The Making of a Ken Carlson Painting

Ken Carlson, Polar Bear
"Polar Bear" — Ken Carlson

by Brooke Chilvers

For a sick boy stuck in bed for a year recovering from rheumatic fever, the artwork of Bob Kuhn in sporting magazines such as Field & Stream made the young Ken Carlson (b. 1937) determined to become a wildlife artist. 

By age fifteen, Ken was entering a drawing contest for a two-year scholarship for the correspondence course at the Art Instruction School in Minneapolis.  The program’s director, sporting artist for Sports Afield and author Walter Wilwerding (1891-1966), gave him the tools to succeed.  

By 1970, Carlson would leave commercial art behind for full-time animal painting. 

Leo Tolstoy Resting in the Forest
Ilya Repin, “Leo Tolstoy Resting in the Forest”

Perhaps because Carlson only spent a year studying at an actual art academy, he felt free to develop his vision and working methods.  “While learning to paint, it was a challenge to develop my own techniques, brush work, and a distinctive Carlson style,” said the artist, who adheres to no particular rules of composition, brand of paintbrushes, or choice of pigments for his palette. “For me, rules are parameters – there is leeway – rules can be stretched.  Tenets can be individual preferences – I pick and choose – I don’t consciously think about set tenets.”

More important to his work are his direct experiences of nature, often in the company of naturalists and guides, as well as professional hunters including Joe Coogan, Craig Doria, and Ian Batchelor during his half-dozen photographic safaris to Tanzania.  His goal, whether in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies or Western prairies, is for “the viewer to see what I see when I’m out in the wilds observing the animal in its habitat.”

Franz Kline, “Accent Grave
Ken Carlson, Portrait of a Warrior
Ken Carlson, “Portrait of a Warrior”

His chosen medium is oil.  “I like the slow drying quality of oil.  It enables me to manipulate the blending, layering, and textures that suit my style.  There is just the look of oil paint that appeals to me,” he says, pointing to the works of Ukrainian realist artist Ilya Repin (1844–1930), and Ivan Shishkin (1832–1898), artist of moody Russian landscapes.  Repin’s quest to truthfully express the “inner content” of his subjects is not unlike Carlson’s own.  Think Repin’s Leo Tolstoy Resting in the Forest (1891) and Carlson’s Polar Bear (1988) – both offering creatures perfectly suited to their environment.

He acknowledges his admiration for Anders Zorn’s (1860–1920) soft-skinned, white-skirted Swedish ladies in the palest pelts of his bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and polar bears.  And there is the scent of Wilhelm Kuhnert’s (1865–1926) East African savanna in the flowered grasslands of his pronghorn antelope. 

After decades of painting winter whitetails and spring turkeys, the hardest part for Carlson now is uncovering a fresh concept for a painting’s design. Interestingly, he finds ideas in the strongly composed works of Abstract Expressionists, including Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Clyfford Still.  The sign for the French accent grave in Kline’s painting is not unlike the flip of the buffalo’s tail in Portrait of a Warrior (1989).

Anders Zorn, Reveil (awakening)
Anders Zorn, “Reveil (awakening)”

Ideas arise from his vivid memories of his countless times in the field. “When putting together a design, the inspiration builds on itself:  first the animals; then a background that comes from my years of reference materials; then colors from many sources, depending on the season, time of day, temperature, etc.”  After so many years, every day for hours at the easel, Carlson describes his painting method as intuitive, “a sort of muscle memory.”  He pitches the painting’s voice with light.  “Back lighting, early light, late light, high noon, cloudy days, stormy skies – the mood and drama in a painting begin with light.”

Whether the shapes and shades of overlapping mountains unreachably receding in the distance, or the flora at his subject’s feet, he uses the illusion of vegetation – created by manipulating shapes and colors, brushstrokes and edges – to add color, light, mood, line, and form to a painting.  No individual leaves (or feathers) necessary.  “I don’t paint ‘plant identification’.”

Photography plays a role in the process – “I can’t tell a moose to hold a pose” – mostly as an aide-memoire, but also to get accurate every aspect of an animal’s anatomy, whether it’s wolves closing in or a leopard climbing down a branch.  Like Wilwerding taught him.

Wilhelm Kuhnert, Roaring Lion
Wilhelm Kuhnert, “Roaring Lion”
Ken Carlson, Spring Antelope
Ken Carlson, “Spring Antelope”

Carlson’s natural Scandinavian minimalism allows him to skip details that do not add to the temper or understanding of a painting.  In his animal portraits with non-representational backgrounds, “the subject is a character study, and my aim is to capture the soul of the animal.”  The rough, red-soil colored brushstrokes in Portrait of a Warrior speak for the bison’s dangerous nature. In Wolf (1988), he explains, “The background of abstract bold hues is intended to heighten the impact of the wolf’s intense concentration and enhance the wilderness mystique,” its texture signifying the predator’s ferocity. 

Although Ken’s favorite painting is “whatever is currently on the easel,” he especially likes painting Cape buffalo – “Something about its character, attitude, stature, gnarly horns, and dark, defiant ‘no enemy shall pass’ look.”  American bison fall in the same category for Carlson, although he feels especially adept at painting Texas brush country as well as its cousin – the grasslands and bush of Tanzania.

“I hope my painting technique has evolved so that it is unique to me – I want the viewer to look at my painting and say, ‘That’s a ‘Carlson!’.” 

Ken Carlsons latest exhibition, Ken Carlson Presents: Wyoming’s Big 10, will be at Astoria Fine Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from September 11 to September 21, 2024.