Updated: Aug 7, 2020
An interview with Ken Elliott
By Fine Art Today April 29, 2020
"Gold Progressions" Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches Private collection, Michigan
On Landscape Paintings / An interview with Ken Elliott
Over 40 years ago I got a job working in a frame shop and for most of the years since then, I’ve been involved in the art business. More frame shops followed and later, working in and managing art galleries. I had an aptitude for it and enjoyed every aspect of the business: finding the artists and acquiring good works to sell. I came up seeing the arts from a business side and I’m very fortunate for the experience. As an art dealer I was often asked the question, “What should I be painting?” I remember the answer that popped in my mind and stayed with me ever since: Thrill yourself.
I’ve been working as an artist for over 25 years now and it’s easy to succumb to the confusion of what to do, market forces, etc. It’s a difficult path, learning how to make art and simultaneously run a small business.
What is it that businesses basically provide? This is an oversimplification but businesses either provide a service or sell something we have been persuaded to want. Art is not something we have to have, but for many of us we like the feeling of artwork in the home or public spaces. I would offer that we create a need in the viewer’s mind by making compelling artworks and ideas that go beyond the commercial clichés.
“Saccades I,” Oil on panel, 24 x 24 inches Private collection, Denver
In my works I’m not trying to project emotions, tell stories, or represent a scene. Certainly I’ve done these things in the past and they are valuable tools to have, but it wasn’t fulfilling for me. Then I remembered my advice: “thrill yourself.” If the artist is thrilled then many viewers will feel the same.
Some time ago I had a brief conversation with the great landscape artist Forrest Moses. He asked me how my work was going. I replied, “I’m sick of the tyranny of making landscapes.” He wanted to know what I meant by that. I added that I was not happy making pictures of places.
“What do you want to do?” He asked. A phrase quickly came to mind and I told him, “I want to make art objects." So now I am a painter who wants to make thrilling art objects. Think of those impressionist paintings in their decorative frames. Those works are more like art objects than pictures of things. Okay, that’s a simple goal but when I stepped up to that next blank canvas, it made me realize that the bar for making Art had just gone way up.
When I first started to draw, I put together four reasonably good pastels and showed them to a good friend, a respectable artist and art teacher. He gave me the usual positive comments and complimented me on how quickly I was learning. Then he asked me if I wanted a real art critique. I was certainly ready for that because I thought I was doing very well at the time as a newly minted artist.
He said, “Just because you can draw doesn’t mean you can make fine art.”
There’s truth. I got the tattoo and kept going. Looking back, I could have pushed myself harder but that’s okay, that’s the path I took. However, I often criticized myself for a lack of courage. I felt that if I were attempting braver ideas I would get further quicker. That may be so but I learned much later that it wasn’t courage I needed.
“Soft Blue Progression,” Pastel on sanded paper, 14 x 14 inches Private collection, South Carolina
On Creating Landscape Paintings
Today I don’t have concerns about doing large-scale works and trying out new ideas. Sometimes I appear pretty daring but that’s not what’s going on. I simply have more experience in solving problems. I’m not shy about getting into difficult positions anymore because I have more solutions.
I’m struggling less now but I find that I’m pushing myself harder than ever before to make those fine art objects.
Although I love all types of subject matter it is the landscape that pulls me the most. I’m not working outdoors so photography plays a role. Typically there is something in the landscape that interests me so I’ll get a shot of it and bring it into the studio. I don’t bother trying to represent the scene but rather explore the composition and other elements that intrigued me.
That initial painting is often the beginning of many more on that theme. My real passion is color, so that initial scene becomes a means to try out more color experiments later. I’m reasonably separated from the photograph so another universe opens up with unlimited potential, and so it goes as I continue through more paintings with those motifs of sky, trees, and land.
“Gathering Light II,” Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches Private collection
In the oil “Gathering Light II” (above), I took a scene that I see every day, all greens and browns, and I pushed it hard. The strategy was to create a powerful, high-color scene. The stronger colors are not diluted, but magnified because they were not repeated elsewhere. It all comes together in a bright, luminous landscape where all of the elements accentuate the others, setting up the glowing red-orange background as a focal point.
The pastel “Wood at the Lake” (below) was a workshop demonstration on painting landscapes. I wanted to get the basics of this scene down and free myself to try out some color combinations. I got into trouble right away with it (how nice to have an audience when you’re scrambling), but it worked out to be a good lesson for all of us. With time running out, solutions had to come quickly. This pastel needed a lot of clarity so I added the aqua and surprisingly, that was a move that helped on a lot of levels. I had been too focused on the colors elsewhere. Once I added the darks and the complexity of those branches the rest was simple and I finished it out with a series of small chromatic moves. The composition was solid enough that the colors hardly mattered at that point—there were so many color options.
“Wood at the Lake,” Pastel on sanded paper, 15 x 14 inches Private collection, North Carolina
I do far more oil landscape paintings than pastels these days but the pastel Soft Blue Progression is worth mentioning because it was also done under time constraints. My gallery requested something for a small show and since I had a studio full of larger projects on canvas, I had put this off. Now I was down to the day of the deadline, so I quickly sketched in a pattern of treetops, connecting them to a gently arching bit of land. As I began to fill it in, my concern was how to make it compelling. What I had on the paper was a “soft” start so I continued with that poetic vein. I held everything back and focused on making that background glow. That became the prime idea and from there everything else fell into place. I followed that pastel up with new a color combination in the oil painting “Gold Progression.” I’m very happy the gallery pushed me into doing that small pastel.
Earlier I alluded to creative destruction, and offered two examples of this: “Winter’s Morning” and “View to the Foothills, High Contrasts” (both landscape paintings shown below). These oils are the result of my painting over earlier, completed oils that had been in the studio for too long and it showed. I passed by those oils every day and at some point critical mass was reached and they went up on the easel. I had nothing to lose so I went on a fast attack and began to cover up the original oil creatively, letting some of the older work show through.
“Winter’s Morning,” Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches Private collection, Texas
“View to the Foothills, High Contrasts,” Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches Private collection, Colorado
Things were happening quickly and I didn’t stop for a break. I was determined to make a really good start with new color combinations and I would figure out the rest later. To my surprise, each canvas was finished in less than two hours and required just a few minor tweaks the next day. A Series of Landscape Paintings
OK, there is a trend unspooling here and it doesn’t require endless studio sessions. I decided to pull out a French word I had been saving: saccades. I wanted a new motif where I could endlessly abstract the forest, keep it fresh and produce thoughtful works (art objects) that would thrill me. A French title would be just the right touch, oui? With this Saccades series, much is abstracted and the forest motif becomes a place of patterns, color, and light effects. These works take on a life of their own quickly and they make a lot of demands: more shadow, color, light, mass, brights, blacks, in an endless dialog until they are finally in balance with all of their complexity. The Saccades works are designed without a singular focal point. This leads the eye to explore the equally engaging parts of the artwork without coming to rest in an obvious place. About the word saccades: Since the late 19th century, researchers have been aware of the phenomenon of saccades, the rapid movement of the eye as we shift our attention from one thing to another. As a result, vision itself is discontinuous. We construct a “map of reality” from saccades much as a film editor puts together a scene from individual camera takes. (From an article by the film maker Errol Morris, New York Times, April 10, 2008) I’ve had some nice successes with the two and five foot Saccades and the freedom they brought me. They made me want to try more of the tree forms I like doing but I wanted to keep that fresh look, something the plein air painters do so well. The result was the oil painting “Trees in Half Shade.”
“Trees in Half Shade,” Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches Private collection, Castle Rock, CO
That painting was another demo from a workshop. The entire idea was to make a good start and that was the case here. When I came back to the canvas about a month later, I could clearly see a number of good options going forward and happily, I wasn’t bogged down, trying to undo too many problems. That good start gave me the clarity to proceed. I decided to keep it loose and more color was added very directly with open strokes. There wasn’t enough contrast and the painting looked a bit weak so I grabbed a dark blue-green, adding it to the foliage and where the shapes made contact to the ground. The painting came alive with the new darks and now it required some stronger colors to keep up. Adding the brighter color was pure fun and I was a bit disappointed when the oil declared itself finished.
In the studio there are always a number of landscape paintings in progress — that way I never have to worry about being inspired to work. Plenty of puzzles are presenting themselves and I simply work on what seems solvable at the time. It’s all about making compelling, fine art objects by any means possible.
So back to the commerce side, I asked a businessman what was the secret to his obvious success. He said, “If you do something really well, making money is a side effect.”
Let’s go thrill 'em!
About Ken Elliott
Ken is a colorist with landscape paintings as the focus of that interest. His works are not portraits of places but scenes that are subjected to abstraction – still recognizable but infused with colors and values beyond the normal. For over 25 years he has explored his landscape themes, subjecting them to dramatic extremes of light and color combinations that are richly stimulating and at times poetic. His works are direct, showing the lessons of the Impressionist as well as Modern schools. For the past 25 years, he has worked primarily in oils and pastels. “I am continually drawn to the landscape and its infinite variations. The compositions are a starting point for unexpected things to happen. By pushing what is possible in the scene, new potentials are presented and I’m intrigued to follow. The works never follow a straight or efficient path because I am looking for what is not known and to bring it into form. I am trying to thrill myself and offer something new and precious to the viewer.” View more landscape paintings by the artist: www.kenelliott.com