Renowned Western Landscape Painter P.A. Nisbet Joins Meyer Gallery
December 27, 2019 - Kelly Carper
The heroic landscape paintings of P.A. Nisbet are credited with carrying forth the legacy of Old Master painters including Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt and more, who captured sweeping views of the early American West. Nisbet’s work is linked to these artists’ sense of light and space as well as their masterful technique, which Nisbet practices from a contemporary point of view. In addition to his study of the Old Masters, Nisbet’s inspiration stems from personal experiences and the unique impressions drawn from varied environments. Having rafted through Grand Canyon, traveled in Mexico’s remote deserts, and even endured the bone chilling temperatures of Antarctica – Nisbet has gone to great lengths in pursuit of beauty, all with the intent of sharing nature’s mystical presence through painting. At 71 years old, his adventurous painting pursuits continue as he plans a journey to South Africa to experience the vast and remote African deserts, as well as the incredible phenomena of long awaited rainstorms rolling over dry plains.
A self-taught painter, Nisbet graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in history before serving in the US Navy. After gifting the Secretary of the Navy a painting, Nisbet was appointed Director of Art Services for the Navy's Office of Information. Following Naval Service he started his own freelance commercial art business providing graphic design and illustration for over twenty-five national organizations. All the while, he was painting in his studio and studying the masters, all of which led him west in pursuit of a full time painting career. Within two weeks of landing a gallery in Arizona, Nisbet’s work started selling and hasn’t stopped since. His paintings now exist in numerous private and public collections including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Houston, Texas, the Tucson Museum of Art in Arizona, National Science Foundation in Antarctica, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art in Oklahoma, and many more. Nisbet has lived and worked in Santa Fe since 1995.
Meyer Gallery is pleased to welcome P.A. Nisbet to our roster of artists who explore timeless genres from the past with fresh perspectives. Read our Q&A interview with Nisbet below for a better introduction to this artist who is a leader in today’s movement of western landscape painting.
Your work has been linked to the style of Old Master painters and movements such as Romanticism and the Hudson River Valley School. Would you say this is accurate? If so, what draws you to that style of painting?
Yes, I am inspired by the achievements of the Masters, including American Masters from the 19th century such as Thomas Moran, Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt. What these artists accomplished far surpassed anything I’ve seen in this century or the last. I study the past for this reason - and I don’t think this diminishes my work in any way - I believe great painting requires paying attention to the genius of past artists.
What particular artists or movements from history have had the biggest influence on you as an artist?
I’m influenced by several artists who bridge different time periods – I take a long look back to the surrealism of Hieronymus Bosch, then come forward to Caspar David Friedrich, Claude Lorrain, J.M.W. Turner and the Dutch Maritime Painters. Then jumping over the Atlantic to the Hudson River School, and the late outsourcing of that tradition into the Luminist art movement, whose focus on light was extremely important. I feel a kinship to all of them.
In what ways do you feel you continue the legacy of these master artists, and in what ways do you feel like you break from tradition to evolve into your own distinct style?
Artists from 17th, 18th, and 19th century – they were all unique individuals. They had different personalities, likes and dislikes, lived in a different culture, and they created art under conditions unlike what we know today. For example, there was no incandescent light in earlier years so they naturally witnessed the rise and descent of the light of the day. This awareness imprinted on their ability to create paintings that were extremely sophisticated in tonality.
My own uniqueness is that I live in this century and and not in theirs. That presents both advantages and disadvantages at the same time. I’m aware of what the masters did; I’ve been in the same landscapes that Moran painted, but his take is different than my own. It just comes out that way. I’m not trying to replicate old paintings - what I’m doing is assessing, studying, and absorbing their techniques and points of view, and then applying them through my own artistic lens. The aim is to create an original vision that incorporates the contemporary moment but at the same time strives for linkage to their sophisticated perspectives.
How important is it to experience the landscape before you paint it? How does that fit into your process?
When you go into a landscape, you enter into a private domain. The landscape is like a piece of parchment – it has imprinted upon it not only the weather and light peculiar to that area, but also the history of activity that’s happened there. When you go into certain landscapes you can actually feel the presence of the past. When I go out into these places, I’m already prepared mentally to be alert for phenomena. For example, the western plains in the heat of summer sets a stage for the drama of gigantic thunderstorms. Witnessing these great forms is a mystical experience; what was formerly invisible on a clear blue morning becomes an intense spectacle in the afternoon. This aspect of nature’s hidden power is endlessly fascinating to me. Landscapes are more than just places - they are giant cathedrals that offer high adventure and the drama of revelation.
The intelligence manifest in the land and sky is like a field of ripe fruit just waiting for the artist’s harvest.
My process requires painting on site. When I’m doing field sketches, I’m looking for a sense of something that I can expand upon in the studio. I do at least two hours of sketching in order to link up with a particular place. Then I come back to the sketches after a month or two, having thought about the experiences I had there. I mix those impressions together in order to come up with deeper, experiential paintings.
So then your paintings are not meant to recreate a specific place – they become more about expanding on your initial impressions rather than recreating a factual scene?
Yes, that’s probably the most critical thing you could say about my work. I could care less about copying a specific place for exactly what’s there. What’s really interesting to me is how to take the personal experience that I had, and through the use of form, color and composition, invoke a sense of the spiritual. Forms in paint have a language all their own just like landscapes. The forms that you’re painting inside that rectangle have their own particular psychology. And if you manipulate them you can lead the viewer into a spiritual frame of reference. I do attempt to create a very credible reality in paint, but it is my reality and it is designed to manipulate the viewer.
Anybody can copy a landscape; anybody can take a picture with a good camera. But the photography is just a tool – the more important tool is your own reflective capacity and how you translate the place. That’s my job - to translate it and bring forth my own particular point of view.
Is there a ‘Garden of Eden’ aspect to your work? Are you trying to invoke utopia in the sense of the ideal – or are you wanting to stay rooted in reality, presenting your own emotional interpretation of that reality?
I don’t directly try to invoke a utopian state or ideal, but I have to say that there is a surrealistic, quasi-utopian aspect to my landscapes. It has to do with a deep-seated psychological yearning to be part of the vast distances that exist in the western landscape. As I get older and my time here gets shorter, I’m referring more to the universal things, which naturally points to the notion of the surreal and sublime aspect of the landscape. Copying what I see just isn’t going to capture that. After all, I’m trying to make statements that will last for a long time – and I want them to talk more about how connected I am to the landscape and how precious it is. You can imagine that if my primary objective was only to only copy what I see – then the end result would only be a picture and not a painting. There is a big difference there.
What’s influencing the current direction of your work and what does the future hold?
Over past decades I have been known for creating paintings of clouds and specifically storms. In that same spirit I’m going soon to southern Africa where droughts present a special opportunity for a painter. If I can get on site when the rains finally come, I’m hoping to see some spectacular weather. It can be dangerous to go into places with big weather and uncontrollable results, but one can get extravagant visual fireworks that are memorable and profound, and could well lead to wonderful paintings.
As far as subject matter, after clouds, it’s all about landscapes that have deep pictorial space. I’ve narrowed my interest down to canyons, clouds, and ocean. But the overarching subject that unites them all is the pursuit of beauty. I can’t say enough about the aesthetic of beauty and how important it is for artists to promote beauty in their work. It’s something that’s extremely important for us as human beings.
So my hope is to combine these landscapes, experiences and spiritual pursuits and bind them in beautiful settings. The notion of beauty as a presentation is extremely important to me.
Are there any goals you’d still like to reach as an artist?
I’m interested in my paintings lasting a thousand years and being part of a grand painting lineage. If I have one desire, while I’m still here on the planet, it would be to exhibit in the best museums in the world alongside my heroes. To hang in the same room with Moran and Bierstadt is a deeply meaningful experience. I have that honor right now at the Tucson Museum of Art with their current show, The Western Sublime.
At this time in my life the goals I have as an artist have merged with my goals as a human being: to be alert to the beauty of this world and to simply celebrate being here. My motto has always been “to witness and celebrate the creation”.
That’s a life worth living.
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