Berkeley, California, artist Christopher Peterson has been painting for years, but in the last year, he has come to admire plein air painting. Catch him now, at the start of his journey, and then we’ll check back in a few months to see what he has to say about an accomplished artist’s turn to painting outdoors.
Peterson is a fine artist and illustrator, and his work has graced posters, CD covers, and large canvases. But lately he has noticed the increased interest in plein air painting, and some of his friends — such as Paul Kratter — are devoted to the genre. Peterson became intrigued by the technique several months back. Talk about art with Peterson, and you’ll quickly understand why plein air has an appeal for him.

Plein air sketch for “Sonoma Vineyards”

“I am looking for a certain kind of ephemeral light,” says the artist. “I’m trying to achieve something with the application of paint that is fresh and spontaneous. In the studio, I try to arrive at a kind of painting that is like plein air. But right now, I would find it more difficult to paint on site and get the kind of light I am trying for.” He is already doing preliminary sketches on site and working from those in the studio to create active, energized paintings with dynamic brushwork. He received a plein air setup for Christmas. Peterson is ready to embark on the plein air path. Where will it take him?

“Sonoma Vineyards,” by Christopher Peterson, 2007, acrylic, 12 x 36 in. Studio

His style, which he says has been influenced by the work of Sargent, Wayne Thiebaud, and Edward Hopper, combines Thiebaud’s lush application of paint with Hopper’s moody use of light and shadows. Peterson aspires to the seemingly spontaneous look of Sargent’s brushstrokes.

“Sonoma Street Sunset, North Berkeley,” by Christopher Peterson, 2015, oil on panel, 9 x 12 in. Studio

“Being influenced by someone like Thiebaud is a tricky thing because he is so popular,” says Peterson. “It’s like a musician being influenced by the Beatles. That’s great, but what do you do with it? There is a lot to say for originality. One of the things I like about Hopper is the bluesy kind of subject matter that he seemed to be attracted to. It isn’t so much about the way he painted it, but the subject matter and the light.”

“Study for Richmond Annex Streetscape,” by Christopher Peterson, 2015, oil on panel, 2 x 4 in. Studio

Peterson’s work has a bit of that loneliness and quiet that one finds in some Hopper paintings, but Peterson’s pieces are perhaps more inviting and warm. Hopper had people in his paintings — glum people. Peterson eschews the use of the human figure, but the human presence is evident everywhere. This mostly is a product of his preference for cityscapes.

“Channing Way at Dusk,” by Christopher Peterson, 2015, oil on panel, 9 x 12 in. Studio

“I like cityscapes, because there’s an implied tension — and it’s my own particular environment,” he says. “I live in a pretty urban place, and I paint the environment around me. That could change over time. It’s possible that I will do some rural landscapes or some seascapes or some scenes in the Southwest, I don’t know.”


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