Ryan Jensen, born in the San Francisco Bay Area, moved around a bit growing up. But his earliest memories are of family and include his father, a painter, and his mother, a graphic designer, arched together over a drafting board in their in-home studio; or his father’s paint-covered hands on the steering wheel as he drove his son to school.
On the mornings Ryan’s father left early for work, there would be a sticky-note sketch on the kitchen table, usually a comical depiction that always made Ryan laugh. Jensen began to sketch as a child and never stopped. Somewhere, “deep down,” he knew he wanted to be a professional artist one day, but throughout adolescence and young adulthood there were many other things that captured his interest.
A Good Painting
BY RYAN JENSEN
I have always been a drawer. I kept a sketchbook close by throughout my childhood, a habit I continue to this day. For as long as I can remember, I have loved drawing. As I drew, I was not conscious of separation between me and what I saw. Drawing was a smooth, natural extension of my eye, hand, and emotions – even my quick, unfussy doodles; cartoon dialogues on Post-It notes left for my dad.
However, I longed to be a painter. I had painted a few times, but color challenged me in ways my monochromatic sketches let me easily sidestep. The intricacies of color eluded me, and so, for many years, I allowed color to intimidate me. I didn’t touch a paintbrush.
Some four years ago, I had to laugh at myself: “Who’s afraid of color?” So, I decided I would paint full time and enroll in the College of the Redwoods’ Art Department’s coursework. I would finally have to sit with and resolve my understanding of and relationship with color, or at the very least, call a truce.
Despite brilliant professional and academic guidance, my developing painting skills did not reflect profound leaps in foundational knowledge. But my “fire in the belly” efforts were hard to miss, and the energy in my work was evident. It would be fair to say passion got me through the first year or two.
As uncountable, solid brush hours accumulated under my belt, I began to grow as an artist. Something was happening, not all at once but slowly, with color, shape, and especially light. I really don’t know why I once wanted to paint. However, the more I worked, I began to understand, without a doubt, why I was painting. For me, it’s in the complexity of the moment. To see and feel the moment as purely as is humanly possible, but also, at the same time, separate from it entirely and conceptualize it as oil, brushstroke, and canvas. This is how I loosen up. Or to be more honest, this is what frees me from paralysis. It doesn’t escape me that this is also entirely at odds with how I draw.
I feel this ability is sometimes near-sacred because I am working with the briefest of Nature’s moments. For example, the waning light illuminates the atmosphere in a certain way for just a blink of an eye as the hillside recedes into distant sky. Or, the wild violets show themselves for shattered fractions of minutes, between shadows and hazy sunbeams as a rainstorm passes through the forested ravine. I like it best when my painting surprises me. Every time I am out, I’m up against that distant, falling, or rising hydrogen ball – my light source. It’s always changing, and thanks to clouds, trees, or something else in the local geography, it’s usually about to be gone. And as a painter, it is up to me to catch the best lit moments.
Since, after all, I can only try, I tell myself that everything will be okay if I give myself to my work one stroke at a time and above all, ” Don’t give up.” These have been my beliefs from day one. When I started out, I was shaking in my shoes; bills are real. While I consider it healthy to have a certain level of humility as an artist, I still struggle with feelings of self-doubt and not being “good enough.’’ However, painting on location frees me of these feelings because I don’t have time to make a perfect painting; I have only enough to make a good one.
Further, I don’t assume I see or reproduce landscapes accurately. Being mortal, I will always court human error; no painting will ever be perfect. But I figure if I can manage an authentic connection with a moment in time – or two, three, or more – then I have a stage where I can show up as an artist and create. I view it like how a play, although not real life, might still powerfully reflect our experiences and emotions.
I’m working now to accept my style. It’s mine. Mostly I don’t think about it; it shows up and sometimes is invisible to me. If I’m genuinely working hard and painting from life, something special happens. I can readily lose myself in my work when I get into a rhythm. Hands-down, the rhythm takes me. By the time I’m finished, it’s all about making more good decisions than bad. I work the whole painting at once. I put decisions onto my canvas – I don’t judge them at the time – and come back later to clean up the bad ones. I think this is something like life. If I mess up, I say I’m sorry and make amends. And while I certainly do have to apologize for, and fix, the mistakes I make in life, I don’t feel any need to apologize for revisiting errant brushstrokes.
Making a beautiful painting is knotty for me. There is a considerable barrier between my desire to make a beautiful painting and doing it. The blockage is a tangle of control and spontaneous feelings. For example, I might have a goal in mind standing in a field or on a beach, but some of my most memorable experiences were when I pivoted and took a chance in the truth of the instant.
My truth finds the painting only when I’m present to experience the bird that flies by. The bird is everything. Even if I choose not to include the bird, I have made a decision, however quickly, large or small, about that cast member. Nature presented the moment, and I chanced to experience and express it. My paint and brush were loaded with only a bit of Nature, which had I not quickly changed course might otherwise have blown away on the wind or faded with the light.
I am happy with “only good paintings.” Subsequently, I struggle when I decide to create beautiful works. And I wince when I hear, “… can’t get the barn right.” I firmly believe my work will come if I show up again, again, and again.
When is a painting “done?” I don’t always know, but I have taken a piece too far and realized that I should have just been working on a different painting and left that one alone. The exquisite paintings seem to happen when I let landscapes tell their story to my brushes.
If I open to and communicate the narrative of color, shape, and light, the story will be there for others to know about long after I’m gone. Making good paintings and being staggered by magnificent ones is my mission. I am often asked about my different works, “How long did that take you?” The answer is, “It took a lifetime.”
Editor’s Note: Ryan Jensen’s “Fog Clearing Over Cattle” won in the “Best Plein Air Work” category of the May 2020 Plein Air Salon. You could win $15,000 if your painting is chosen as the best painting of the year! Visit pleinairsalon.com to learn who the current judge is, the exact deadline, and more. Remember, you can’t win if you don’t enter.