Brent Jensen | Beyond the View

By Rosemary Carstens

“Everything is beautiful, all that matters is to be able to interpret,” said French Impressionist Camille Pissarro. California plein-air painter Brent Jensen has taken Pissarro’s advice to heart and applies his own unique talent to interpret the essence of his subjects. As he expresses it, “My pieces use a loose approach, limited palette, and objective perspective—allowing viewers to be drawn into the painting.”

Jensen lives in Northern California, where he finds enormous variety in scenes to paint. A short drive in one direction, with his faithful beagle, Bosco, at his side, and he can set up his easel before a vista of pounding surf. Going in another direction, he finds the multi-hued geometry of Napa vineyards. “I’m equally comfortable painting landscapes, seascapes, figures, or architecturally interesting homes and buildings,” he notes.

Raised in Wyoming, one of seven children, he freely roamed the state’s windswept foothills, and it is there he first fell in love with the natural world. He sketched constantly, and in the sixth grade his drawing of an Eskimo spearing a polar bear won a statewide contest, setting him on the path to becoming a professional artist.

Jensen took the slow road to his present vocation, however. At the University of Utah he earned a degree in art and, for the next two decades, made his living as an architectural illustrator, using watercolors to render precise images of proposed new homes and residential landscaping.

By 2001 the illustration work began to feel repetitive and insufficiently challenging. When the opportunity arose to join a group of artists going to France to paint and study, he couldn’t resist. There he met C.W. Mundy in the village of Angles-sur-l’Anglin in the Loire Valley. Jensen and Mundy connected immediately, and Mundy became one of his most significant mentors. “I knew as soon as I saw him, with a cigar in his hand, that we were going to get along!” says Jensen, admitting to his own secret vice of a fine cigar now and then.

Jensen constantly strives to balance composition and a scene’s emotional content, to express its character in a manner that will speak to others and pull them into a painting. He likes to “mix things up and try new things” and is continually learning, reading about art, taking workshops, and “pushing creativity.” In addition to Mundy, he has studied with Scott Burdick, Quang Ho, Kevin Macpherson, Jean Chambers, and Ray Roberts, among others. Jensen also studies the work of masters who have profoundly impressed him—artists such as Pissarro, Sam Hyde Harris, and muralist and landscape painter Alson Skinner Clark.

A lively flurry of loose brush strokes, Jensen’s paintings energetically capture an emotion, not just a scene. At the same time there is a luminescent quality, a pure beauty, in each painting. His natural, fluid style evokes a mood as much as it portrays actual subjects. Says Diane Waterhouse of Waterhouse Gallery in Santa Barbara, CA: “Brent takes a simple subject and makes it compelling.”

Jensen loves history, and a lingering nostalgia for the past seems to shimmer around his subjects. Among writers, he favors Hemingway, particularly his stories of the Spanish Civil War, and feels that artists and writers in the past brought a sense of contemplation to their work not often found in these more hectic times; he tries to replicate that sensibility in his own art. The artist’s appreciation of times past can be seen in his studio space, as well, where he surrounds himself with art books, old-fashioned hats, still-life stands, vases, pipes, odds and ends he’s collected on his travels, and the work of artists he admires. Oriental rugs on the floor offer Bosco a place to rest while Jenson paints. On warm days, a soft ocean breeze slips into the room as three large windows shed abundant light on his two easels.

Jensen paints in oils on canvas—he likes the buttery texture and pungent smell of oils— and works on only one painting at a time. He first applies a medium-toned underpainting and then rapidly sketches in major shapes with a brush. As the painting progresses, he might sketch again, shifting shapes until he has the proportions and perspective he’s seeking. When he began his fine-art career, he used a very limited palette, but he has since begun extending those hues as his knowledge as a colorist becomes more sophisticated.

“My work is so personal to me that I don’t reproduce my paintings,” says Jensen. “Plus I think my collectors like to know they are the only one with that particular piece. I stay in touch with buyers. I find they like to have a conversation about a work, about where it was painted, what I was feeling or thinking, what inspired it. I like to honor that.”

His collectors echo this sense of personal connection to his paintings. Lisa Davis and Victor Person have collected his work for years. “We like the feeling of calmness and serenity that his paintings convey. He has the ability to make you want to be present in the scene, to enjoy the experience he must have had while doing the painting,” says Person. “Brent’s art makes us feel good.”

Although Jensen never tires of painting the sea, the wine country, and the architectural variety of the San Francisco Bay area, he also spends a great deal of time painting in other locales. He is deeply drawn to New England-style villages along the eastern seaboard and delights in the architecture, boats, and seaside scenes he encounters there. One of his own favorite paintings is PLUM COVE, which he feels “captures the mood of the region and draws the viewer in.” It’s an enchanting scene: swathes of brilliant viridian stroked against sun-blasted golds, rigging thrusting delicately into the subtle colors of a welcoming spring sky, with a maelstrom of brush strokes reflected in the waters of a quiet shore. It speaks vividly of both the past and the present. “It was painted in the Cape Ann area of Massachusetts, in the city of Essex, where schooners are made. I liked the way the old worn ships were resting in the low tide along the grassy banks of the aging shipyard,” says the artist.

On the same trip, Jensen ventured north to hauntingly beautiful Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then south along the winding coastline to tiny Lunenburg, one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada, where Easter-egg colored houses with elaborately gabled roofs date back to the early 18th century. In the village of Chester, he came upon the scene portrayed in RUSTIC PARADISE. “Once I saw it, nothing else mattered, and I knew I had to paint it,” he says. “The color of the weathered boathouse is unique, and I felt the cluttered equipment and workings of seasoned fishermen told a great story of the Maritime Provinces.”

Another of the artist’s favorite places to paint is the Normandy region of France. He says he feels intensely connected to the French Impressionists when he’s there, and that it is very emotional for him to stand where they might once have stood and to paint a scene they might very well have painted. This fall he travels to New Zealand. And he looks forward to returning to Tuscany to paint the landscapes and villages he recalls from visiting there as a tourist. A man who believes in goals and in striving for greater accomplishments, Jensen has plans to visit Russia and study Russian artists’ mastery of color and brushwork, to write more about art over the next few years, and to continue to evolve as an artist.

Jensen is a member of Oil Painters of America and the American Impressionist Society, and his work is exhibited in galleries across the United States. Interest in collecting his paintings continues to grow, as does his mastery of the medium and his ability to create evocative impressions of his surroundings.

Outside of the studio, Jensen enjoys gardening, reading classics, collecting wines, and cooking. “Cooking is like art. You add a certain spice or seasoning to a dish and it completely changes the outcome, much like adding a dynamic stroke of color can change the emotional force of a painting,” he says. When he worked as an architectural illustrator, he found there was too much stress, too many deadlines. Now Jensen feels free to roam, to paint, and to fully express himself. He has come home to the path he was meant to travel.

Tirage Fine Art Gallery, Pasadena, CA; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; Addison Gallery, Boca Raton, FL;

Featured in September 2009