Plein Air Oil Painter
Nationally recognized as a top plein air painter, Eric Jacobsen often heads out to paint without a plan. His rich experience has honed his intuition for the perfect composition and color balance, but it’s Eric’s heart that has the final say on what to paint. We discussed how his paintings are like poems, why he won’t paint a blue sky, his love of twilight, and how living in the West has changed the colors on his palette.
His solo exhibition, A Brush with Nature, is on view at the gallery through August 3rd, 2018. Preview all the works in our digital catalog here.
Where are you from?
I grew up in a beautiful bucolic little old farm town, Easton, that’s a distant suburb of Boston. I spent all my time there as a kid. We raised all our own meat and vegetables since our parents really wanted to raise us without any unnatural foods. Mom always baked our own bread and we had chickens, ducks, and goats. We spent a lot of time outside.
Where do you live now?
In central Oregon, near Bend, with my wife and my 4 kids. I love the Northwest.
How did you become interested in art? When was that?
As a child, from around 6, 7, or 8, I drew a lot. Mostly what I did was little caricatures or copy animals from National Geographic. I don’t mean trace, but to look at and then draw them. My grandmother, my dad’s mom, was a painter. She didn’t do it by profession, but she was a painter. So I got a lot of encouragement from her and I think early in my life I was getting feedback on what I was doing.
Art took me by surprise. I went to college and I ended up with a history degree but I took my first art class in college. I didn’t take any art classes in high school or anything. I fell in love with it. My professor was a great oil painter. I would go to his studio and I would think, “Oh, this is neat. Oh, I guess you can do this as a profession.” So I embarked on this journey.
How would you describe the content of your work for this exhibition?
There may have been a few works started before I started talking to Kathryn [Turner], but most of it was painted for the show.
I think of my shows as a book of poems. Great writers are often novelists and poets. The novels were one thing, but the poems were generally smaller volumes and were [from a defined period of time]. So I kind of look at my work in the sense that when I put a show together, I want my paintings to harmonize and go together the way a great little book of poems does. They all seem to go together. So I purposely don’t have any big hero piece, because I don’t want any single one to be shouting louder than any of the other ones. Even though some are larger, they aren’t meant to be more important than the smaller ones. I want the impact to be equal across the board.
In this exhibition, is there a piece you’re most proud of? Why?
I particularly enjoy Here Comes the Moon. I like the tonality of the scene and the tonal landscape.
And then for Green Pastures, I feel like I successfully captured the feeling I wanted. I could try again tomorrow or the day after and maybe never capture it again. To me, I think it’s working.
There are some recurring themes in this collection, such as the sky and the moon. Why did you come back to these themes?
For me living in central Oregon is helpful because we have a big sky like you do here [in Jackson Hole]. I grew up south of Boston and unless you go to the beach or a marsh, you don’t see a lot of the sky all the time. You see a lot of trees, mostly, and buildings and things. So the sky is interesting to me the way in the same way the beach is interesting. And what I mean by that is when there are clouds, everything is moving. The same way as if you were to paint the ocean, the waves are moving. So that’s really exciting because you can have a lot of movement in the painting. You won’t see me painting a straight blue sky. I’m not interested. So it is all about that movement but it comes down to composition and having the eye move through different parts of the painting. Clouds are great for that because they’re all these big organic shapes.
When it comes to the moon, ever since I was a little boy, I have loved twilight and anything to do with the moon coming up. I have strong memories even as a little boy watching the moon out my window. And I’d always taking walks at that hour; always skiing with my mom or dad in the winter at that hour. I like that time of day, there is something about it. So I do paint a lot of moons. The scenes are not full on nocturnes, but I tend to like this hour. If it’s interesting to me, it could make a good painting.
Another theme that stands out is several of your paintings have a violet/purple dominant hue. Can you elaborate?
It’s a known fact that we all see color a little bit differently and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s probably been in the past 10 years or so that I tend to see purply-pink edges of things. Now it’s not drug-induced weirdness but, when I look at a landscape, the way my eye harmonizes it, I tend to see that color and it feels right. I am not sure if I pick scenes where I see that color and want to paint those more than other scenes. That’s probably true, but I don’t really know why.
By the way, this color isn’t back East. Orange and blue are really strong where I was on the East coast. It’s only when I moved out West that I started putting purple on my palette.
What mediums do you work with?
All of these paintings in the show are on board, except for one. I buy the board in 4’ x 8’ sheets and I cut it up myself. Then I put a gesso down on it and it’s ready to go. It’s a nice durable surface for backpacking and nothing will poke or put a hole in it.
What techniques do you employ to get the results you want?
Draw it, stain it, and pile on paint. That’s what it is. My initial process is to sketch, in paint, really roughly where things are. Then I put a thin wash down, working my way to the final surface that I’ll have. And oftentimes that wash will be the final laying down of the paint color. So if the mountain is purple, I’ll wash in a purple color, to get that color right away. The process is really trying to be done as quickly as possible, so if I can be done with 20 strokes of paint, that’s great. But I don’t count them and I don’t stress about it. The idea is to get a rough drawing quickly, get some washes down that are close to the right colors and values and maybe put a little bit of thicker paint. Then at some point, the painting tells me when it’s done. And it’s a lot of fumbling around and back and forth on purpose. It isn’t finishing one area and then going to another. The whole thing is orchestrated together and it comes to a finish together.
One of the things that’s interesting in life is variety, and we all love variety. We just do. So in painting, you have options as far as how you lay the paint down, your mark making. You can have a big wide stroke, thin stroke, you can have a dot, you can have a line, a place where it looks like you scraped away at it. So for me, composition, harmony, mark-making, that to me is in the realm of painting. Copying and rendering is another category entirely and I am not that interested in it.
What is your favorite tool?
One of the things I have learned to use in a way that suits me is Liquin. It’s a medium that speeds up the drying time of your paint, but it also extends it. If you mix a little paint with it and go to draw a line, it’ll be a nice long fluid line, rather than start to drag out. It took me a little while to know how to use it. I can paint without it, but I prefer to have it and it’s something I always make sure I have.
There are a number of paintings in the show that were done in one sitting, but most were painted on more than one sitting. You can see the places where the paint has some drag strokes, where you can tell the [fresh] paint was going over dry paint. That’s because the Liquin had it set up faster. If I went back the next day and I didn’t use Liquin, it would still be wet and I wouldn’t get that effect. I like that effect. I first noticed that kind of stuff at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston with Frank Benson and some of these other great painters, whose work really had a lot these drag strokes. Early on in my painting I really resonated with that kind of paint application–that complex layering of paint.
What pleases you about the process?
I like being outdoors. It’s not a surprise that I ended up doing something where I am outdoors. It is a surprise that I ended up being a painter because until I was in my 20s, I had no idea that you could do that. I mean I knew people painted, my grandmother painted, but it never crossed my mind. If you had asked me what I wanted to do when I was a boy, I would have said a park ranger – and that’s what I did say. And I have thought of that more recently. I kind of ended up doing something which was the reason why I wanted to be a park ranger: being outside.
What is most challenging about the process?
The most challenging part is the changing light and everything about being outdoors. The bugs, wind, rain, days where the light is in and out. And a lot of days you just say, “I’ll come back tomorrow.” It’s invigorating, but it can be really difficult to nail something down where the light is changing because the light changes the form.
How do you approach your work?
A lot of times I leave my house and tell my wife, “I don’t know where I am going. I am just going to go out and look at the light.” It basically all comes down to what interests you at the moment. Sometimes I’ll drive for hours and just come home. I went by a thousand painting spots, but it just wasn’t what I was interested in at the moment. There is that crossover between a nice composition or nice color or nice light, and then also something that resonates inside enough for me to try to make a painting. In the end, it’s basically light against dark and the way colors come up against each other.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Messy? [Eric laughs.] I know some people think that. I want the person to feel like they’ve been there, not because of the objects but because of the feeling they get. For me, it’s all about trying to capture the feeling.
Can you tell us more about your color exploration?
The palette I have is laid out in a certain and it’s been the same colors for a long time, and I don’t add a lot of colors generally. So at this point, I know pretty much where they are and what they do. But I always think of harmony and trying to harmonizing my paintings and to me that has become more and more important. It’s what I think makes a great painting. When I see a great painting, they always have a color harmony to them and everything sort of sits together.
How does your environment inform your work?
It informs it entirely as far as my landscape painting goes. Everything that I am doing is on location and it’s a description of the scene in front of me. It’s not a copying of the scene, it’s a poem. Everything I am doing is in direct response to what I am looking at and, of course, that’s the kind of painting I chose to do. I don’t work from photos because I am not that interested in it. Where I live always informs my works. I generally like to paint close to home, meaning a 30-mile radius, because I really think you should paint what you know.
I generally have not been interested in painting the epic landscape. I grew up in New England, and the scenes that were around me were the everyday scenes. I have painted the half-dome before, the Grand before, but I like the more quiet scenes. When you have a big epic scene you can bring your thoughts to it, but it’s already defined for you for the most part. It’s more important for me to be moved in the heart, not the mind.
What subject or location have you painted the most? Why?
There are a number of spots that I frequent throughout the year, but a few spots in particular that I like in every season. Very often when I’m driving around looking for a spot, it has to do with the lay of the land, the variety, and the tree shapes. Particularly in this one spot, it sets up nicely shape-wise. Everything comes down to placement, accidental or purposeful. So when nature presents itself in a way that’s interesting, there are places I see where I like the way it’s set up. It’s about 2 miles from my house. It’s basically a field and right now they’re growing alfalfa, and it has a little creek running through it with trees. It has nice shapes.
What do you do when you’re stuck on a piece?
I don’t usually get stuck in the sense that I don’t know what to do. I usually run out of energy or I may not like it, but it doesn’t feel like I am stuck. But very often it’s just a compositional thing. When a design works it’s just so engaging and when it doesn’t it’s just, “Eh.” I’ll just wipe the whole thing down and try again. It’s not that precious.
What are you currently inspired by (reading, listening, other)?
You know I am reading a lot in the old testament now and I love those stories. For some reason, they are really interesting and I’m thinking about those characters and what they went through.
I am also listening to this great radio station that I found near my house. It plays these old country tunes, old blues, old jazz. And what’s great about it is that I only recognize 1 out of 10 songs. I might know a song, but I don’t know that version or whose doing it. And they don’t tell you either, which is really actually fun because they just play music and no advertising. Music is a big part of my life. Music is always on my mind.
What do you do besides your art?
I play a lot of guitar and bass. I garden. I clean the house. I play a lot of music with the kids. I go for walks with my dog every day. Pretty simple life.
I do teach painting workshops, mostly in the Northwest. I like being on the painting journey with other people. I like being an encouragement to them; I am better at encouraging other people than I am for myself.
You’re said not to have any favorite go-to colors on your palette. What is your favorite color?
I don’t know if I have a favorite color, but I have favorite color harmonies. So very often it’s that purple color. I don’t consciously do it, I just end up leaning there.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
A few years ago, I kept getting to a place where I wasn’t excited about my paintings. One thing that helped me a lot is I came up with a phrase for how can I motivate myself and the people I am teaching. So when I’m really feeling stuck or I’m not liking it and not sure what to do, I ask myself, “What exciting way can I finish this painting?” It opens up the possibilities. It puts you in the driver seat to make something great.
There is also a great quote from Charles Movalli: “Understate, overstate, and never tell the truth.” That’s one that I like with regard to painting. It’s a great way to land on the feeling of the place.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
A Brush with Nature is on view through August 3rd, 2018.