Janet Green Jacobson’s spent her early years as an artist creating traditional watercolor portraits. These were highly detailed representational pieces that evolved into her first major body of work: Western-themed paintings featuring Native Americans, burly farm hands and rough-hewn cowboys in the Marlboro Man tradition. Artists that served as inspiration were famed watercolorists Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth.
But that’s all over now. Realism and painstaking attention to detail have slowly morphed into what is now Jacobson’s signature style: landscapes that focus the viewer on the big picture.
Jacobson started painting professionally after graduating from the University of South Carolina with a Masters of Fine Arts degree. “I always knew — there was never any question — that I would be an artist,” she says. But two years later she married and had two children. Even during her busiest years raising children, she never totally put down her brush. “I felt like keeping the connection with my art and my creativity was critical to my growth as a person and as an artist, and, let’s face it, moms need outlets.”
And for the next 15 years, until around 1990, Jacobson honed her skill as a painter in the realist tradition. She started out in traditional watercolors and worked in portraiture. Her work in commissioned portraits eventually led to portraiture of subjects she chose. These included local mountain characters, country ladies selling apples at the Curb Market or old farmers working in the fields. From there it moved to western subject matter. “My mother and I traveled all over the west searching out the right face, be it cowhand, or a Native American girl or a mountain man,” says Jacobson. She sold these highly detailed pieces in Santa Fe, Aspen and Los Angeles.
Her break from realism marked a major change in style. Gone are the highly-detailed renderings and hard edges of her watercolors. In their place are softer edges and a blending of colors that contribute to an entirely different mood — a more abstract approach that can best be described as peaceful and serene. “I basically did an about face. I wanted to go in a completely different direction, softer edges, brighter colors, landscapes instead of figures. Portraiture was a way to show off the technical skills of watercolor, but I really got burned out. I went from being a slave to detail to just the opposite.”
Jacobson started experimenting with other media — acrylics first, and that led to oils. “If you’ve been an artist and a watercolorist, and then you start working with oil, you can’t even compare them. It’s a completely different process. With watercolor, when you put it down, it better be right. There’s no correcting mistakes. With oils, you can do anything. It’s just limitless — you can just paint, paint, paint.”
With a change of media came a change in influence. Jacobson looked to Paul Gauguin and Edward Hopper for inspiration.
“I had never worked on canvas before,” says Jacobson. Once I took that step, away from paper and away from realism to oils and canvas, I concentrated on landscapes, which I’ve been doing ever since. I’m an outdoors person and I don’t think there’s any other subject that talks to me or I can create as passionately as landscapes.”
There are similarities between the early portraiture and her current work. Like the watercolors, Jacobson’s landscapes feature bright, vibrant hues and contrasting colors — white clouds, dark blue skies. But as her technique evolved, Jacobson began to look at light and color in a different way. Her scenes portray less of a daylight intensity and more of the especially peaceful atmosphere associated with early morning and late afternoon, what photographers and painters like to call the “golden hour”.
Muted earth tones dominate these paintings, allowing Jacobson to create a focal point of contrasting color, one that establishes a special mood of mystery and meditative stillness. One gets a sense of vastness and isolation and loneliness from many of her pieces.
“I’ve described my work as possessing a nostalgic melancholy,” says Jacobson. I’m not sure why this happens, perhaps I’m yearning for something that used to be, and that seems harder and harder to hold onto and find. I think I’m trying to use nature as a medium, to project on canvas my ideal landscape: unspoiled, unchanged and timeless.”