On Location | Niles Nordquist


In May, Southern California landscape painter Niles Nordquist flew from San Diego to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he boarded a cruise ship bound for ports of call in Scandinavia and Russia. Wherever he stopped, Nordquist set up his easel amid scenes ranging from bucolic farmlands to bustling city streets. Southwest Art’s Bonnie Gangelhoff caught up with the painter while he was staying in Stockholm, Sweden. During his three-week sojourn Nordquist sketched as well as completed a number of works on location, mostly in Sweden. Part of the journey included Nordquist’s first visit to his ancestral home in Sunne, Sweden. This is the fourth in a series of columns that invite you to travel along with artists to far-flung destinations.

Why do you like to travel?

I have always been curious about the world around me, both the natural and the cultural aspects. I believe that travel gives me an understanding of myself, my culture, and my environment through exposure to other people and places. Painting while traveling offers me focused views of new surroundings, more than just touring and passing through places.

Why did you choose to go to Russia and Scandinavia?

Several reasons. I’ve never been to Scandinavia, and my family roots are in Sweden. I also am interested in the landscape painting traditions in this region (artists like Anders Zorn, Emil Carlsen, and Bruno Liljefors, etc.) I looked forward to observing and painting in that particular quality of the northern light. Russia was a bonus. It was too close to pass up, and it offered me the chance to see the art collections of the Hermitage as well as the post-Cold War, redeveloping Russia. In Russia, Finland, and Sweden, I wanted to visit the national art museums to see works by the Nordic and Russian masters.

How is painting in the land of the midnight sun different than painting in California or other places?

The sun does go below the horizon here, but the sky doesn’t get completely dark. This creates extended periods of dusk without shadows, which is a delight to observe and paint. This condition is similar to an overcast day, but with color in the sky reflecting onto the landscape. The sky seems much softer here, even with dramatic cloud formations. The sunlight seems less intense because of the latitude. Mid-day contains long shadows, similar to winters in Southern California. My color choices are cooler and more subdued. Value ranges are narrow, especially when painting late in the day. The mosquitoes still bite as they do in the Sierras and the Rockies, but they are less numerous.

What painting supplies did you bring with you?

I brought my standard plein-air backpack set-up, which includes an Open-M easel on a tripod, 12 assorted bristle and mongoose brushes, Gamblin oil paints (10 in all plus an alkyd white), walnut oil-alkyd medium, two palette knives, 8-by-10 linen canvas panels and carrier, and a brush wash container. I bought mineral spirits and paper towels here and a tube of English Red that was close to the color of many Swedish country homes.

What has been the biggest surprise on your trip?

I expected the Scandinavians to be more guarded in their interactions with foreigners. They have been anything but. All of the people I have talked with are warm and helpful, even when they don’t speak English. In Sweden, “Allemansratt,” or “every man’s right,” allows everyone access to private property as long as no damage or interference is created. This concept allows camping (and painting) almost everywhere in the countryside without the concern of trespassing.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Because of the opportunity to paint for 20 hours a day, I initially found it difficult to maintain my normal painting pace—too much to see and paint. I would like to have more painting challenges like these.

What is the most memorable experience?

I recall an evening on the garden grounds of a manor house where I stayed in Sunne, Sweden. The sun still lit the few clouds left in the evening sky. I thought about the centuries of my family’s life here and how they probably experienced the same serene beauty overlooking the lake. In a world with little peace and quiet, this is as good as it gets. And I got to paint it.

Nordquist is represented by Snowfire, Estes Park, CO; David Ryan Gallery, Orcutt, CA; and Masterpiece Gallery, Carmel, CA.

Featured in “Dispatches” October 2006