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vol 8 - issue 01 (sep 2005) :: interviews
WILLIAM SCOTT JENNINGS
Interview by Das Bork

WILLIAM SCOTT JENNINGS IS AN ENERGETIC LANDSCAPE PAINTER WHO IS AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE EXCITING NEW EMERGENCE OF WESTERN PLEIN AIR PAINTERS. FASCINATED WITH VAST, EXPANSIVE LANDSCAPES AND THE PLAY OF COLOR AND LIGHT, JENNINGS COMPLETES MANY PLEIN AIR WORKS ON LARGE AND CAPTIVATING CANVASES. READ ON AS DAS BORK CHATS WITH JENNINGS ABOUT HIS TECHNIQUE AND EXPERIENCES.

Das Bork: Okay, to start off, I read that you started out as a commercial artist.

William Scott Jennings: Well, I went to a two-year school called Harris School of Advertising Art that was in Nashville, Tennessee. This was in '71. Back then, choices for a traditional art education weren't very many. This happened to be a small school with a very fundamental background, with portrait and figure and that kind of stuff. Until I went into fine art, I had never painted a landscape or painted in oils, because those were never considered part of the commercial medium. But I never had an easy time having people tell me what to do.

Both: (laugh)

WSJ: So I didn't work too long in any one place. I worked in Nashville and Dallas for a little while. Then I went out to Sacramento and opened up a commercial art studio on my own. I did that for a little while, and had a partner at the time that was a little more of the fine artist, while I was more the illustrator and into commercial art. I knew all the ins and outs of the commercial end. So it was after I met him that we would go out on the weekends and go painting. We'd go to Yosemite and Big Sur and any great place like that. It didn't take too long before that became more lucrative than wearing a tie and a three-piece suit and dealing with clients. So I decided, "Well, heck with that part. I'm gonna do this." So it started out pretty early on and was always fairly rewarding, as far as that goes. I was single and in my twenties, so it was easier to do than it would be later in life. I made the jump, and here I am twenty-five years later.

DB: Were your paintings of similar subject matter back then?

WSJ: Well, yes. I've always been tied to traveling, and I like National Parks and grand landscapes. So painting became the natural consequence of already liking to travel, camp, and going to places. So it became something that was a part of the whole concept instead of just going on a vacation.

DB: Cool. Like a full-time thing.

WSJ: Yeah.

DB: What were some of your influences?

WSJ: In art school, the instructors were always big on [Howard] Pyle, [Winslow] Homer, and all the different illustrators. But when I got out to California I started cruising museums, like the Oakland museums and others, and I started seeing these giant landscapes of [Albert] Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Hill. Those guys really became a passion for me early on because I had had no real landscape training. The only way to get any information was to go to the museums and study the masters, so that's what I did. That influence affected how I painted landscapes. I worked more towards the grandiose. But over time I became aware of the California impressionists of the Twenties, like Edgar Payne, Guy Rose, William Wendt, and all those guys. Later on, that part of the more impressionistic side of painting became my influence. Somewhere along those two lines I melded somewhere in between.

DB: How do you describe your style?

WSJ: My style, well... I used to coin the phrase "Romantic Representationalism", which was just something I put together. But it sort of covers what I talk about. I like to paint realistic subjects and real places, but at the same time I am influenced by the Romantic period of art. I like the use of color and the dramatics in the lighting, so I will naturally gravitate toward those types of subject matters that allow me to play with that. My actual studio technique on large paintings-- because I do paint up to about 6' by 8'-- went through an evolutionary change about three years ago. Up until that point I was more like a rendering type of artist, really technically painting what I saw. About three years ago I decided I couldn't stand to look at another one of my paintings.

Both: (laugh)

WSJ: Because my paintings weren't matching what I enjoyed in art when I traveled and looked at other paintings. So I started working on a more painterly technique as far as paint application goes, using a lot more paint and getting away from the totally illustrative side of thin paint and technical draftsmanship. I got more into perceptions and interpretations, and really just playing with color and how colors react with each other. Because it's actually never a color that makes or breaks something. So that has become something that has really reawakened my interests and gotten me excited about what I am doing again, and that seems to help everything else. When you're excited about it, other people are more excited about it, too. It shows in your work.

DB: Right. In talking about color, how do you achieve color harmony in your work?

WSJ: Well, it's a combination of things. First of all, I like to do a lot of plein air painting [painting outdoors], which is getting in the field and doing studies that usually take me about an hour and a half. Generally, I work small: 10" by 12" or 11" by 14". This is where you really learn what goes on in nature, as far as how to portray the light effects and the colors that you see with unfiltered information, as opposed to using photographs and that kind of thing. I lived for fifteen years in Taos, New Mexico early on in my fine art career. There is a lot of impressionistic and plein air painting going on up there, and that really helped teach me a lot about how far you can push a color.

DB: Just learn from your peers.

WSJ: Well, just in that all artists absorb information from everything around them. To be open to everything is what helps give an artist a chance to develop their own distinct style, which is an important thing these days. Like being able to recognize an artist's work from across a room when you walk into a gallery. It is an extremely big step in the artist's career, as far as public awareness of your work goes. So in my work I became more impressionistic, almost abstract at times when you stand right up close to it. So one of my philosophies I teach students is that every painting works best from one distance-- and that's a subjective distance as far as what the artist considers it to be-- from what I call the maximum impact distance for a painting. The bigger the painting, the further away that distance is gonna be. When I work... well, I'm working on a piece right now as we speak. I don't even stop painting.

DB: (laughs) Oh, wow. You're painting right now?

WSJ: Yeah, on a 40" by 66". I never sit down. I just stand and walk around and move constantly. Anyway, but on a painting that size, the end result is that it's going to hang in a big room on a big wall, so I sort of estimate where the painting should be viewed at its most important distance. Generally that's where you enter a room and it's across from you commanding a lot of attention. So I paint all my paintings and make all my decisions based on whatever I consider to be that impact distance. So for a painting like a 40" by 66", that may be thirty feet away. If you make all your decisions based on your best distance and don't even consider how it looks when you're standing two feet in front of it, then you don't do things that don't add to the overall effect of the painting. The only people that want to get two feet from my paintings are artists that want to study them, but not as a viewing distance. So when I stand up to my paintings close, sometimes I can hardly tell what I'm doing.

Both: (laugh)

DB: Because you do a lot of texturing in your work, right?

WSJ: Well, I work with decent sized brushes. My main brush is generally about a one-inch wide synthetic bright.

DB: I think I read that was the only brush you use.

WSJ: Pretty much. When I'm in the studio I use a couple larger ones, but when I'm in the field, this is it. It's kind of a one-brush technique. But in the studio I also use a palette knife. In fact, I do something sort of the reverse of what people think. I block in paintings with a brush, and then I will go back and basically do as much of the detail work as possible with the palette knife. It's my nature to get too anal, and this keeps my painting looking fresher. I can control how tight I can make it just with the tools I use. Then I'll come in with the brush and mix the two techniques together to the point where you can't tell where one picks up and the other leaves off. I sort of use the brush like a palette knife, anyway. I load it up with paint and apply it in impasto. Between the two it creates a more representational appearance of detail than strictly a brush painting, because you have all this textural input and contrast of values and colors that are going on all over the place because of the palette knife. They create an illusion of detail when there actually isn't. It's actually looser than it appears. Some of the things I try to capture is the light, the color, and the feel for the size of big places.

DB: When you look at these large paintings that you do, how do you want people to react to them?

WSJ: Well, basically, I want people to be able to feel the feelings that I felt when I was there. If it's on the edge of the Grand Canyon, I want to feel the distance. If it's in the desert, I want to feel the heat. If it's in the ocean, I want to smell the breeze. What you want to do is evoke emotion and play through interpretation, rather than just literally reconstruct something. If literal reconstruction was the be-all and end-all, then photography would be more important than painting. A literal translation cannot give you the feeling of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon like an emotional response can, where you make slightly exaggerated colors, mood, dramatics, and size just to the point where it evokes that emotion better than a photograph. When you're standing on the Grand Canyon it's huge. A big painting is still a reduced image of the Canyon. So therefore you have to try to reconvey that size and that feeling with subtle artistic license to create that mood. I guess that's why people buy paintings, because they get that emotional response from something, whether it relates to something they have seen or it evokes a feeling that they respond to and like.

[CONTINUED AFTER IMAGE]

DB: So, by what you're saying, do you mostly paint by visual memory?

WSJ: No. I mean, I still take photographs of everything. But I do about 150 plein air paintings a year. So I'm standing here and I can look at a stack of about a hundred of them sitting out here now. I generally paint these for my own information. They are my color and light source for my studio work. The photographs are just there for the amount of information that they can convey that isn't put into a quick impressionistic study. If I need to see how a rock structure was or how it worked, then I'll look at a photograph. But when I want to capture the feeling of the light and the color and other things of the day when I was there, then I'll use my studies for that.

DB: Do you approach your large paintings much like you do your plein air?

WSJ: Well, yes and no. You know you have the luxury in the studio of taking as long as you want. My large paintings generally take ten days to two weeks, whereas a plein air painting takes an hour and a half. So your focus is a little different. The intensity is what makes plein air so popular. It's very quick and intense painting, where every brushstroke shows the intensity that is going on. When working in the studio you have a more relaxed feel, so your work will actually come out differently. But generally there is a process that an artist follows that is similar in both types, although there are a lot of differences. What is the same is generally how the artist approaches the painting. Instead of looking at a scene and seeing all the rocks, crevices, trees, and all that kind of stuff, what I look at in a scene is the pattern of color and light forms, and the abstract shapes that are created within that. Every piece of the painting becomes a mass or block in the overall painting. That is really what I am concentrating on when I am painting, is the reaction between the light and the dark. Because you're not really painting the shadows or the light. You're painting how your eye reacts to the light and shadow at the same time, and how your eye tries to handle it. That's what you try to reproduce in a painting.

DB: I was wondering if, in your large paintings, if there may be some stories or life events that have gone into them?

WSJ: Sure. Right now I'm working on a 42" by 66" of inside the Grand Canyon. About five years ago now, I was part of a group of fifteen artists that rafted down through the Grand Canyon for the first time ever as a total painting trip.

DB: Wow. You rafted the whole way?

WSJ: We rafted eight days.

DB: So you brought all your painting gear in the rafts?

WSJ: Yep. There were fifteen of us and we took two rafts. It was an organized commercial thing, where they provide tents, food, and everything. But instead of it taking three days it took us eight days because we were constantly stopping and painting. So over the eight days I did fourteen paintings. That was pretty average for the group. What that gives you when you get back is a set of parameters for all aspects of the Grand Canyon or that trip. What you see is the pattern of repetition. You see that, "Okay, when the light is reflected off an opposite wall it's this color, and the blues are this color." You establish a whole set of parameters for what controls the light and makes it feel like that spot. Once you find those, then you can go back and work from your photographs and whatever else. I did fourteen paintings, but I took 350 photographs. You can go back and use those photographs for a design, and you have all the information you need for the color parameters from those fourteen paintings. So that's a real value. I've probably done ten large paintings from inside that Canyon trip. It wouldn't have really been possible without the information from the plein air studies, and the only way that can be attained would be by floating through the Canyon, because it's the only way you can get through it.

Both: (laugh)

WSJ: So there's that kind of trip, those kind of stories behind the paintings. Most of them come from some sort of event or trip. I generally won't think of painting someplace that I haven't been, and I hardly would have painted it if I hadn't done any plein air paintings of it, even if I ran by and snapped a picture of it and kept going. Chances are that I'd want to have more real information before I jump into a large painting. Those are sort of major commitments.

DB: I was wondering what your hardest plein air painting experience was?

WSJ: Well, unfortunately all we've been talking about is the Grand Canyon. It's like I don't go anywhere else. But I was painting on the rim of the Canyon a few years ago.

DB: Oh, that sounds scary.

WSJ: Well, it's fine. I'm so into the largeness of the landscape that I don't even think about being on the edge. But at this particular time I was standing at about the highest drop-off in the Grand Canyon, at a place called The Abyss. You could fall at least half a mile before you would bounce off a rock, and then you'd go another mile or so down the hill. I was standing about fifty feet beyond the guardrail section. You know, sort of off to myself, basically eliminating 95% of the tourists from bothering you while you're painting. So I'm past the guardrail some fifty yards down, and a Japanese tour bus had pulled up. So they had been out there for a while taking a look around, and as they were looking over the edge one real sweet, demure Japanese girl in broken English came up and asked if she could take my picture. So I said, "Sure. No problem with that." So she takes my picture. Well, all the other Japanese tourists on the bus saw this, and almost every one of them came over. They all started taking my picture. They wanted to have their picture taken with me. So they're putting their arm around me and having their picture taken, switching cameras with their buddies. We were standing at this drop-off and I'm a foot from the edge, and these guys aren't paying any attention. But anyway, I figured I'd live through this and eventually get back to my painting. And I did. They eventually loaded back up into the bus, but before they pulled away another Japanese tour bus pulled up and they saw me, so they all came over, too.

DB: No way.

WSJ: This happened three times before the chain was broken. I had to endure about a half-hour of this. But I actually got my painting done.

DB: Oh, wow. (laughs)

WSJ: Even with all that, it came out pretty decent, I thought. But a part of plein air painting is dealing with the environment and the people. I've painted at a lot of major pull-off spots before, like the number one pull-off spot in Yosemite Valley. I had a crowd of fifty or more around me the entire time I was painting. That actually happens all the time in these plein air painting events that go on around the country. I just got back about a week ago from Laguna Beach which has one of the largest, if not the largest plein air event each year. It's in its seventh year at the Laguna Art Museum. There are fifty artists that are invited throughout the country. They do these paint-outs, which are basically PR for the public. It's a way to have a bunch of artists painting in a small geographic area so that everyone can walk around and see how the paintings are done and how they come about in such a short amount of time, which is fascinating to the art-buying public that hasn't seen that. In those types of situations you generally end up with twenty to thirty people around you all the time. A couple of them will stand there and watch you do the whole painting. Everyone else comes over and appreciates it for a little bit. Those people will come to the opening, and the first paintings sold are the ones people saw being painted, because that strikes a chord. So you get used to having all these outside diversions. Sometimes you just gotta pull out the old iPod, you know?

Both: (laugh)

DB: Yeah. Just jam away while you're painting.

Both: (laugh)

DB: It seems like a lot of plein air painting is happening out West.

WSJ: Well, it is.

DB: Why do you think that is?

WSJ: Well, I think there are a couple reasons. First and foremost is that the light in the West is so good. That's what attracted the first wave of artists from the early 1900s. Quite a few came out to Taos-- [Louis] Sharp and [Eanger] Couse and all these artists. Then another group migrated from the East Coast again to California, where you've got spectacular light all the time and great weather for getting outdoors for painting. That doesn't happen in the East nearly as often. So because of the quality of the light and the great weather to paint in, the western half of the United States has always been popular for artists that paint landscapes. The other side of it, too, is that there has been a real resurgence in these last ten years in plein air.

DB: Yeah. It seems like it's coming back real strong.

[CONTINUED AFTER IMAGE]

WSJ: It really has. It's really in its peak in California. I mean, I don't see how it could get any more popular. In general, there was a whole period of about fifty years, through the Fifties until now, when modern art sort of came in and took over. That's when plein air and Impressionism sort of died down, and the more modernistic forms took over. Even when I went to art school in '71 it was basically a no-rules, just-be-and-just-do kind of philosophy. That whole philosophy created a gap in the learning process for artists because they hadn't had traditional teachers that had been there for the past twenty or thirty years. So getting involved in plein air teaches an artist quicker than anything else, which is why I teach plein air. It's a way for art students to get one-week workshops from different artists, and to get a broad perspective of techniques and styles.

DB: You learn how to look at things in a different way.

WSJ: And it's important for an artist to do that. You don't want to just copy somebody else's style, but you want to take in as much information as you can from a lot of different styles. You know, what works for you, you keep; what doesn't, you toss. Then you develop your own distinctive technique and style for yourself.

DB: Right on. What is it about painting that keeps you doing it?

WSJ: Well, what I tell people is that it isn't my work, it's my therapy. It's really more who you are than most other jobs, I think. Most artists don't say they're going to be an artist and get rich, you know? That's generally not a smart path. It's because something has to come out. I think as a creative outlet, especially with plein air, it gives you an extreme rush of satisfaction. When you can go out with a blank canvas and in an hour and a half come back with a finished painting....

DB: Yeah, totally. I get addicted to it.

WSJ: Yeah, it is very addictive. Most of the guys that I know that are in the plein air circles and shows that I'm in, that's almost 100% of what they do. They do very little studio work. They don't like studio work. So it is like an addiction, and creatively it's very stimulating. On the other side of that, I get tired of only being able to produce something I did in only two hours. I have something inside of me that wants to sit down and take two weeks to do something that can't be done otherwise. Because I get bored easily, it's fun to go back and forth between the two things. I'll work in the studio for about two weeks to a month, and then I'll take a week somewhere and paint outdoors all week. It's sort of what I am doing now. I just got back from Laguna, so I get to paint in the studio for a couple weeks. Then I'm up to Colorado to do more plein air stuff.

DB: Very cool. Well, I have just one last question. It's a question we ask everyone we interview. In your opinion, do dogs have lips?

WSJ: In my paintings?

DB: No, in your opinion.

WSJ: Do dogs have lips? Well, I don't have them in my paintings, either.

Both: (laugh)

WSJ: I have two golden retrievers, and there is a point where the fur stops and the mouth starts, and they look like they have black lips. So I'll say yes, they do.

DB: Alright.

Both: (laugh)

WSJ: In fact, one just walked in as I said that. He's got a big smile on his face, and it looks like he's got lips.

CHECK OUT THE WORKSHOP WE DID ON WILLIAM BY CLICKING HERE.

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