I had the distinct privilege of meeting Michael Albrechtsen a few years ago during a plein air event in the Flint Hills of Kansas. I had admired his work for years prior to actually meeting him. As it turned out, he’s a very funny, interesting, and enjoyable guy to be around.
He grew up in Utah within sight of the Wasatch Mountains. His family heritage is one of cattle farmers and outdoorsmen. He has always loved to draw, but when receiving a “D” in his first high school art class, it discouraged him from pursuing art. He was 26 before actually moving forward with a professional art career. So, after many years now as a professional, I wondered what he’s most proud of in his career.
“My family and the time I have been able to spend with them as a result of being an artist”, he said. “Also, we’ve been able to keep it together through all the struggles that the life of an artist brings. I love my family and owe my whole painting career to them. As far as paintings go, I always tell people that my American Idol is painting murals for the Mormon Church. Although they are 10′ x 100′, they’re the same as a painting I would do in the studio, just a bit larger. I’ve been able to use all the things I’ve learned while painting something very large and impactful. It has been an experience that not only has improved my painting skills, but has brought me closer to God and my beliefs. I have been able to use the talent given me to give back and glorify him. To me these murals are the most important thing I do as an artist.”
I’m so pleased to bring you this interview with my friend and fellow artist, Michael Albrechtsen.
Why are you an artist and why a landscape painter? I know you hear this a lot, but i just feel I couldn’t be anything else. I have felt the need to draw or paint my entire life, even though I didn’t get serious until I was 26 years old.
I love nature and everything that God has created for us. I have always loved being outdoors and being a part of nature. I used to primarily paint figures and figures in the landscape. I noticed that the landscape part of those paintings looked terrible and that I needed to spend more time learning the anatomy of the landscape to support the figure. So I started painting outdoors more and more, and found I enjoyed that much more than hiring models and posing them. So I bought a plein air paint box and never looked back.
How would you define art? That’s tough. I really like Picasso’s quote on art “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” A child feels everything and reacts quickly to those feelings. I think art should “feel” the same way. It shouldn’t be about shock, but a deeper emotion. If it’s art you should “feel” it.
What is it about your paintings that cause people to respond to them? Is that something you consciously make happen or does it just come out naturally? When I paint I really strive to portray the emotions I feel about a subject. Thats the only thing I try so hard to do when I paint. I always hope that is why people respond to my work, because it touches them emotionally in some way.
Artists have spoken of painting with honesty; what does that mean to you? I’m not a huge fan of painting subjects I haven’t experienced myself. I’m not talking about a brief moment in time, but something I’ve really experienced. If you paint things you haven’t seen or been a part of, I believe your not being honest to yourself or your viewers. Experience comes in many forms, from personally being there, to studying your preferred subject so you can better portray your thoughts about it. I love quick sketches, because they really can show what an artist feels about a certain subject. If you have no attachment to a subject, you’re just painting wall decorations.
Some of your paintings share characteristic qualities of the Tonalists. Does your approach to these works differ from others that you do, and if so, how? My tonal work is usually straight from my memories, something I’ve seen and felt before. I don’t usually have reference for these images. They are harder for me to create since I’m starting from scratch. It requires me to think more about composition and eye movement, and how that affects the viewers experience. This also seeps into my other work, and I hope to get to a point where all my work transforms into painting from the heart, not the eye.
How do you decide on a concept for a painting, and how do you go about maintaining it throughout? Sometimes I have a title to a painting well before I even know the subject matter, then through the seasons of painting I look for subjects and images that can best convey the idea of that title. Most of the time however, the image comes first, and I try to convey what I experienced in those first 3 seconds of viewing that subject, or what first caught my eye. I write that on a post-it note and tack it to my easel. When I get sidetracked, and I always do, by a cool color change, a certain tree or bush, or even how cool my brush strokes look, I just look at my post-it note and get myself back on track because everything else is just “stuff” at that point.
Please put these words in order: Value, Color, Framing, Technique, Composition, Edges, Drawing, Concept. This is hard for me because it changes with every painting. Concept, composition, color, drawing, edges, and value can all be at the top and shifting around from painting to painting. That being said, I tell my students, when you see a painting from across the room, the composition or design draws you in. Then as you get closer it can be poor drawing or color that sends you away. Technique, I believe, is your personal voice and develops over time as you paint. A frame can be a great thing and sometimes can be like putting lipstick on a pig, but just remember, it’s still a pig and may be better left in the pen.
When creating a painting, how much thought do you give to its possible saleability versus just doing a painting because you want to do it? My views on this might be directly related to my sales or lack thereof. I paint what I want to paint when I want to paint it. Sometimes that doesn’t lead to sales in the galleries or even having them hang the particular piece. A recent painting “The Chalk Maker” was a painting I really wanted to paint and challenge myself in a completely different way. I loved painting it, but now I have a four foot painting of a guys chalk covered head leaning against the wall of my studio with no place to go.
What are the determining factors when deciding to paint large (30×40+) canvases? It goes back to emotion and conveying my thought about a subject. If a small painting feels like it wants to be a big painting, and that would better convey my idea, then I paint it bigger. If it says it still needs to go larger, then I go larger with it. I have subjects I’ve painted many times, each time getting larger until the final piece was as large as 70×80.
When transferring a photo, sketch, or field study to a much larger canvas, how do you do that? Most of my field studies I use as an outline for color and feel of the area and my photos for accuracy of anatomy of a tree or mountain. I don’t take my small sketches and break them into a grid pattern as some artists do. I will make marks for the center of the canvas, then I will usually just start by drawing the subject on the canvas with a sienna colored prismicolor pencil…just drawing an outline of the larger shapes.
Please explain your painting procedure. After drawing the shapes onto the canvas, I use a few alkyd paints to block in the shapes using mid-values and mid-chroma of the local color of a subject; that way I can easily go lighter, darker, higher color intensity or more gray, allowing me to see how it affects the overall color and feel. Whenever I am painting something I want to be more luminous, such as the sky or water, I will block that in with it’s color opposite. A blue sky gets a peach colored block-in, kind of a Mayfield Parrish idea, in order to create depth and a glow for areas that light passes through.
After that I start painting top to bottom; I do this because after the importance of the local color of an object, the sky will affect the color and values of that object more than anything else and must be established early. The color of the sky is the reason the shadows are the color they are as well as how the light affects the local color of an object. I then begin painting with thicker paint in large shapes on each object, adding in more detail slowly as needed.
What colors are typically on your palette? How did you decide on those? I have switched colors all my career, mainly because of my squirrel complex. I see a pretty new color and have to try it. Because of this, I have a box of colors I don’t use any more. The colors I typically use are as follows: Titanium white, Cadmium Yellow medium, yellow ochre, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium red light, permanent rose, cobalt blue (my blues change frequently), Burnt sienna, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt umber, and permanent green light… lot of colors, I know, but I just can’t help myself.
Do you use the same palette of color for all paintings? Do you premix key colors before beginning to paint? I don’t premix at all, even when I’ve painted those large 10’ x 100’ murals. It kind of wipes out any spontaneity I have. I love the look of slightly different color in a similar color field. It can also help your eye move across the canvas. You don’t want to tell the viewer everything at first glance, let them enjoy other things about the painting as they discover these subtleties.
What techniques do you use for achieving accurate values? I’m still trying to figure that out. I’ve tried many things, including taking photographs in black and white to check my values. I continue to draw in black and white to practice good values in hopes that will transfer to my paintings.
How do you avoid the temptation of copying photographs? Fortunately this has not really been much of a problem, if I understand the question correctly. As Carlson says, the camera holds no emotions of the subject. The artist behind the camera does hold those emotions and can transfer them to the canvas. So paint what you feel not what you see. My daughter, Cassie, is a great photographer and can bend the camera’s will to her own. I try to do that in my paintings, not with the camera.
What is the most difficult part of painting for you? Some days it’s just getting started. one of the hardest things for me is just pushing through that 2/3 to 3/4 stage of the painting. At that stage I often want to just burn the painting and quit. What I saw in my minds eye at that stage are gone and I now have a mess of partially finished colors and values just begging to be repaired. At this stage it takes a lot of reflecting, and that post-it note, to get me back on track and push through. This is where I probably learn the most in every painting.
If you were to take a wanna-be artist from the beginning, how would you instruct them? I was fortunate enough to teach a group of students in a weekly class from the time they were freshman until they graduated. They were all naturally gifted in different areas of art, whether it was design, color, or drawing ability. We started out the first year learning value and design. Each year we progressed through other aspects of art and then through color and oil painting. The last year they finished up by painting subjects they really wanted to do. It was great to watch their progression.
What’s been your most successful marketing tool? My wife, I always sell paintings when she attends a show with me. Other than that I’m not really a great marketer. I am trying to figure out the new dynamics of the galleries, internet, and how it is affecting the collectors. Galleries and collectors are changing quickly, with the internet affecting both. Social media is finding the artists, but I’m not sure it’s reaching the collectors yet.
Who has had the most influence on your fine art career, and why? Too many to count, and different for different aspects of my art. But when asked, it seems I give the same response. Early in my career I was fortunate enough to talk with a lot of the modern masters and received advice. The advice I seem to go back to for students came from Richard Schmid. He said to paint 100 paintings before ever approaching a gallery, that way you will have time to find your own voice and the quality of your work will be good enough to get you into a good gallery.
Currently I would have to say my good friend, Joseph Lorusso. Joe and I have known each other for years now, and have bounced ideas back-and-forth, and have critiqued each others paintings. That friendship has been invaluable to me over my career.
If you were to start all over again today desiring to have a professional fine art career, how would you go about it? It’s hard when young artists call and ask for this advice. It’s so different now than it was when I got started. Galleries were excited to get new work and help promote young artists, even when their prices might not make them much money, but they wanted to help them get their career started if they had the potential.
However, I still believe that the most important thing is to paint as often as you can, learn as much as possible and have patience, as Richard Schmid suggests. Paint subjects that are very important to you, then find someone that can sell the work and help your career.
We’re so appreciative for you time and this great interview, Michael. Thank you.
Michael Albrechtsen website
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE