would do commission pieces of a fish.”
Throughout his long career, Hada has had his art displayed by the state of Arkansas and local governments. In 1987, Arkansas displayed one of his trout paintings for the state’s trout stamp.
He also designed the Cotter Police Department logo and created the mural inside the Norfork National Fish Hatchery. He is currently competing to display his art on Arkansas’s Quail stamp.
“I’m trying to get some pieces done for the state Quail stamp entries, and I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to really do them well,” Hada said. “Painting a camouflaged bird on a camouflaged background is tough stuff.”
Hada’s shift from fly fishing to full-time art came with other changes as well. In 2010, Hada, with the help of his assistant Carol Starkey, set up his very own art gallery in downtown Cotter. He would stay there until his move to Mountain Home in 2016, where his art gallery has remained since.
He also began teaching more and took on young art students like Ava Obert, the youngest person to display art in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock.
“Ava came to me when she was nine years old, through a program at the library,” Hada said. “Her art teachers saw that she definitely had a little more talent and gift than your average student.”
Today, Hada continues to teach students, both young and old, how to paint in his studio. There, with a steady hand and a warm-hearted smile on his face, Hada teaches students like Zachary Rorie how to paint trout sculptures and operate paint guns before building up to larger projects.
In between sessions, he can be found shuffling around in the gallery, greeting potential buyers and forging a personal connection with them.
“Most people are leery about buying an original piece of art off of a picture on the internet,” Hada said. “That’s where coming into a gallery, meeting the artist, you develop the reputation of being a hard-working, honest person that will shoot them a straight deal. That carries a lot right there.”
When he’s not in the studio in the back of Rivertown Gallery, he can be found leading young men on adventures in the outdoors through Cross Trail Outfitters, a faith-based 501(c)(3) organization that focuses on helping discover the great outdoors.
Hada said he started the organization after noticing that many of the young men at his church were spending their time inside, sitting on the couch while playing video games, instead of roaming free and playing outside.
“It’s just a huge need nowadays with boys that do not have a man in their life to show them the outdoors and anything masculine,” Hada said.
Duane Hada and the Rivertown Gallery are located at 3512 U.S. 62 in Mountain Home, Arkansas. For more information on Hada and his artwork, contact (870) 425-3898.