Artist Scott Anderson paints ‘em like he sees ‘em


“In 2001, after 22 years as a magazine designer, I left my computer to go outside and paint,” says Scott Anderson. We first met Scott when he was still a magazine designer at Request (for Sam Goody record stores), and have enjoyed watching him paint (so to speak) ever since. Currently, he’s working on a series of paintings on location at the site of the new 35W bridge construction (for an MPR interview with Scott at the bridge site, go here). When we ran into him this spring as he was taking down an exhibition of his work at Anodyne coffee shop, we didn’t hesitate to take him up on his offer to grace the cover of MOQ with one of his paintings; look for it on the summer issue, which will be available after June 17. Herewith, an opinion-filled interview with our summer cover artist.

Please tell us about your art education.

I attended my Typical Midwestern Liberal College, I found the painting instruction fairly worthless. My dad scared me into studying commercial art. My first job was art directing the old Twin Cities Reader back in the early 80s. I graduated to business and pop music magazines for the next 15 years until I was fortunate enough to get laid off. The Internet design explosion was taking over and I couldn’t bear to sit behind a computer for the rest of my life, so I started to paint. I was lucky enough to discover a master landscape painter named Joe Paquet in St. Paul who trained me for five years. But now I have to kill him.

What are you working on now, besides the bridge paintings? What local shows do you have coming up?

I’m working to set up a show in July or August sometime. Throughout the summer I’ll be traveling to Montreal, Colorado, and Door County, Wisconsin, doing outdoor or “plein air” painting festivals. In October, I travel to two different events in southern California. I hope to sell enough to pay for the plane tickets.

Why “oil paintings outdoors”? What do you like most about working that way as opposed to in a studio, doing still lifes or portraits or such? Especially in winter — and you do have a lot of winter paintings.

I love the honesty of painting outdoors from nature. It is the painter’s direct response to the day, the sun, the weather, the air. The speed required to express fleeting light is a good thing. It sharpens the senses. A plein air painting is like a music performance recorded live. It records a moment that will never be exactly repeated. There’s a spark in it that can be lacking in studio productions.

I have explored a few interior scenes and still life paintings and may do more in the future. The same goes for portraits. I earned some stripes doing portrait drawings back in college. There is no tougher assignment in the world than trying to come close to a likeness in a 13-year-old girl, with her family and friends watching. Merely a whisper of a mark determines whether she’s 9 or 30. Don’t even bother indicating a nose.

Painting outdoors is not easy, and often isn’t even very fun, but with time and practice it can be tremendously rewarding. Humility is part of the process. Getting a hit one out of three times at bat is a measure of excellence in baseball — and it’s a good rate for a plein air painter too. And it’s never boring, and never repeats itself. That’s why I try to finish each one on site, in that one session. Not only will I not get that exact light effect back again, but I’ll lose the spirit that results in a painting done “alla prima.” Being an old athlete, I also like the challenge.

The winter is beautiful. I love painting in it and what work comes from it. With a lot of luck, we’ll have winter in the future. The blue-violets in the shadows, the peachy-pinks on the sunlit snow. And the shadows are long all day. I couldn’t do it without those heat packets though. And there’s no bugs.

When I started painting outside, I felt like I was doing something different, compared to what Modern Artists were doing. And coming from a visual communications profession, I had this unique, cutting-edge, almost revolutionary idea that art could … communicate. You know, with real people, not only those with master’s degrees in art history. The vast majority of people find most contemporary art unfathomable. Funny, what I’m mostly interested in is the design of pictorial space. You know, modern, abstract ideas. It’s just that I’m using the language of landscape. Honestly, my ideas aren’t a lot more earth-shattering than, “Hey, look at that! Isn’t it beautiful?” Richard Serra I ain’t. There’s a famous interview with Edward Hopper by some self-important J-school grad wanting to sound all hip, asking him about his art and postwar alienation, and the psycho-ramifications of this or that. His response was, “All I’ve ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.”

I want people to see these scenes that reveal such interesting balance, harmony, and unity — all right outside my door. And I’m not editing or shifting things around in the frame — much. They’re all right there for the harvesting. Take a walk around the block and see what I mean.

Everywhere we look the world reveals new compostions of beauty and subtlety, light and space.

It appears that you prefer to work rather small — 12 by 16 inches is a fairly typical size for you. What do you like about working on this small scale?

I work small because there isn’t enough time to cover the actual square inches of board with paint before the sun has moved too much. It’s logistics. Besides, anything larger becomes a sail when the wind picks up. These paintings of the bridge that I’m working on are in the 18×24” range, though. There’s a chainlink fence on the Tenth Avenue Bridge that’s handy to tie my easel to. It does get blustery up there.

Can you comment on the unique aesthetics of urban landscapes compared with more pastoral scenes, and what attracts you to a particular sight so that you decide to paint it? I like how you offer comments and even little stories about the paintings posted on your Web site, which give us some insight into what inspired you to do that particular painting, but some of the paintings leave me wondering — like the Target parking lot! Can you say anything about what inspires you, in particular with regard to urban paintings?

Like that advice given to writers to “write about what you know” — I like painting urban scenes because that’s where I live. I want people to see what I see is beautiful and intriguing about our place. Those paintings make my art contemporary. There’s a lot in our world socially, environmentally, politically, and economically that I feel is worth commenting on — that I feel obliged to comment on, if only as a citizen. I obsess about our present situation. It’s just that there are a gazillion artists devoting their grant money to screaming from the tops of their soapboxes about those things. Insert outrage about how it’s The Artists’ responsibility here. Everyone wants to paint the new Guernica, but if there’s a million Guernica’s out there, no one cares.

I don’t prefer urban scenes to pastoral scenes. I do both. The phrase “rural” is better for me than “pastoral.” Pastoral suggests the bucolic, the romantic. That’s not what I’m trying to express. Not that there isn’t romantic stuff out there. Contemporary art unjustifiably lumps most all of landscape painting into the “sentimental” category. There are wondrous designs everywhere we look. Mondrian, Pollack and de Kooning are all out there, on my block. It’s just that I’m not boiling it down to The Indecipherable Essence anymore. I’m leaving fun stuff in there for you to look at.

I paint in the suburbs, on occasion, because it’s the contemporary world around us. Artists have always painted their time. Big Box retail and parking lots are our time.

I could elaborate on the “suburbs” stuff — the responses I’ve gotten while painting out in Burnsville or Everywhere U.S.A. (that’s the title of an exhibition) have been curious; rolling down their car windows (there are few pedestrians) shouting, “Hey Picasso! Why would you wanna paint that?”