Scott Christensen | On Distant Ground

By Gary Ferguson

The following essay is excerpted from a new book on the artwork of Wyoming painter Scott Christensen. To order a copy call Christensen Studio, 307.734.5355.

The Color of March, oil, 20 x 40, Private Collection. painting, southwest art.
The Color of March, oil, 20 x 40, Private Collection.

To ponder a Scott Christensen painting be it of the Snake River gathering autumn in a cluster of cottonwoods, the Pacific Ocean swelling and breaking against the rocky coast of California, or a breathless morning in a southern marsh is to trade for a moment the thrum of daily life for the buoyancy and hopefulness of nature. In these works are traces of something Wordsworth once said, about how in the outdoors we find reflected the very spirit that drives our imaginations. Like the landscape itself, there is in Christensen’s work a sense that the painting is forever on the cusp of movement; that the light and the leaf, the bloom and the backwater, exquisite as they may be in that moment, are but one bright beat in the larger rhythm of the natural world. For me there is more than just beauty in Christensen’s work. There is breath.

Monument Valley, oil, 7 x 8. painting, southwest art.
Monument Valley, oil, 7 x 8.

Such vitality is spun out of countless hours Christensen spends roaming the outdoors field box, a few tubes of paint, a dozen or more sheets of canvas board stuffed into a backpack in search of an ever deeper understanding of the natural world. In the course of a single year he will create literally hundreds of on-site, or plein-air, paintings as a base of knowledge for his larger works. “I do a lot of searching out there,” he says, pointing out that much of his time is spent not painting but simply observing: noting shadows along a trail through the woods, studying the quality of color in a handful of autumn leaves floating down a mountain stream.

Given that Christensen rarely picked up an artist’s brush until his college years, some would say he came to the canvas late indeed. Yet in a sense, art was with him all along. One of the strongest memories of his Wyoming boyhood is visits with his grandfather, who gave himself over to painting after being confined to a wheelchair following a farm accident. “What I remember best,” Christensen says, “is the smell of paint in that house.”

Pillars of Color, oil, 48 x 40, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Pete Peters. painting, southwest art.
Pillars of Color, oil, 48 x 40, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Pete Peters.

Curiously, as youth unfolded, it wasn’t art that called to Christensen but football, baseball, track, wrestling—a fierce, consuming passion for sports that lasted all through high school and into college. Then at 21, a catastrophe. During a collegiate football game he suffered a fracture of his C-7 vertebra. The life as he’d known it for so long, filled with athletic competition, melted away like a June snow. Reluctant to embrace the obvious career choice of becoming a coach “it was no substitute for playing the game,” he explains—he began to feel a drifting, a sense of utter uncertainty about the next move. At one point, in order to fulfill a requirement for his degree, he enrolled in an art class; the course did end up lending a certain spark to his imagination. But on the whole it was a time of long, frustrating days broken by frequent trips to a trout stream he’d discovered years before in western Nebraska a place where he could be quiet, cast a fly line, try to imagine what might come next.

It was along that stream, you might say, that the notion of being an artist began to flower taking hold yet again, much as it had for his grandfather, in the aftermath of an injury. Christensen found the idea appealing not just for the chance to express his creativity (that desire would grow dramatically in the years that followed), but as a way to be under the open sky beside a river, at the foot of the mountains, in the places he’d long felt most at home.

Wyoming Autumn, oil, 30 x 36, courtesy Denver Art Museum. painting, southwest art.
Wyoming Autumn, oil, 30 x 36, courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Christensen’s beginning years as an artist were rooted in the study of classic works from a wide range of traditions. Early on, for example, he was struck by how the Impressionists tended to sacrifice the drawing aspect of their art in order to get just the right vibration of pigment, producing works with an uncanny degree of light and atmosphere paintings that fairly shimmered with color. At the same time he strove to figure out how best to incorporate those aspects of nature that would make his paintings stronger, without becoming a slave to the scene by trying to put in everything. For guidance he turned to the works of Sir Alfred East and Edgar Payne, men who were extraordinarily inventive when it came to selecting and arranging the most important elements of a scene.

By viewing the works of his friend Dan Gerhartz as well as Swedish painter Anders Zorn, Christensen became increasingly sensitive to the use of edges. A painter is constantly challenged to keep the viewer’s eye moving through a painting, returning focus again and again to a specific area of interest. “My goal is to take you somewhere, and one of the ways I do that is with edges,” Christensen says. Hard edges, he adds, give volume and stability to a painting—an especially important consideration in landscapes. Soft edges, on the other hand, lend a sense of atmosphere.

Southern Marsh, oil, 36 x 30, Collection of Lisbeth and Robert Esperti. painting, southwest art.
Southern Marsh, oil, 36 x 30, Collection of Lisbeth and Robert Esperti.

There were a great many other influences on Christensen during his early years as a painter—talented men and women, classic pieces of art rolling through his life like mountain showers, leaving freshets of new insight in their wake. People like Bill Reese and Clyde Aspevig; John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, and Anders Zorn; Edward Steichen; Alphonse Mucha; and Emil Carlson.

And then there was the delicate matter of what some painters call truthfulness. For this Christensen turned to the works of Russian painters Isaac Levitan and Ilya Repin. “There’s a subtle difference between pretty and truth,” Christensen explains. “There’s a time when your work feels like a pretty painting, and a time when it feels believable. I’m working on an aspen painting right now, exploring how I can make it bright fall without making it gaudy or garish.”

Not surprisingly, long years spent locked in the rigors of athletics left Christensen with an abundance of determination, a tremendous asset in meeting the challenges of art. And yet such determination came with certain baggage—in particular, a tendency to over-focus. “I had this enormous issue with color,” he explains. “On one painting I tended to hold it in reserve until the work was virtually colorless, and when I’d gone too far, I’d turn around and go in the other direction. It can be a big problem to focus too hard on any one element in a painting; viewing your work through narrow criteria can make you lose perspective. And in the end that hinders your creativity.”

In Christensen’s quest to unlock the secrets of color, an even more critical piece of understanding went unrealized. It had to do with the role of value, a term referring to the range in a painting between the deepest shadow and the brightest light. Value, in other words, has nothing to do with color, but is rather a measure of black and white. “When I finally got it—that it was value that sustains a painting, gives it stability—a lot of other issues, including color, began to sort themselves out,” Christensen says. Almost immediately his art began changing, growing more solid with each passing month. By 1993, 10 years after standing on that stream bank in western Nebraska and deciding to become an artist, Christensen was receiving invitations to national exhibitions across the country.

Christensen continues to participate in those national exhibitions, but his home base is
a 1,200-square-foot studio attached to his home in Jackson, WY. Inside, walls are hung with many of Christensen’s own drawings and paintings, ranging from 6 by 6 inches to 5 feet square. A large palette—on wheels, so that it can be rolled around the room—is ready and waiting, loaded with paints and brushes. Above is a mammoth easel with elaborate counterbalance weights, capable of handling large framed paintings—an important consideration, since Christensen tends to finish his works in the frames. Elsewhere in the room are an extensive collection of art books, dozens of hand-carved frames, and an assortment of old paint boxes, each one rich with memories of the field.

Beyond matters of talent and determination, Christensen says, a landscape artist must cultivate an extraordinary level of patience. Appropriately, patience is one of the things nature teaches best and is yet another reason he continues to leave the comfort of his studio to paint on site in locations around the world. There is in the stillness of the outdoors, he explains, a certain giving up of expectations—trading the rush of day-to-day living for the possibilities held within the smallest currents of the natural world: a breath of wind fingering the autumn leaves, the distant whistle of a hawk, the sound of the artist’s brush clicking lightly against the palette.

“All nature is but art unknown,” wrote the great English poet Alexander Pope. My thanks to Scott Christensen for his steadfast commitment not just to know such art, but to release it, that it might blossom in our lives

Featured in October 2000