Artist Erin Hanson began to study oil painting when she was only eight years old. By the age of ten, she had completed her first paid commission. Her portfolio of work only grew from there, and after graduating from UC Berkeley, the creative established open-impressionism–her own distinct style of painting. Before long, other artists started emulating Hanson’s technique and she was credited as the inventor of this contemporary style. Since that time, Hanson’s continued to pursue her artistic passion, allowing the natural world to serve as inspiration. Locations such as Zion National Park, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Paso Robles, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Anza-Borrego desert have each played the part of “muse” as the painter aimed to create a painting every week.
We were lucky enough to get in contact with Hanson to ask a few questions. Scroll down to read that interview and learn more about the artist’s relationship with open-impressionism.
You say that Red Rock Canyon inspired you to dedicate your life to one distinct form of art. Can you elaborate?
My style of painting is very chunky and abstracted. This style began when I was painting a lot of comic art and Japanese landscapes in ink while I was in college. When I moved to Las Vegas and started rock climbing every week, the obvious thing to paint was rocks… lots and lots of rocks, in all colors and shapes and lighting. The dark cracks in the rocks, separating out the flat planes of color, were easy and fun to paint, and my style developed from there. When I moved back to California several years ago, I decided that fluffy oak trees and winding rivers were really just like differently shaped rocks and I could apply my same technique to painting them. From there, an almost mosaic style of painting has evolved, which I like to call “Open Impressionism.”
There was a very definite and distinct moment when I became inspired to paint landscapes. It was when I was moving to Las Vegas, having never been there before, with my mattress tied to the top of my car, blowing awkwardly in the wind, my seats full of boxes, and knowing I was making a huge life change. One of the changes I wanted to make was getting back into art, but the postulate was vague and confused. Up until then I had painted everything from urbanscapes to pets to nude models in all sorts of mediums, from watercolors to pen and ink to giant 50-ft acrylic murals. Then I saw the sun set over the dramatic peaks and plateaus of the desert, their shapes abstract and delineated, the colors unbelievable. I decided in that moment that I could paint this landscape a thousand times, and I knew I would concentrate on landscapes exclusively and that the thick, chunky texture of oil would be my medium.
You started your art career at a fairly young age. Was there someone in your family who encouraged you to pursue the arts?
I did not have any professional artists in my family, but my parents are both musicians and I learned very early that practice makes perfect. My dad suggested to me that I draw 5 life drawings every day, to develop the skill and confidence I needed to become a painter. I took this advice to heart, and I firmly believe that the best way to learn to paint is to paint every day and perfect your skills by practice and doingness (not just by studying concepts!).
Did you receive any valuable advice from art instructors along the way that still serves you today?
I went to a small private school, where I graduated high school at age 16. For 10 years at this school I had the same art instructor. Aside from valuable lessons in technique and theory, the most important thing I learned was to open my eyes and draw objects as they really were, not draw my assumptions about them. We did a LOT of drawing and painting from nature and still life, and I did hundreds of repetitions of drawing my own face in the mirror or drawing my own hand holding the drawing pencil, drawing itself on the paper (M.C. Escher style). It was all this practice painting realism that allowed me to eventually simplify the complexity of what I was seeing and develop the minimalist approach that I have today.
How would you define “open-impressionism”?
Open-impressionism is a contemporary blend of classic impressionism and modern expressionism, with a plein-air-style technique. These oil paintings are created wet-on-wet, without layering, relying on the vibrant underpainting for a transparency effect. Open-impressionism is all about capturing impressions of a landscape, memories and fleeting glimpses of color. I am not trying to re-create a photograph, I am trying to get my viewers to open their eyes and see their world a little differently. I want people to look at the San Gabriel mountains, when they are stuck in their car during 5pm traffic, and see the amazing range of purples that appear when the sun starts setting, and the brilliant oranges and sherbet colors in the highlights. It is easy to zone out and not look around, but I am often surprised at how truly beautiful Los Angeles is.
Since you create one painting every week, who or what do you turn to when looking for sources of inspiration?
It is very easy for me to create a new painting every week… in fact I have my next 50 paintings planned out in great detail, if I only had the time to paint them all! I have been backpacking and hiking in National Parks and stunning desert scenery for over a decade, and every year I accumulate more reference photos than I know what to do with. Last year I drove from Seattle to Park City, Utah doing art festivals, and I drove through the Cascades at sunset, hiked around Smith Rock at dawn, explored the idyllic pastures north of Boise, and then the beautiful scenery of the Rockies. From that trip alone I can paint hundreds of paintings, but I have only had a chance to paint a few. If I am ever feeling low on inspiration, all I have to do is go hiking and I am 100% revved up again.
When you look through your own portfolio, is there one specific painting that stands out amongst the rest?
I like to experiment with my paintings, trying different techniques and effects with the paint to create a more stunning visual image. One painting that I experimented with turned out so well that it influenced my style from then on out. This painting was called Crystal Light, painted in 2013. I loved the way the tree branches formed a mosaic, stained glass imagery, perfectly communicating the way I perceive light filtering through trees.
What is your creative process like?
The first step to creating a painting is getting the inspiration. Several times every year I put down the brush and go out by myself into the wilderness to hike and explore. I visit the Colorado Plateau every year, revisiting some places like Canyon de Chelly and Zion National Park over and over to see the landscape in different lighting and search for new compositions in the red rock cliffs. After returning home from a trip like this, my camera is full of thousands of ideas to paint from. I then have to somehow glean from my 2-dimensional and flat-looking photographs what it was actually like to experience the beauty I saw a few weeks or a few months earlier. I have to look back in my mind and try to re-capture those stunning colors and feeling of space and motion that get lost in a camera. After printing out several different photos from my stash, I sketch out an original composition that will transform my equally flat canvas into a three-dimensional miracle of color and light.
If you could describe your work in three words, what would they be?
Vibrant, textured, mosaic.
What advice would you give to those who want to follow a similar path in life?
I was told by many adults growing up that art was a difficult way to make a living. I decided therefore to get my degree in Bioengineering when I went to UC Berkeley. After graduating, however, I just went right back into art and I have never looked back. Yes, it is hard to make a living as an artist, but not if you decide to take full responsibility for the business of being an artist. If you sit back and wait to be discovered and wait until your paintings are “good” enough to be sold in big galleries, it will be hard to make a living, yes. With the internet today artists have the ability to get their work in front of thousands of interested buyers and you can market your work directly to your collectors. My advice is to go on Amazon and buy every book on art marketing you can get your hands on. And then dedicate, for every hour you spend painting, an additional hour to growing your business and promoting your own art. You will find that being an artist is not only a very well-paid way of making a living, but the most rewarding thing you can do.
My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Erin Hanson.