Jacobsen Paints a Still Life

(Still Life with Red Onions. Oil, 24”x30” by Eric Jacobsen)

Eric Jacobsen is one of Central Oregon’s most prominent and beloved landscape painters and painting teachers. His generous, amicable personality attracts people far and wide, and his tall, thin frame and trucker hat makes Eric easily recognizable when out painting en plein air (outdoors). His paintings, readily identifiable as his own, exude energy and spontaneity discernible through vigorous brushwork, luminous colors, and compelling compositions. In addition to his landscape painting, Eric also and often paints still lifes, a genre of oil painting that boasts a much deeper historical lineage than plein air painting. In this interview with the artist, we discuss this less visible and, sometimes for the public, less popular subject matter: the still life.

(My prompts appear in bold, and Eric’s responses appear after them.)

Why Still Life?

When you think of traditional painting you think figure, still life, and landscape. I studied figure painting and portraiture at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art in Connecticut, an atelier-type painting school. When I began painting on my own, I was doing landscapes, which is what interested me the most, and I was painting them from life, which I was trained to do. Here and there, I made a few attempts at painting from photos and quickly recognized that this approach wasn’t for me. I wanted to continue to paint from life, but heading out into the landscape wasn’t always possible. As an extension of what I was already doing, I soon realized that still life painting in the studio fulfilled the requirements of my passion and training.

Do you see yourself as participating in a particular historical tradition of still life painting?

I fall under the Impressionist umbrella but paint a little looser than well-known Impressionists like Monet or Renoir. I particularly admire the great Russian Impressionists who painted from life and especially painted still lifes. They are pretty loose, gutsy painters, and that is something I aspire to be. I stand on their shoulders, as it were: Bongart, Zakharov, Fechin, Formazov, Levitan, Serov. I also draw influence from many New England painters like Charles Movalli, Chauncey Ryder, and Jay Connaway, all of whom were part of my New England artistic education.

How do you set up a still life?

Still lifes are great because you can set them up any way you want. As a general principle, I like variety in my still lifes: something wood, glass, living, organic, metal. I also love something bright in still lifes: tomatoes and apples, objects with high chroma, and bottles, something see-through. I’m interested in depicting things that you might find in your grandmother’s kitchen, variety and the qualities the objects possess. 

I don’t adhere to hard and fast rules except those that relate to basic principles of painting. For example, when we think of a flat surface, there are areas of interest, like in the rule of thirds, that we must direct the eye towards. So we create some kind of leading lines within the still life set-up to accomplish this, like a drapery fold that leads directly to a vase of flowers. Lines occur as edges of objects that create movement, but there is also implied line, as in the placement of fruit along an imaginary line that leads the eye to a focal point. 

In addition to the use of line, both explicit and implied, balance is also key to a compelling still life. I’ve been at it long enough that I can sense if something is too heavy on the left side of the set-up, for example. So I might remove something on the left or add something right. Simple is always best. If you can do it simple, then you have a better chance of doing something complicated. More complicated means more stuff, more overlap, more objects to actually paint. It all comes back to the basic principles. If you don’t have a solid understanding of them, your set-up and the painting from it will suffer from a lack of design. 

Talk about the process of painting a still life.

In the words of landscape and marine painter Charles Movalli, “Plan your work and work your plan.” I think that’s a wise formula that sometimes gets bypassed. As artists, we don’t always have a plan, and although we don’t have to know everything in advance of making the actual painting, we need to know some general things that will help us along. For example, what are the major shapes and where will their relative positions lie on the picture plane. As I’m painting the painting, I go back to my initial idea, my blue print. I establish my big shapes, articulate what’s important, and work my plan. If nothing is working it means one of two things: 1. The plan was bad, or 2. The plan was good and it wasn’t followed. Painters have to be thinkers and planners, just as much as engineers, but in a different sense. Still life is probably one of the best ways to grow as a painter who values working from life due to the particular demands of the genre. A still life will bring some kind of accountability to drawing, a little more accountability than painting the landscape. You can be quite loose with landscapes, generalizing a group of trees as a single mass, for example. In a still life, however, you have tea cups, vases, bottles, fruit – all particular shapes with a particular sense of gravity and function that require depiction since you were the one who put them there in the spirit of good design. Each object is necessary to the unity of the whole. 

One danger in still life painting relates to the relatively static nature of the still life set-up. You have to be careful because you think you have unlimited time. It’s best not to think that way. More detail doesn’t make a painting. Being an impressionist, I’m going for the light quality: the nice feeling of light on a good design with the “happy accidents,” to quote Bob Ross. I call them that too; I can’t reproduce my paintings. If it’s a detailed work, I should be able to paint it again exactly. You can’t replicate a loaded brush or an edge that picks up some of the adjacent paint. My paintings live and die based on the excitement of happy accidents – the sparks, marks and colors that somehow happen yet are always based on good design. If the feeling is right, that’s the key. That’s Fine Art. 

To view the art of Eric Jacobsen, visit Mockingbird Gallery in Bend or his website at jacobsenfineart.com

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