Jim Lamb | Return to Nature

January Afternoon, oil, 8 x 12. painting, southwest art.
January Afternoon, oil, 8 x 12.

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Jim Lamb was shocked when, after almost 20 years as a successful illustrator and commercial fine artist, he set up his easel outdoors and realized that he didn’t know how to paint. Not the first brush stroke.

Years of working from photographs in a tightly rendered, methodical painting style went out the window as clouds played hide-and-seek with the sun and the landscape before him continuously shifted in color and mood. “I discovered that nature had little patience. She was not going to wait around for a ‘fussy’ painter like me to do a picture,” the artist recalls with a smile.

At the same time Lamb made another stunning discovery, one that made the enormous challenge facing him worthwhile. It was the realization that once he made friends with plein-air painting, the genre would provide a means of expressing something that had little outlet during all his years as an illustrator: his deep love for the beauty of the natural world.

Olympic Evening, oil, 36 x 72. painting, southwest art.
Olympic Evening, oil, 36 x 72.

Today Lamb finds it humbling and almost amazing to remember his early attitude toward plein-air painting. He considered it “nonsense.” With little art history training, he had never developed an appreciation for the loose, textural style that characterizes much plein-air painting. Instead, he had always been drawn to the poetic but meticulously executed landscapes of early American artists such as Thomas Moran and Frederic Church, whose work he admired in art museums as a boy. Contemporary plein-air painters, he believed, were mostly setting up easels outside as a gimmick to pose as serious artists.

Gold Creek in Midwinter, oil, 8 x 10. painting, southwest art.
Gold Creek in Midwinter, oil, 8 x 10.

Little did he know. As it turned out, his opinion changed dramatically after a fellow illustrator introduced him to a plein-air painter who encouraged Lamb to buy an easel and umbrella, set it up in a beautiful spot, and paint. “When I began to do it myself I thought, ‘I can’t believe this—I’ve been missing out all these years!’” he says. “I get to be outside, and everything I need is there. I don’t have to wonder what’s in the shadow of a photograph, or what the true colors should be. It was a refreshing revelation for me.”

Painting on location struck a chord with Lamb not only because it enabled him to portray the magnificent landscape near his home in Washington state. It also stirred up memories of his early boyhood in western Montana, where his grandfather had a farm with milk cows and open spaces, and his family made a tradition of fishing on the Bitterroot River. He remembered riding along on his father’s milk route and began to recognize the roots of his attraction to farm scenes in wide, tranquil valleys.

When Lamb was about 5 his family moved to the Seattle area. His father, a talented artist, worked as an illustrator but changed directions after an influx of military photographers returning home from World War II brought strong competition to the field. Although he moved into another line of work, Lamb’s father remained a powerful and lasting influence on his son’s appreciation of the outdoor experience and the aesthetics of nature.

Growing up, Lamb expressed his affinity for landscapes through pastel and oil paintings, many of which his parents still have. But he, like his father, has a pragmatic side as well. After college and a stint in the Navy he decided a commercial illustration career might be more practical than landscape painting. He worked for a time at a Southern California design studio, where he met his wife, Cathy, also an artist. Together they leapt blindly into careers as independent freelance illustrators and gradually gained major national clients.

Among Lamb’s better-known clients was NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which in the late 1970s needed illustrations for a brochure to convince Congress to fund a Jupiter probe. (NASA got the money.) That job led to a request by the Smithsonian Institution for illustrations for a book on the sun, for which Lamb spent time with atmospheric researchers. In the mid-1990s, after designing a U.S. postage stamp commemorating New Jersey’s bicentennial, the artist created a series of four stamps inspired by classic children’s novels. One, based on Little House on the Prairie, is featured in Pushing the Envelope, an exhibition of postage-stamp art on view through May at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.

Lamb also illustrated for a number of national advertising agencies, publishers, and movie studios. After 15 years, however, as the constant pressure of clients’ deadlines cut into his family time, the sparkle of the job wore off. At the same time, the illustration business was beginning to feel the competitive effect of computers, and hand-illustration jobs were becoming harder to find.

Lamb was drawn to the idea of creating art that is valued in and of itself, rather than art created in the service of selling or illustrating something else. What he found, for about the next 10 years, was the world of limited-edition fine-art prints. In a style imbued with humor and warmth, he gradually developed a niche in the print market, primarily with paintings of puppies.

Yet as he reached his 40s, Lamb became aware of something missing in his work. In all the art he’d created over the decades, rarely had he been able to express his lifelong interest in the landscape. He found himself remembering his father’s excitement over the purple of a distant mountain range, the sound of a creek, and the feeling of drawing a deep breath of fresh air. He wanted to combine the experience of painting with being outdoors.

When a friend introduced him to plein-air painter Dan Pinkham about 10 years ago, Lamb’s preconceptions of the genre kicked in, and he didn’t realize he’d found what he was seeking. But he bought an outdoor easel anyway, set it up, and tried it. With his first uncertain brush strokes, everything he had thought about plein-air painting changed.

“I could see after two or three outings that I had a tremendous amount to learn, and not much time to learn it,” Lamb says. “It seemed as though I was starting all over again.” The challenge, of course, was to paint the landscape before it shifted, using quick strokes, a simple palette, and a degree of texture for which there had been no need in commercial art, where a painting’s surface is always slick and smooth.

Among a plein-air painter’s essential skills is the ability to focus on aspects of a scene that truly capture the eye. “When you’re out there, God is painting on a much bigger canvas than you are, so where do you start? For me, my focus might be a light effect, maybe just the way the sun is striking a tree,” Lamb says. “Or my main theme might be simply the design, the way shapes create dark and light patterns in the overall piece. Or it might be the somberness, the grayness of a day.”

The Pacific Northwest’s often overcast skies, in fact, create a delicately diffused light and a silvery quality that the artist finds attractive. (“You learn to use some nice grays,” he says.) The climate also seems to discourage less committed plein-air painters; Lamb has yet to see another artist in the places he goes to paint.

These places, which draw him back time and again, are the “lonelier places,” he says, wild or pastoral lands that satisfy his spirit. In his own corner of the country he follows back roads and trails to the Cascade Mountains, the Oregon coast, and verdant river valleys and farmland. He occasionally paints in California, Montana, Idaho, South Carolina, and the desert Southwest as well. Where the air is dry, he says, it takes a little time to adjust his palette and his eye to the clear, bright light and pure, high-key colors.

Wherever he paints on location, the image before him flows straight from nature to the eye to the brain to the hand to the canvas, with a level of concentration that cannot be matched in the studio. Nor, Lamb believes, could he attempt to match the loveliness of the landscape except through realism.

“I look at what’s out there and think, Wow! I couldn’t make a more interesting, beautiful design than that. I would never think of putting those particular colors together. I could never improve on that.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Red Piano Gallery, Hilton Head Island, SC; and Kootenai Galleries, Bigfork, MT.

Featured in February 2001