Midwestern artist Christopher Copeland paints the landscape that surrounds him, imbuing it with emotion and recording the transient moments that are often difficult to capture.
by Naomi Ekperigin
2007, oil, 30 x 32.
“My paintings are about my experiences and feelings toward nature,” says Minnesota native Christopher Copeland matter-of-factly. He has always known art was his calling, immediately enrolling in art school after high school and staying on that path ever since. He was influenced by American Impressionists such as Willard Leroy Metcalfe, John Henry Twachtman, and George Inness, and adopts their approach when painting the landscape. “I don’t believe in copying nature verbatim,” Copeland says. “Inness was influenced by his own personal experiences; his art was inspired by his memories and years of being out in nature.” Having grown up surrounded by the hayfields, river valleys, and farmsteads of the Midwest, Copeland’s work incorporates the beauty of the landscape with the memories and emotions it awakens in him.
2006, oil, 28 x 30.
Collection the artist.
He is able to tap into this emotion by working at moments of the day when the light is fleeting and most effective. He almost exclusively paints en plein air, and does not rely on reference photographs when transferring or enlarging a piece. “I purposely wait to paint late in the day or in the early morning, so that I can capture that fast-moving light. I find that to be most dramatic, and it draws out the emotion in my work.” Working under such conditions forces the artist to work quickly and make decisions without overanalyzing himself or the landscape. It allows for an immediate emotional response and requires that he commit his subject to canvas without overworking it. He primarily paints in oils but will also carry pastels when he knows he’ll only have a short amount of time to capture the moment. “Pastels are a quicker medium, and I can do my color mixing right on my surface,” the artist explains. “I enjoy the brevity of it; the energy flows continuously.” In many instances Copeland will work from a pastel sketch created on-site and create a larger oil painting in his studio—though he does consider a pastel sketch to be a finished piece. “Near Santa Fe, New Mexico, for instance, started out as a pastel sketch, but I was inspired to create a larger oil piece.”
2005, oil, 30 x 40. Private
When painting in oils, he works on a light toned canvas and blocks in the large shapes with a mix of burnt sienna or another earth color. “At this point, I’m just making sure my drawing is spatially balanced,” Copeland explains. He next blocks in the shadows in a middle value. He paints the foreground and vertical planes before placing the sky, “unless the clouds are integral to the composition,” he says. Details are not stressed at this point, and he keeps his brushwork loose. “The feeling of light and space is what I want,” he explains. “When I see this I can begin to modify the tonal value of the objects in detail.” As he does this, Copeland is still racing against the sun, balancing his available light with the needs of a given painting. “The challenge is to stay aware of the light source on which to pace the amount of painting time I have. I must determine where the light is going to dissolve and where the shadows fill in.” Many times, after the light has passed, the artist will begin another sketch that captures the soft light of twilight. It is in these moments that he employs his pastels, which allow for immediate results.
|Near Santa Fe, New Mexico
16 x 20. Collection the artist.
Copeland differs from many plein air painters who work on site and in the studio in that he doesn’t use reference photographs. Although he has taken photos in the past, he says that he doesn’t find them useful. “I believe that for a landscape painter, the best way of seeing is being in front of a subject. Because my interest is in the movement of light—something that photographs cannot accurately record—I’d rather return to a location several times than take several pictures.”
|Santa Rosa Mountains
11 x 14. Collection the artist.
One of the artist’s major challenges is keeping his work fresh when he is so deeply entrenched in his surroundings. He has always resided in the area that has inspired his work, and paints locations within an hour’s drive from his home. “I look for changes in the lighting, which keeps things exciting.” He also travels to Arizona and Santa Fe, which are his favorite landscapes outside of Minnesota. He also relies on his memories of a place to provide the emotional charge needed to elevate a piece. “I try to convey an emotional connection with nature in these works, and I hope to create images with a slightly different feel. Not an exact description of nature, but a more personal vision.” Copeland encourages other artists who are just discovering plein air painting to do the same. “Draw from your own experiences,” he urges. “You develop a connection with the landscape the more you paint in plein air. Those memories then inform your paintings.”
Christopher Copeland is a 1983 graduate of the College of Visual Arts, in St. Paul, Minnesota and he now resides in Stillwater, Minnesota. In addition to exhibitions in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Copeland’s work has been displayed in New York, Boston, and Ohio as well as galleries in Seattle, Santa Fe, and Scottsdale, Arizona.
Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.