Story and photos by Autumn Alexander

From brushed sweeps of the wild Blues yonder to a seed-size finch’s eye, the finished images created by artist Todd Telander may leave the average viewer wondering: How did he do that? And why this paint and not that?

For the art bewildered, one modest way to add enjoyment is to imagine the hands-on process going into a work. For example, one might begin by looking into a finished piece, say, an oil painting, and mentally deconstruct it. What magic has this artist used to create images and effects stirring an emotional response from a viewer?

Telander spoke recently about the creative tools he has stashed in his artist’s workshop, and those he packs along outside to capture land and sky views while plein air painting.

He moved to Walla Walla in 2005 after drawing and painting in a spectrum of sunlight, from northern California to Colorado to New Mexico and on Puget Sound. At last, he found the light in Walla Walla “a happy medium,” he says, “not gloomy, not too bright either. The four seasons are always changing light here.”

Now 54, he reflects on three decades toting many sketch books, pencils, pen nibs, canvases, brushes and scrabbling through “pretty rough” times, but in the past five years the artist says he’s become” a little more secure” making a living as a self-taught creative. He and wife Kirsten own the Telander Gallery downtown.

Telander recently spoke with Lifestyles about his professional development and the candy box of art supplies he has come to rely upon for creative expression.

LS: How is it you became a painter? It’s not an easy career path, and that’s even assuming you have talent and staying power.

Todd: I started when I was about 20 as a commercial illustrator. My degree is in biology. It was the scientific drawings, the scientific illustration complementing science labs that struck a chord. I became an apprentice to a professor who needed illustrations for publication. I took it very seriously, I took direction well, and criticism.

LS: What tools and skills did you need for that specialty?

Todd: I worked in black and white with ink and different pen nibs. It was old school, dipping the nibs in India ink. It takes a very steady hand, very controlled. I learned about time constraints, and how to correct things. And then for the color work I used watercolors. Oils would take too long to dry, and they’re messy.

LS: What were your subjects? Your favorites?

Todd: I did field studies of birds. I’ve finished field guides, published Falcon Pocket guides. I still update them. It’s an area of expertise. There are things people don’t normally see.

LS: Your bird illustrations and sculptures look life size and real. How do you do that, all those fine lines? What are your instruments? Your process?

Todd: Most of the work happens through field studies and my own photos of birds. And always I take sketch books, using whatever I have. Sometimes I find dead birds, and it’s like getting a gift. I like to hold them, it’s a kind of memorial when you find them. When they’re life size I can measure dimensions. I start with a sketch on tracing paper. I like to flip it over and trace onto carbon paper, which transfers the sketch to thicker paper. I get that paper wherever — art stores, bookstores. With scientific drawings accuracy is most important, way above aesthetics. But I don’t keep dead birds in the gallery! And I don’t set these illustrations against backgrounds. That turns out kind of cheesy.

LS: You’ve added to your skills and talents in realism that’s also in microcosm. Your present-day aesthetic works, which include still life and landscapes, are now in macrocosm. There are works on supports — wood and canvas primarily — with aesthetic, oil-painted forms stretching from 12-inches to 56-inches wide. Something happened to set you free, obviously. Can you speak to both your internal evolution as well as the tools needed to arrive at these pictorial spaces?

Todd: I took various classes in Denver and was influenced by artist and instructor Robert Spellman. He had big canvases where he used big brushes and even just four colors of acrylic paint. The work was big and bold. It was eye-opening. From there I became more ‘painterly’ versus ‘illustrate-ly.’ Accuracy became less important. My work became ‘loose’ with just a hint of expression. The subject matter no longer is necessarily reality.

Now, for my own oils I use hog hair bristle brushes. I like a brand by Winsor Newton, sizes 2 through 12, in the Filbert style. It’s like a flat brush but curved on the sides. I paint on all size of canvases — I like cotton and linen, though linen is more expensive. Big canvases catch the expanse of mountains, air space and color changes in a day or the seasons of the year. I use many paint colors such as cadmium yellow light, yellow ocher, alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue. Colors run pretty close from manufacturer to manufacturer. You can get paints in several places around Walla Walla.

LS: You can obviously wield anything from charcoal and mechanical pencils to watercolors and oils but your work leans into the hues and values oil offers. Why do oils attract you?

Todd: I like handmade things, their textures. With oils I can create a variety of effects, such as thin or thick, drips, scrapings. With oil you can see the history, the buildup of brush strokes, the handwork. I find it more interesting to look at. There’s a spectrum of light. And with landscapes, oils give you as deep as you can see.

LS: Your naturalist’s eye for detail speaks of great attention to perfection. But how do you know when to say you’re finished with an oil painting where there is no template?

Todd: A work of art is finished when I feel it expresses my original intention. And when I can honestly say that there is nothing more within my ability to make it a better painting.

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