Morten Solberg | A Man for Two Seasons

High Country Elk, watercolor, 22 x 30. painting, southwest art.
High Country Elk, watercolor, 22 x 30.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

You might call Morten Solberg a globe-trotter. His many painting trips have taken him from the frozen Alaskan tundra to the African desert, and along the way he’s had some harrowing experiences. He once stood face to face with a polar bear; another time he found himself nearly nose to trunk with a charging elephant. “Its trunk was in the air and its ears were flapping,” Solberg recalls of that moment during an African excursion. “It was 10 feet away. A guide yelled for me to stand still, so I froze.”

Hair-raising exploits such as these aren’t usually part of an artist’s job description, but for Solberg they are normal occupational hazards. Travel adventures, whether in faraway lands or close to home, offer the chance to absorb the mood of each environment and the wildlife that inhabits it. View-ers familiar with Solberg’s watercolors know that the environment is a key element. “I take in the sights, sounds, and smells, whether I’m in the woods or by the ocean. They are all part of my art,” he says. “If a viewer looks at my polar bear on the ice and doesn’t feel cold, the painting is not working.”

Powerful Presence, watercolor, 30 x 40. painting, southwest art.
Powerful Presence, watercolor, 30 x 40.

On this particular day Solberg is taking a break from his work to talk with a visitor to his Southern California studio. He leans his elbow on the flat hydraulic easel where his paintings unfold. Bookshelves surround him, bearing volumes of National Geographic magazines and videotapes as well as books about bears, badgers, leopards, swans, and elk. The 65-year-old Solberg, with his bushy gray beard and strap-ping 6-foot-4 frame, resembles a mountain man—one who could easily be at home in one of his atmospheric landscapes.

Solberg’s modest nature belies a string of awards and honors. He is a longtime member of the American Water-color Society, the National Watercolor Society, and the Society of Animal Artists. His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; the Cleve-land Museum of Art; and the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI. Last June his painting Where the Leopard Waits was featured in the prestigious exhibit Wildlife Art for a New Century at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY. And in May he was the artist of the year at the annual Reflections of Nature show, held at the Art & Cultural Center in Fallbrook, CA, not far from his home.

Throughout his career Solberg has sometimes felt pressure to cater to the marketplace by painting bright, cheerful, spring and summer scenes, but he says he is more comfortable creating works in the muted colors of fall and winter. He favors an Andrew Wyeth-like palette of earthy browns, grays, and blacks; two of his staple colors are Payne’s gray and burnt sienna. “I find that the colors of fall and winter and the feeling of those seasons are really the most satisfying to paint,” Solberg says. “I would rather go out on a dismal, dreary day. It’s more exciting to me than a bright, sunny day.”

Morten Solberg. southwest art.
Morten Solberg.

Solberg works on a flat surface rather than mounting his painting upright on an easel, and he uses dry illustration board to maintain control of the white areas he leaves unpainted. A two-inch brush, facial tissues, and a spray bottle are the main tools of his trade.

He begins a painting by laying down a splash of colors and abstract shapes. After laying in his initial wash, he pulls the paint into soft dispersions. Gradually, as he creates the mood of the piece, an animal will take shape in the scene; often it emerges spontaneously. Other times Solberg sketches the animal on tracing paper and then is free to place it in different parts of the composition. Usually the creatures in his wildlife works are rendered far more realistically than the impressionistic background be-hind them. Solberg is not so much interested in how a scene looks as how it feels.

Into the Wind, watercolor, 30 x 40. painting, southwest art.
Into the Wind, watercolor, 30 x 40.

Into the Wind, for example, depicts a bear sniffing for prey on a winter day. Solberg says the painting evolved first from a splash of color that evoked sulfur springs. He therefore determined that the setting would be Yellowstone National Park. As the atmospheric landscape emerged, so did a clear idea of the animal he wanted to include in the work. “The bear was the last thing I put in,” he says. “I wanted a strong, powerful creature because that’s how the landscape felt. It didn’t feel like a bird but rather the idea of a bear, wild and alone and looking for prey.”

Solberg is known for his use of expansive white space—a technique also seen frequently in Asian artwork. The negative space in Solberg’s works serves two functions: It’s aesthetically pleasing, and it gives the viewer’s eye a place to rest. A good example is the watercolor High Country Elk. Pools of color fade away into negative white space, while the eye is drawn to the focal point of the work. Minimal detail suggests ice-covered rocks.

The settings of Solberg’s works are usually generic and unidentifiable. Viewers are prompted to use their own memories and imaginations to supply the unfolding narrative or landscape details. “This gives me the freedom to create an emotional place rather than a geographical one,” Solberg says. “It also allows the subconscious to come through.”

Where the Leopard Waits, watercolor, 7 1/2 x 12 1/2. painting, southwest art.
Where the Leopard Waits, watercolor, 7 1/2 x 12 1/2.

For as long as he can remember, Solberg wanted to be an artist. He first studied art at Cleveland’s West Technical High School. However, his father, a Norwegian-born metallurgist, was not encouraging about the choice of art as a career. “He thought all artists were gay and lived in Greenwich Village,” Solberg says with a laugh. Fortunately, he didn’t let his father’s misconceptions derail him. After graduation he took a job as an illustrator with the Cleveland-based American Greet-ing Card company. In his free time he attended classes at the Cleveland Art Institute and made regular trips to the Pittsburgh Museum of Art, where he saw abstract expressionist, Asian, and African art. While toiling away at his 9-to-5 job, he gradually mastered the techniques of his craft. The most valuable lessons he learned came from regular critique sessions with his colleagues, he says.

In 1968, Solberg headed west to California when he was offered a lucrative position as an art director for a Los Angeles design studio. He has called the Golden State home ever since, and for three decades he has painted in picturesque towns up and down the coast—among them Santa Barbara, Carmel, and Oceanside.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Solberg left his lucrative career in illustration to pursue a full-time career in fine art. Although he has no regrets, the journey hasn’t always been a smooth one, he says. At one point, to help support his young family, he invested heavily in a print production business. Although the business was successful, it didn’t allow him as much time to paint as he had thought.

These days his talents are devoted to creating original works for major exhibitions. Although he is known for his wildlife works, Solberg has many other interests, which are reflected in artworks depicting Native Americans, cowboys, and fishermen.

While he does paint in oil and acrylic, watercolor is his first love. “No other medium can achieve the look of watercolor’s fluidity. I like the fact that I can’t control everything,” he says. “With watercolor, ‘happy accidents’ sometimes occur, and you don’t know exactly what will happen when you set out to create a painting.” The happy accidents reflect the way Mother Nature works in the real world, he adds.

Asked about his goals for the future, Solberg answers simply, “To keep getting better.” Any plans to retire? He replies with a laugh, “Artists don’t retire. They just paint closer to the easel.”

Photos courtesy Trailside Galler-ies, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Huntsman Gallery of Fine Art, Aspen, CO; Christopher Queen Galleries, Duncans Mills, CA; Maine’s Massachusetts House Gallery, Lincolnville, ME; and Gallery Jamel, Waldorf, MD.

Featured in June 2001