William Scott Jennings | As Big as the Mountains

Canyon de Chelly, oil, 27 x 42.

By Devon Jackson

William Scott Jennings paints large-scale landscapes that embrace the scope of the West

How best to capture the majesty of the Grand Canyon? What better way to convey the splendor of an endless sky, an 18,000-foot-high mountain, a gorge as deep as time? “I like to paint big,” says William Scott Jennings, who lives among the bigness of sky, color, spirit, and land in Sedona, AZ. “That’s where my niche is, I paint large.”

It’s a niche he hit upon early in his career, after many years of painting en plein air. He loved being outdoors, capturing the grandness of nature on canvas—and he still does. But there was something missing, something lacking, something, ironically, too confining about painting in all that open space. “I couldn’t paint outdoors in the big sizes,” explains Jennings. “And it seemed like I had to paint big in order to make my paintings more effective.” Today he paints in two genres: the 10 by 12s and 11 by 14s that he does outdoors, and his studio paintings, which are often 30 by 40 or larger.

He had to paint, though, before he could start painting big. Born in New Orleans in 1952 to a father who moved around the country as a doctor in the Air Force and a mom who painted portraits of thoroughbred horses, Jennings, along with three sisters, spent his early years in Florida before going to junior high and high school in rural North Carolina. He spent one frustrating year at tiny Lenoir-Rhyne College, where he flunked out of all the art history classes. Worried that their only son might drift off into the netherworld of rock-and-roll—Jennings played drums and dreamed of a music career—his parents urged him to attend the Harris School of Advertising in Nashville, TN. He did. There, he saw plenty of other talented musicians playing music on street corners for quarters (effectively squashing his dream of rock stardom), and he studied commercial art with 90 other students for two years.

Laguna Beach, oil, 12 x 16.After graduating, Jennings worked for a couple of commercial-art studios in Nashville, realized he didn’t like working for other people, then moved to Sacramento, CA. There, he and a friend set up their own graphic-design firm, where this time he discovered how little he liked working for indecisive clients. Always a fiend for national parks, he began hitting the outdoors on weekends to paint. Jennings also found himself spending more and more time in museums, standing among the giants of western landscape painting: Thomas Hill, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt. But it was the outdoors that most served as his school. “That,” he says unequivocally, “was my classroom.”

Still in his mid-20s, Jennings had almost found his niche. He realized how hard it is to produce something on the spot, to work quickly and with finesse. But that was also the hook of painting outdoors: instant gratification. “You go out and come back two hours later with a finished work,” marvels Jennings. As he honed his use of light and color, his confidence grew. When his aging grandmother bequeathed him her house in Dallas, TX, Jennings quit commercial art for good, moved to Texas, turned an old RV garage into his studio, and declared himself a bona fide painter.

Norm Savage, who lived in Dallas and owned galleries there and in Scottsdale, AZ, and Santa Fe, NM, signed him up but advised him early on: You need to move closer to the galleries. The first time Jennings brought his paintings to a gallery in Santa Fe, he was underwhelmed. “I thought, ‘What a dump!’” laughs Jennings. “‘Everything is mud. I’m not going to sell any paintings here.’ Then, within a month, I’d sold all the paintings I went out there with. I started liking Santa Fe more.”

By 1981, he’d moved to Taos, NM, where he converted an outbuilding into his studio. Two doors down lived painter Robert Daughters, and among his artist pals were Ed Morgan and Walt Gonske. “That,” he recalls, “was really when I started going full tilt at painting.”

It’s also when he supersized his work—the indoor pieces, anyway. “It’s actually a hard thing to do, to move from smaller to larger,” says Jennings, who produces about 150 plein-air pieces a year, while finishing maybe 15 or 20 of the larger works over that same period. “But I don’t paint standard-size paintings. I’m too big for plein air and too small for spending all my time in the studio. I feel like there are still things I like to do inside that I can’t in plein air. So I do both.”

Jennings also considers himself more a romanticist than a realist. “In the plein-air works, the realist gets what you see—light and color value,” he explains, adding that almost all his large studio pieces emerge from plein-air pieces or from an assortment of photographs he’s taken over the years. “In the studio, I’ll take a daytime scene and I’ll sort of embellish it. It makes people feel like they’re standing right there. Photographs seldom do that. It’s all there in the photograph, the rocks and the leaves and all that. But you don’t get that knot in your stomach of standing on the precipice of the Grand Canyon.

“So I put in a handful of embellishments to help recreate that feeling,” he continues. “I’m interested in the psychological feeling of it. That’s what it is when I’m at the Grand Canyon. It’s what I need to have happen before I send it out the door.”

That need is why he often holds onto a piece for a month or more, sitting with it, making sure it gives him the knotty feeling. “It’s the last 10 percent of a painting that separates the mediocre from something special,” declares Jennings. “So until it says what I want it to say, I keep it in the studio.”

Lately, it’s been saying even more. A few years ago, disenchanted with his studio work, feeling that his larger pieces had slid into that rut of the dull and the safe, Jennings asked himself: What is it I appreciate in other people’s paintings? What’s missing in mine? Then he forced himself to relearn painting.

Knowing that everything affects how one paints—if you sit while you’re painting, he’d instructed his plein-air students, you’ll paint tight; if you stand, you’ll paint loose—Jennings took that same knowledge and turned it inward, using his tools to shift his style. For instance, fond of one-inch brushes for his plein-air paintings, he figured, Well, I’ll just scale up. But he couldn’t take working with the three-inch brushes because it hurt his shoulder. Eventually—groundbreakingly—he went to the knife. He started blocking in his paintings with a brush, then came back and finished them off with a palette knife.

“Now, I can’t tell where one leaves off and the other begins,” marvels Jennings at his newfound technique. “They’re too incorporated into a unified style—my style—by using a combination of these.” He uses the palette knife to control his anal tendencies, and if the painting gets too busy, he takes out one of his brushes and calms it down. “I never know exactly how it’s going to come out,” he explains. “And because of my palette knife and brush, I get almost a pointillist effect going, with these dots of one color next to dots of another color. So the closer up you get, the more abstract the painting becomes, the more impressionistic it looks. But the farther away you stand from the painting, it has a realism to it.”

It’s that distance that’s crucial to Jennings. “A key philosophy for me is a painting’s impact distance—where it’s best viewed from,” asserts Jennings. “For plein-air painting, it’s about four feet away. But the bigger the painting, the further away its impact distance. So when I’m painting one of my larger works, I’m always looking at its impact distance. Because wherever it ends up, I want it to command the room, I want it to make a statement.”

In order, then, to assess the impact distance of his larger pieces, Jennings uses every inch of his 30-foot-long studio in Sedona—and the 5-by-10-foot mirror he installed along one wall. While working on a 36-by-48-inch canvas, for instance, Jennings will stand about 25 feet back. Or he’ll turn around and eyeball it in his mirror. “When I get too close to my painting, I can’t even see what I’m doing,” explains Jennings, who paints standing up. “So I’m constantly stepping back. I’m constantly moving back and forth. I wear a path in my carpet, constantly going to the back of the room to make every decision I make about the painting. When you’re too close, it doesn’t look anything like it does from a distance, like it will when it’s finished and hanging in someone’s house. But when I’m 25 to 30 feet away, if it falls together from that distance, I’m happy.”

As for the notion that he’s digging around in territory already well worn over by himself and others, Jennings shrugs that off. “I’ve painted everything already anyway,” he chuckles. “But now when I paint something, it’s a completely different thought process and a different result.

“Besides,” he adds, “the West is where the color is. The weather’s better and there’s something besides six shades of green. It’s where the big landscapes are.”

All in all, he says gratefully, “My new work has become very satisfying—it’s more alive now. The real thing that makes you a professional is that you find yourself and your identity in your painting. That’s what happened to me. You close one door but you open two more.”

Jennings is represented by Knox Galleries, Beaver Creek and Denver, CO; Danela Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; New Masters Gallery, Carmel, CA; and Mountain Trails Gallery, Palm Desert, CA.

Featured in May 2006