Oil Painting: Michael Albrechtsen: Spend More Time Looking

0804albr1_451x600Michael Albrechtsen achieves a stronger impression of both the emotional and physical aspects of a landscape by standing back from his easel and thinking carefully about what he sees.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Cool and Wet
2007, oil, 40 x 30.
Collection the artist.

“I try to spend less time just pushing a brush around a canvas and more time thinking about why I want to paint the subject and how I can best express that reason to the viewer,” says Kansas artist Michael Albrechtsen. “During a nine-hour day of working in the studio, for example, I aim to devote six hours to considering how the picture is developing. Similarly, when I’m out in the field I make a point of constantly asking myself whether or not I have captured the essence of a scene.”

Albrechtsen has established a successful career with oil paintings that convey an impression of a location rather than a detailed account of the scene. Most of those are based on oil sketches, watercolor studies, and photographs taken on location. “The time available to me for painting en plein air is limited to the warm-weather months, or to the occasions when I travel,” he explains. “Nevertheless I usually have dozens of studies available from which to develop large studio paintings.  I also have enough experience painting in nature that I know how to interpret photographs and not copy them.”

All We Need Is
2008, oil, 40 x 60.
Courtesy Legacy Gallery,
Jackson, Wyoming

The reference material Albrechtsen refers to is stored around the studio he maintains on the lower level of the suburban home he shares with his wife and three daughters. His Hughes easel is set up at one end of the large room, flanked by a computer screen on which he can project digital photographs, a taboret that holds his palette and brushes, boxes of slides and print photographs, and stacks of small oil sketches and watercolor studies. “I work in both watercolor and oil on location, depending on the amount of time available,” the artist says. “The pictures are relatively small and are executed quickly because I am only after a sketch of the scene, not a detailed study. I would rather return home with a half-dozen quick compositions of shapes and colors than one labored painting.”

Once Albrechtsen decides a sketch or photograph would be appropriate to enlarge into a studio painting, he draws the outlines of the major shapes with sienna-colored Prismacolor pencils. “Color is more important to me than value, so I start by indicating the shapes with a colored pencil, and then I block in the color with light washes of oil paint,” he describes. “That’s especially helpful to the way I paint because I often start with the complements of the local colors. That is, I block in the evergreens with a thin application of a peach color, the blue snow with washes of cadmium orange, and so forth. The end result of that technique is a rich surface on the canvas created by vibrating interactions of the pigments rather than thick applications of the oil paint.”

Sun Struck
2006, oil, 28 x 22.
Private collection.

Once Albrechtsen indicates the basic elements of a landscape, he steps back and evaluates the composition of shapes, values, and color temperatures; and he considers whether the picture would look better if he simplified those shapes, pushed the color relationships, muted value contrasts, and/or adjusted the balance of elements. “Everything about the composition is aimed at expressing my emotional response to the scene,” he admits. “I might make things bigger or smaller, darker or lighter, more sharply defined or more obscure. I gauge everything based on the way I felt when I came upon the location. That’s more important to convey to the viewer than the exact shape of a snow bank or grove of trees. If making the trees larger or smoothing out the edges of the snow will enhance the feelings associated with the sense of atmosphere, the harmonious relationship between shapes, and/or the balance of colors, then the changes are worth making.”

Quite often Albrechtsen finds that a plein air sketch or photograph has enough potential to be the basis of several oil paintings that are either different sizes or that use the reverse of the original composition. “When artists recognize a scene has the potential to become a strong painting, they have to make a decision as to whether they want to paint everything available at that one location or use the elements in several pictures,” the artist says. “In my opinion, if the combination of pictorial elements works well in one painting, it is worth considering the same elements for another picture. Furthermore, I often find that going back to an image a second or third time helps me clarify the emotions expressed. In most cases, each reinterpretation is larger than the last and is a more successful representation of my intentions. I often recommend to students that they reconsider a composition they have previously painted and consider approaching the same subject with a different arrangement of shapes, a different quality of light, a reverse of the original design, or a larger presentation.”

Light of the Morning
2007, oil, 24 x 36.
Courtesy Legacy Gallery,
Jackson, Wyoming.
Past and Present
2007, oil, 36 x 30.
Courtesy Settlers West Gallery,
Tucson, Arizona.

As Albrechtsen develops his paintings, he tends to use a limited amount of oil color, no painting mediums, and filbert-shaped bristle brushes that allow him to keep the paint application relatively thin. “It isn’t necessary to use thick layers of paint and high contrast between the values to create a convincing space within a landscape,” the artist explains. “My approach to studio painting is exactly the opposite of the work I did for four years at Hallmark Cards, where the illustrations had to have a posterlike quality of sharply contrasting shapes and values that allowed shoppers to understand the image in an instant. Paintings that hang on the walls of a home can be appreciated for their subtlety and nuance.”

When Albrechtsen gave up his job at Hallmark to focus on his art career, his wife, Lynda, agreed to give him uninterrupted time to paint while she attended to their daughters and the household. Michael then set a goal of painting 100 original oil paintings before approaching a gallery. “I recognized that when people first start painting professionally, the quality of their work varies substantially from one picture to the next, and they tend to paint like someone they admire—a teacher or a well-known artist,” Albrechtsen explains. “I knew that either of those situations would make it hard to sustain a high level of personal expression in the paintings I showed to gallery owners, so I waited until I had worked my way through 100 paintings and felt confident I was creating pictures that were individual and meritorious. I wanted to interest a professional gallery in representing me, not a suburban frame shop or furniture store, so I waited until I had paintings a dealer and I could both be confident about exhibiting and selling.”

Inner Peace
2008, oil, 24 x 36.
Courtesy Legacy Gallery,
Jackson, Wyoming.
Sounds of Solitude
2005, oil, 40 x 30.
Private collection.

Another restraint Albrrechtsen imposed on himself was not making marks on canvases unless they really meant something. “I watched other artists mindlessly build up layers of paint without really thinking about the way the images was taking shape, and I thought that was really a mistake,” he comments. “It suggested that painting is simply the act of covering up the white canvas. George Inness said something to the effect that painting is the act of awakening emotions. If that is true, then every stroke has to have the end result of contributing to an awakening. It’s like the difference between scribbling and writing. Both reveal the personal ‘signature’ movements of someone’s hand, but only one actually conveys an intelligible message.”

Albrechtsen shares his techniques and ideas a couple of times a year during workshops in Scottsdale, Arizona; Fredericksburg, Texas; and the Pacific Northwest. He also tutors a local high-school student who aspires to be a professional artist. “My family and gallery obligations make it difficult for me to offer more than a couple of workshops a year, but I enjoy teaching and I stay in touch with people who attended previous classes,” he says. “I think I have something different to offer artists than what is provided in a typical landscape-painting workshop. I emphasize painting oil studies based on one’s memory of the light, colors, and atmosphere rather than using techniques for recording exactly what one observes. That is, I suggest that students make a number of quick, gestured summaries of the landscape rather than one labored painting. My point is to emphasize the thought process, not just the act of creating the illusion of a real place.

Heaven’s Path
2007, oil, 60 x 48.
Private collection.

“I start the workshop with a morning demonstration because students always want to see the instructor paint a picture,” Albrechtsen says in offering a further description of his workshop programs. “However, during the afternoons I ask students to spend no more than 10 minutes on painting a landscape on location or from photographs. I try to get them to record an impression, and then move on to another picture.”

About the Artist
Michael Albrechtsen grew up in Utah, served as a Mormon missionary in Thailand, and earned both a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. from Utah State University, in Logan. He was recruited by Hallmark Cards and spent four years working for the greeting card company before launching his full-time art career. His paintings have been featured in a number of art magazines, in gallery and museum exhibitions, and in juried shows organized by Arts for the Parks and the Oil Painters of America. For more information on Albrechtsen, visit his website at www.michaelalbrechtsen.com.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief and publisher of American Artist.

Related Posts:


Oil Painting Blog

One thought on “Oil Painting: Michael Albrechtsen: Spend More Time Looking

  1. I wish that one or two of his “quick, gestured studies” of the very detailed, finished paintings had been included as illustrations in this article so we could see what he meant by that description.