Dancing With Color in the Landscapes of Erin Hanson

Seeing the natural world through a rainbow of vibrant hues

Erin Hanson’s highly attuned perception of the world’s colors—and her particular talent for sharing her vision through large-scale oil landscapes executed in a dynamic style she describes as “open impressionism”—has earned her uncommon success since she first started selling her paintings a dozen years ago. Today, she works out of a 7,000-square foot warehouse in the design district of San Diego. The space includes her spacious studio and The Erin Hanson Gallery, as well as office space and storage. Here she and her staff oversee such enterprises as limited-edition prints, coffee table books, and “tons of traveling shows.”

Indian Wells by Erin Hanson, oil, 48 x 36

Despite this maelstrom of activity, Hanson herself comes across as relaxed yet upbeat and warmly welcomes anyone interested in her art or in the natural world that inspires it. After almost four decades of studies, work, and activities that would be enough to fill a lifetime for most people, she has found her true calling.

The Power of Self-Motivation

When Hanson started school, she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. “An artist, a scientist, and a dancer,” was her self-assured response. “I was a very determined, precocious child, and a hard worker,” she says.

The alternative school she attended made it simultaneously easy and chal- lenging to pursue her goals. “Everything was self-learned, self-paced,” she explains. “That was really nice, because I graduated with a total ability to research and teach myself whatever I needed.” The school’s art teacher, Cesar Jimenez, fostered her early love of art, which received further support at home. “When I was 8, my dad told me that if I wanted to be an artist, I should do five drawings a day. So I filled sketchbook after sketchbook with self-portraits and drawings of my brothers, animals, houses, and trees.”

Agave Clouds by Erin Hanson, oil, 40 x 50

The school encouraged students to begin finding part-time work in their fields of interest at age 12. “Across the street from the school, there happened to be a mural studio where they would paint huge, 40-by-60-foot acrylic canvases for casinos and restaurants and cruise ships,” Hanson recalls. She showed her portfolio to the studio’s head artist, which led to three years of after-school and weekend employment. “I learned how to mix any color using primaries,” she says. “And I was really good at painting trees. But everybody there would complain to me about how hard it was to be an artist. So I decided I didn’t want to be one.”

Finding Her Way

Instead of pursuing a degree in art, Hanson entered the University of California at Berkeley as a pre-med major, then switched to bioengineering. Throughout her time at Berkeley, she also continued pursuing art on her own, checking out books from the library to teach herself Japanese brush painting and comic-book-style graphic art.

Back home in Los Angeles after graduation, with no clear career goal, Hanson supported herself with various jobs from selling computer software to buying abandoned storage units and reselling the items she found in them. This last job brought her to Las Vegas, a prime storage-unit location with its more itinerant population.

Daybreak by Erin Hanson, oil, 36 x 48

Ironically the city of neon lights and noisy casinos was “what got me back into painting,” Hanson remembers. The starkly beautiful Mojave Desert, which she drove through on her way to Vegas, sparked a yearning to pick up a brush again.

On her first weekend in the city, she decided to get out and go camping, bringing along her painting supplies and heading to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Just 15 miles west of the Strip, this unexpected natural wonder features almost 200,000 acres of towering red sandstone peaks and cliffs, a 13-mile scenic drive, seasonal waterfalls, and breathtaking hiking trails. “I woke up at dawn the next morning, and I’d never seen anything like those bright, beautiful colors when the sun first comes up there,” she says. “I thought, wow, I can paint this. And I took out all my cadmium reds, oranges, and yellows and got started.”

Back to Basics

That morning she also met her campsite neighbors—three young men who had had recently moved there to go rock climbing. They had extra gear, invited her to join them, and that afternoon Hanson was climbing the sheer buttes she’d been painting. They all wound up sharing an apartment together, close to the canyon, and “we all became rock-climbing buddies for two years.”

Meanwhile, Hanson applied a sense of discipline to her painting efforts that traced back to the advice her father gave her about drawing when she was 8. “‘A painting a week’ was my mantra,” she says.

Texan Sky by Erin Hanson, oil, 40 x 30

“I didn’t tell anybody about it, and I wasn’t painting to make a living at it. But a year later I had about 50 paintings, and I decided I would try to sell them.” She heard about an art festival in Boulder City, NV so she rented a 10-by-10-foot tent and some display walls, packed up her 12 best paintings, and headed out. “I sold six,” she says, still amazed by that initial reception. More weekend events and enthusiastic sales followed. “And I’ve been doing art festivals ever since—still to this day. It’s such a great experience to talk to people in person about my art.”

Expanding Palette and Style

Steadily, through countless paintings, trips, and rock-climbing adventures, Hanson’s signature style emerged. “When you climb a rock, you’re focus- ing on a crack between two planes,” she explains. “So when I painted a place I had climbed, I would outline the cracks. It’s those distinct lines and shadows that make the powerful composition of a desert landscape.”

“I knew that art could be better, more real, than real life, and definitely more colorful.”

Erin Hanson

Over the years since, that stylistic approach became more clearly defined and refined. After she moved back to California in 2008, her palette expanded to embrace cooler, more verdant hues as well as warm tones. “I was baffled at first, not knowing how to paint green hills and trees,” she confesses. “So I outlined the trees and the hills in black to make them more powerful.”

Crystal Light by Erin Hanson, oil, 30 x 40

Power in Preparation

Today, regardless of the subject, Hanson will “preplan every painting in my head before I ever pick up a brush,” she says. “Then I create a composition in a sketchbook that I transfer with scrubby brushes to my primed canvas.” No color choice happens randomly: “I premix my entire palette, every color I’m going to use.” Then, one bold color at a time, she very deliberately lays down each stroke of paint, never going over it again. “That adds to the power of the painting,” she says. “I avoid muddy colors.” The results seem to pulse with energy. In some of her canvases, stormy desert skies are full of swirling motion; in other pieces, bolder brush strokes capture the ancient power of rock formations.

Dance of Autumn by Erin Hanson, oil, 36 x 50. Tiny Japanese maple leaves burnished by fall form a vibrant filigree in in this painting, inspired by a trip Hanson took to Kyoto in 2017.

Turning Art Fantasies into Reality

Many of her works are large, some as wide or tall as 5 feet, befitting the monumentality of the world as Hanson sees it. Recently, though, she also began painting floral images of much more modest dimensions, as shown in Snow Blooms (below).

Snow Blooms by Erin Hanson, oil, 24 x 20

She and her husband, Paul Shoden, hope to eventually move up to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “I have this fantasy to get a huge estate where we can create something like Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch—an artists’ retreat where people can come and stay over the weekend— and my inspiration is right outside my front door.”

Knowing what Hanson has already accomplished, that fantasy may very likely become a reality, all executed in bold strokes of bright, pure color.

This is an excerpt from an article written by Norman Kolas, first featured in Southwest Art, July 2019 issue. Kolpas is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes for Mountain Living and Colorado Homes & Lifestyles as well as Southwest Art. For more inspiring artist profiles get your subscription to Southwest Art here. And learn more about Erin Hanson by visiting her website.

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