En Plein Air: A Conversation With Scott Christensen

Idaho artist Scott Christensen is one of the most well-respected landscape painters in the country, and his understanding of light, ability to achieve pure color, and reverence for nature also make him a highly sought-after instructor. In this Q+A section, we list Christensen’s responses to 10 questions on landscape painting to give readers a glimpse into the artist's mind, process, and teaching style.

Interview by Allison Malafronte

Iseltwald, Switzerland
by Scott Christensen, 2009, oil, 24 x 24.
Courtesy Christensen Studio, Victor, Idaho.

American Artist: What led you to landscape painting?

Scott Christensen: I was raised in a family of teachers and coaches, so athletics were a major part of my background. After a college football injury took me permanently out of the game, I was forced to rethink my future and what I really wanted to do. I knew I needed a profession that would keep me outdoors.

AA: What is your primary goal in painting a particular location?

SC: I’m trying to capture the essence of a scene. Learning how to represent detail as information is as important as rendering. Rendering can become very mechanical, which can take away from your eye's natural observation. The camera shows everything in detail, but your eye sees in three dimensions. We must quit relying on photographs to represent what our eyes really see.

AA: What advice do you give your students to help them become better landscape painters?

SC: Outside of mastering the basics of painting, the most difficult task is developing a critical eye. It needs to be all your own—extremely demanding and never content. Speaking of the basics, one thing I’ve observed in landscape painting is that more emphasis should be given to the fundamentals of drawing. I myself have been guilty of that and have had to readdress the issue. Rembrandt said, “I have made it a rule that they [my pupils] must bring me their drawings, mind you, not their paintings. For a line never lies. Give me a scrap of a man’s drawings … and in five seconds I will tell you whether he has any talent or whether he had better become a brewer.”

AA: You are known for your workshops in Wyoming and Idaho, where you take painters away from the distractions and disturbances of everyday life and immerse them in nature for 10 days. Why do you think participants see such improvement in their paintings after this kind of experience?

SC: The first couple days of the class are spent understanding the accumulated knowledge of great painters of the past. I don’t ask them to paint like me, I’m asking them to set aside their preconceived ideas on how to approach painting. Some of our biggest strengths can actually be our greatest weaknesses. Many arrive with formulas—such as "if you mix more than two colors, you get mud"—that only confuse and debilitate the artist’s growth.

The tenets I teach are from the great painters from the past. It’s not new information but principles from past masters that have been handed down. These fundamentals aren’t restrictive when they’re understood; they help to liberate and move you past the technical and into the emotional.

Trees of Ireland
2006, oil, 48 x 48. Private collection.

AA: What is your philosophy on the artist’s connection to nature?

SC: Wherever I go, I have learned to be patient. One cannot travel from a mechanized world operating in real time—with instant replays and high-speed internet access—into a serene landscape and not have an obvious disconnect. Getting back into the rhythm of nature takes time. The artistic mind is one that takes years to develop. Painting never gets easier. Struggle is not something that one goes looking for. It will find you. Just give it time. This may sound trite, but I am still constantly amazed by the natural harmonies that I see from season to season just out my back door.  If an artist is not enticed by that, he or she has chosen the wrong path.

AA: What is your approach to using on-site sketches to develop larger studio pieces?

SC: Many of the studies are changed when they are enlarged in the studio, be it composition or a shift in temperature. There are a great many studies that will never translate to a larger work; this only adds to the intrigue to find a good idea, which is one of the most arduous of tasks.

AA: How would you describe your process?

SC: I'm recording light, colors, shapes, values, and edges as they relate to one another. I'm seeing the scene as a whole, yet trying to understand every part of it.

AA: What colors are included in your palette?

SC: My palette has been reduced to three primaries—yellow, red, and blue—and white. I usually add a couple of grays as values to modify color and tone. Having employed both broad and limited palettes, I’ve come to realize that where harmony is concerned, more can be achieved with less color. Even with a limited palette, the range of tones attainable now seems endless.

by Scott Christensen, 2007, oil, 48 x 48.
Private collection.

AA: Of all the plein air paintings you’ve done, which is your favorite and why?

SC: If I had to pick one, I’d say Coastal, which is a 48”-x-48” painting. I liked the difficulty of the circle composition inside a square format with no sky. The temperature of the light was the other intriguing element for me. In the on-site study—which is shown in my book The Nature of Light—there was a cooler, greener light. In the larger version, I wanted to extend the value range, so it had more intense light and a warmer palette.

AA: Who are some of your heroes in the landscape-painting genre, both past and present?

SC: Past: Isaac Levitan, Emil Carlsen, Alphonse Mucha, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Nicolai Fechin, Anders Zorn, Arthur Mathews, Edward Steichen, and Ilya Repin. Present: Clyde Aspevig, Carolyn Anderson, Tim Lawson, Susan Lyon, Scott Burdick, Dan Gerhartz, and Sherrie McGraw.

For more information on Scott Christensen, including art-acquisition inquiries and information on available paintings, call Kristin Mortenson at (208) 787-5851. Christensen’s new studio and exhibition space, located in Victor, Idaho (20 miles from Jackson, Wyoming), is available to visit by appointment. To view more of the artist’s artwork, visit his website at www.christensenstudio.com.



Weekend With the Masters Instructor
Scott Christensen will be teaching at American Artist’s Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference, September 9–13, 2009 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Although his full-day and half-day master workshops are sold out, there are still spots left in his half-day demonstration. For more information and to register, visit www.aamastersweekend.com. For any questions related to WWM registration, call (646) 841-0057.


Related Posts:


Plein Air Painting Blog
Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

5 thoughts on “En Plein Air: A Conversation With Scott Christensen

  1. I like Scott Christensen’s comments on drawing and I think his work is excellent. Great color unity and a very natural look to his paintings. Each little area can almost be a painting on it’s own -.this is great skill. The comment on “, more can be achieved with less color” is absolutely true when it comes to color harmony. Great stuff!

  2. Great looking paintings but it makes me ponder something I’ve noticed on this site lately and it is, where is the line drawn between plein air and studio paintings. Are those 48×48’s done completely outside in “plein air”? When I get emails about plein air painters from you guys entitled “en plein air” I get excited to see what a painter can do outside and then I feel constantly let down because when i open it and look, I find what appears to be studio paintings? I could be wrong about this, so any insight to help me understand plein air as you define it, would be great and much appriciated.
    Thanks and again, nice paintings.
    I would love to go to weekend with the masters and take your workshop but I’m not rich.
    P.S. What makes a person a master painter? 🙂

  3. It is so nice to see these thoughtful answers from Scott. After painting with Scott Christensen in Idaho in 2007 & 2008 it was obvious that he is by far one of the best instructors I’ve ever had. Studying with him takes you beyond the fundamentals of painting into a process of thinking and seeing that stimulates you to grow in unbelievable ways. My paintings, my creative process and the directions I continue to explore and develop as an artist have been pushed to even greater heights as a result of being with Scott and benefiting from his expertise, his honesty, and generous support. Since I studied with him I’ve seen substantial growth in my work. It’s been amazing and rewarding to reach a place where I can see my development. I can now make conscious choices that result in attaining new goals that once seemed problematic or difficult.

  4. Hi, Bvssey,

    Thanks for your comments. To answer your question, the artists you see featured in the “Conversation With” feature on the Plein Air blog are professional landscape painters who often use plein air painting for information gathering, studies, or to better understand their subject matter.

    Although all of images shown in those interviews with Scott, Clyde, Matt and others are large works done in their studios, most of them were done with the aid of plein air studies. I can certainly ask for future artists to start including images of those on-site sketches to compare with the final pieces.

    You’ll notice that in every interview the topic of plein air is discussed, and the artists are asked how they use on-site painting in their process. So, even though the images might be finished studio work, the topic of plein air is addressed throughout the article. Hope this helps.