An Interview with Chris Nissen

 November Haze  oil on linen  54" x 50"  2010

Chris Nissen often paints his panoramic scenes from a great height, with the strong diagonals of a highway or river dramatically dividing the composition. Whether working on location or from sketches and memory, his spontaneous use of strong color and a loaded brush helps him to express his deep feelings for the American landscape.

Nissen has been busy preparing for his upcoming solo show at the Gross McCleaf Gallery, but he agreed to take some time out to answer my questions. In this interview he talks about the painters he looks to for inspiration, his forays into abstraction as well as a few interesting experiences he's had while painting on location. He discusses some of his favorite artistic experiences, such as the time he was invited into Andrew Wyeth's studio for a chat.

You can find out more about Chris Nissen at his website, his fine art Facebook page, and at the Gross McCleaf Gallery's website.

TD:  Where did you grow up?  

CN:  I was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1949.  I lived in a small town in northern New Jersey until I was about six years old, when I moved to Moorestown in southern New Jersey. 

TD:  Did you have an interest in painting before attending art school, and if so, did you get early encouragement?

CN:  As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My mother’s father had wanted to study art when he was growing up, but was absolutely forbidden to do so by his father. Once my grandfather retired, he took up painting and continued to do so throughout the remainder of his life.  I spent many hours painting with my grandfather down in his basement where he kept his paint and canvas boards. He had a great fondness for painting the landscape around his house.  I too developed a love of painting the landscape at a young age.

Morning Haze  oil on linen  24" x 36"  2013

I took art classes throughout my years at Moorestown Friends School, and also painted on the weekends. While in second grade, my mother received a call from my art teacher, Peg Cowan. She told my mother that she was quite sure that I would become a painter. This call had come out of the blue and we still marvel at the fact that she was able to see something in me that had never been obvious to me or anyone else in my family.

My late father was a pigment salesman for the E. I. Dupont Corporation. As part of his job, he often brought home many paint samples on metal surfaces tested for sunlight exposure for their permanence. I have often thought that playing with these color samples stimulated my early love of color. He also sold pigments to Binney and Smith, the maker of Crayola crayons, and every time he returned from a business trip to their factory he brought home huge brown bags of their new and proposed color crayons. Thanks Dad!

In the Mirror   oil on linen   60" x 60"  1988

I also remember that when I was in high school, my parents bought an Otis Cook landscape for me, which helped foster my interest in painting.

TD:  You began your studies at the University of Virginia in physics and astronomy, but after a year and a half switched to American Government. You graduated in 1971, hoping to work in the Foreign Service. What attracted you to the idea of working in the Foreign Service?  What did you imagine doing, specifically? Are you still quite interested in the American political landscape, and/or the international political landscape?

CN:  While I was going to college, the war in Vietnam was raging.  Since UVA was so close to Washington, I became interested in the political situation that was developing so close to our campus.  By chance, Jerry Rubin, one of the members of The Chicago 7, spoke at UVA the night of the Kent State killings, after which the students at the normally staid campus reacted with genuine anger and protest.  That semester ended early as the students along with a majority of the faculty voted to strike.  I became more engaged in my studies of the politics of the US and other countries around the world.  Since then, I have continued to voice my political opinions. To pursue my interest in politics, I landed a job with our diplomatic corp.  But before I started, the job was eliminated due to budgetary cutbacks ending my hopes of working in that field at that time.

TD: Your early interests at the University of Virginia were fact-based, yet you’ve said that your paintings are about your feelings- specifically, that when you paint, you’re trying to get someone else to feel the same way as you do about your subject. What do you think caused this change in your interests from fact-based knowledge to a passion for work that is based on feeling and intuition?

CNIt really wasn’t as big a change as you might expect. When I was in tenth grade, I ground my own telescope mirror and built a 6” reflecting telescope. I was inspired to study astronomy from the many nights as a youngster that I spent looking up at the sky in awe. My imagination ran wild with questions.  What was up there, how did it get there, how did it all work, and finally who else was out there?  My early interest in astronomy was generated by my emotional response more so than a cold study of the scientific facts.  To this day, I have maintained my interest in astronomy and its mystery.  As I became interested in pursuing painting, I think a search for an emotional response came naturally.

Along the Park Road   oil on linen   52" x 72"  2006

TD:  You graduated from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1980. How did you make the decision to attend PAFA?

CN:  Prior to 1980, I was working for a marketing firm. I happened to be reviewing direct mail advertising pieces, and one morning a brochure from PAFA crossed my desk. I spent most of the day reviewing and reading that brochure.  Sometime later in he week, it dawned on me that perhaps I should consider making a career change and pursue something that I had been involved with only as a part time hobby. After about a month, I got up the courage to put together a portfolio and applied to the Academy.  I clearly remember walking into PAFA carrying my paintings in a black trash bag, which served as my portfolio.  That first day started my friendship with Dick Ranck, who at the time was working at PAFA. He looked at me with a wry smile and then the black trash bag, and said: “Now here is a man who really values his work.”  I knew right away I would like it there!

On the Creek in Delanco   oil on wood  30” x 30”   circa 1985

TD:  Which teachers had the most impact on your own work while you were a student?  

CN:  I came to know many of the teachers and I came to appreciate their unique perspectives that they brought to their work and their critiques.  These teachers became my friends, and I will never forget them.  My teachers included Sidney GoodmanArthur DeCosta, Jimmy LuedersRos WeidnerLiz Osborne, Ben KamihiraHenry PearsonEdith NeffTom Ewing, and Lou Sloane just to name those who critiqued my work most often. There were so many more teachers all of whom I came to respect and to feel great affection for.

TD:  Which ones were the most memorable as either mentors or interesting personalities?

CN:  I remember my very first crit was with Ros Weidner. He had the reputation for being a bit gruff, so I was nervous as I placed my paintings on the floor in front of him. He looked at them for a minute and than asked “Nissen, how much paint did you buy to attend class here at PAFA?”  “Why?” I responded.  He then said in so many words, sell your paints to another student, go home and cut out colored paper and make collages, and then come back and see me in two years. Not a great start! 

Several years later when I had finished putting up my first Cresson traveling scholarship wall, he came over and shook my hand, gave me a hug, and said how proud of me he was.  That same year Arthur DeCosta (whose studio was next to mine) helped me arrange my Cresson wall to create a more powerful presentation.   

Red Roof  oil on linen  60" x 60"  1992

Shortly after visiting Andrew Wyeth in his studio where he urged me to paint what I knew, I began to have more critiques with Sidney Goodman.  I came to love Sidney’s work and began to appreciate the urban environment that I passed through every day on my way to and from school. It so happened that Sidney and I were going through a divorce at the same time, and during his visits to my studio we became friends, and he eventually became my mentor.  A kinder and more humble man there will never be. 

My connection to these teachers at PAFA continued long after I left school.  For example, perhaps three or four years after I was out of school one day while walking in center city, I heard a voice call my name.  It was Joe Amarotico.  He told me to follow him down into his restoration lab.  He was restoring a Sargent painting, and he had remembered that I loved Sargent’s work.  He took my hand and let me gently touch the wonderful paint surface of that painting.  He said that I was never to tell anybody that he let me do this until after he passed away.  Joe, thank you so much for your act of kindness.  

These examples are just a very small sample of my experiences and are why I have come to cherish my time at PAFA.

TD:  PAFA is a relatively small school, with a close-knit student body. After your experience at a large university, what was this like?

CN:  I loved my four years at UVA and had a close group of friends.  But after I had been at PAFA for only a short time, I felt for the very first time in my adult life that I had come home and found the place where I belonged.

Urban Watercolor watercolor  15 1/2" x 45"  1987

Wind Streaks  oil on linen 30" x 80"  2010

TD:  You won two scholarships from PAFA for European travel. Please describe a favorite memory or two from those trips.

CN:  Winning those two scholarships changed my life in so many ways. Those trips opened my eyes to see in a way I had never experienced before. I also developed wonderful friendships with my fellow PAFA traveling companions Kurt SolmssenHarvey Weinreich, and Carol Moeller.

I remember one night when Harvey, Carol, and I were staying in a family run pensione in Italy. The family spoke no English, and we spoke no Italian.  They couldn’t quite figure out our status. They kept trying to direct us to the bridal suite, but they just couldn’t figure out whether it was Harvey or myself who should share it with Carol. After a while they gave up, shrugged, smiled, and invited us in to watch TV with them in their living room. On another trip with Kurt, we were staying at his relative’s home in a town in southern Germany, Bad Tölz. We went with them to the local wine festival and gathered together afterwards with the younger members of the family. Later after drinking much of the local beer, I vaguely remember singing verse after verse of Simon and Garfunkel songs with the assembled masses late into the next morning, in true German style (thankfully no one taped that performance).

I saw firsthand so many wonderful landscapes in concert with paintings of them. Seeing the actual landscapes with the differing light that bathed them added so much to my understanding of all those European painters whose work I had long admired but had only seen in reproduction. It seemed that almost every day there was a discovery to be made.  In Paris I remember walking by a group of Marquet paintings and stopping in my tracks. The power and vision of those paintings was overwhelming. (Marquet is still one of my favorite painters). Further down the wall there was a beautiful Matisse. It was obvious how these paintings had shared many of the same truths.  The opportunity to make these discoveries was so much a part of these travels.  From the works I viewed 
from museum to museum, I was amazed how powerfully many of the painters had learned to use grey to set their color palette. That was something I had never understood up to that point.

Every day and night was a treasure that I will never forget.

The Harbor   oil on linen   60” x 60”  2013

TD:  As you’ve mentioned, during your years at PAFA you had the good fortune of meeting Andrew Wyeth in his studio in Brandywine, PA. In an NPR radio interview you say that hearing Wyeth discuss his work had a profound impact on your own vision. Wyeth advised you to “paint what you know, paint what you see, and paint what you love”. How did hearing him say this help you to find your own path?

CN:  Several fellow students and I visited Andrew Wyeth in his studio. It was a magical experience. He was such a down to earth and genuine individual that I accepted his advice as well intentioned and honestly given.  After all, he was a major figure in American art and still listed his phone number in the white pages.

At that time, I was searching for subject matter.  Often the four of us would drive around all day looking for something to paint: the Lehigh Valley, Valley Forge, New Hope, the refineries in South Philadelphia, and the walkway on the Ben Franklin Bridge.  All of a sudden, here is this man suggesting a new way for me to think about painting, urging me to paint what I know.  It all made such great sense.

 Delaware Avenue  oil on linen  66" x 54"  1980

TD:  I’m fascinated with your admiration for Andrew Wyeth, who is sometimes disparaged by critics for being somewhat retrograde.  As a student, did you want to learn to paint with his meticulously detailed approach, or were you mainly attracted to the emotional depth of his work?

CN:  I always marveled at Wyeth’s detailed approach, but never really had the desire to emulate that style.  At PAFA, it soon became clear that I much preferred drawing with a large loaded brush rather then a pencil or a very small brush.  While my desire to try to use larger quantities of paint applied with larger brushes ran counter to Wyeth’s painting style, I was, and am to this day, deeply connected to the emotional depth of his paintings   I have always admired him for sticking with his vision and not chasing every new painting style that came down the pike.

TD:  Andrew Wyeth told you of his high regard for the abstract expressionist work of Willem de Kooning, and said he begins a painting by thinking in terms of expressive abstract form, with the subject matter considered second.  Did this statement influence your work as well?  Because I think that both your urban scenes and landscapes have strong abstract form and elements of Expressionism.   Do you make conscious decisions to change what you see for emotional effect, or do you feel like you are painting the way you see the world?

CN:  I believe that his statement, along with my developing admiration for Sidney Goodman’s urban paintings, did influence my thoughts about painting. I started seeing the landscape in a new way as I passed through it on the train every day.  I still enjoy painting the landscape as it exists, but I think I get more satisfaction in reordering the landscape in order to try to strive for some emotional response from the viewer.  The challenge often times is to reorder the landscape in ways so that most viewers still recognize the location at first glance and don’t even notice he changes I've made.  Sometime it works and other times it doesn’t.  That’s part of the pleasure that I feel.

Rush Hour  oil on linen  36” x 78”  1981

TD:  Your large paintings of the urban and industrial landscape are spectacularly and dramatically gorgeous.  Your multi-lane highways seem to muscle their way through the landscape, mimicking the tremendous force needed to create such monumental constructions.  These scenes are atmospheric, which seems to be partly a result of using wet paint that slightly blurs the hard edges of buildings.  What do you use to thin your paint? Do you ever feel that the wetness makes it more of a challenge to paint the details?

CN:  First of all, thank you for the compliment.  You have described perfectly my feelings about how these highways interact with the surrounding landscape.  I am on a constant search for the perfect medium, and, in the course of my thirty years plus of painting, I have gone from working wet in wet to working with a dry brush back and forth numerous times.  In the long run, I feel more at home working wet in wet.  For me, working that way makes it easier to control the edges.  While it’s easy to work a small painting wet and wet, it becomes more difficult to work the larger paintings that way since they may take months to complete.  To thin the paint, I generally use just a bit of light stand oil sometimes with just a touch of Liquin (Sidney’s favorite medium).  For a while instead of adding Liquin, I added just a touch of clove oil which kept the paint wet and workable for quit a while.  Those paintings also smelled like clove sometimes for months.

Delaware Avenue Under Snow  oil on linen  60" x 50" 1982

TD:  Has your palette changed over the years?

CN: When I first started painting, I used a rather limited palette consisting primarily of earth colors.  Three reasons have led me to use a much more highly colored palette.  Earlier on in my career, I started using pastels, which come in several hundred colors.  Later influences were trips to Downeast Maine, and to Santa Fe and Taos New Mexico.  For the past fifteen or twenty years, my palette has remained fairly consistent.

On the Creek oil on board 16" x 24"  2010

TD:  What brushes do you use? Has this changed over the years?

CN:  I started using bright (flat) bristle brushes.  Over the years, my brush choices for oil paintings have expanded to include synthetic nylon brights, watercolor brushes of various sizes and types, and more recently filbert (soft rounded edges) bristle brushes.  For the last 20 years, in my quest to use larger brushes, I also have been using inexpensive hardware store house painter brushes, one to four inches in width.  I have really come to love these cheap disposable brushes.

TD: What other mediums other than oil paints have you used?

CN:  I have tried using just about every medium: charcoal, pencil, pastels, watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and oils.   After so many experiments, I have come to feel most comfortable with oils and gouaches.

The Schuylkill print on paper 22 1/2" x 32 1/2"  circa mid 80's 

The Marsh  11 1/2" x 17"  mono print on paper  circa mid 80.s

Airplane on the Runway 2  charcoal on paper 19 3/8" x 41 1/2" circa mid 80's

Near the River gouache 6.5" x 13" 2007

TD:  Tell us something about your process in creating your large paintings.  How much do you create on location, and how much in the studio?  As for the locations you choose, it seems like it must be a job in itself to find some of your dynamic, almost aerial views. 

CN:  I wish that I were able to paint all of my paintings on location.  However, I have always owned a small car limiting me to a 36” x 40” size (+/-) due to the trunk or back seat size.  Over the years, I have left a string of cars with cadmium yellow and orange smears on the back seat.  I don’t have a standard procedure for working on larger works.  However, I try to paint small studies on location supplemented by written notes on color and, in the case of very complex compositions, by several photos.  Once back in the studio, I typically start with a simple drawing using the studies and the photos.  Once I block in the image, I put the photos away and work from my notes, studies, and memory.

Carousel  oil on linen  66" x 56"  1988

TD: Often I’d swear you must have rented a small helicopter to get your vantage points. Have you had to get permission to paint on rooftops and/or bridges?  If so, how difficult has this been?

It used to be easier to access bridge walkways, rooftops, or to stand between train cars while in transit.  As every urban landscape painter knows, after 9/11 when homeland security took effect, accessing these areas has become been much more difficult.  In the last five years, along with my easel and canvas, I have been escorted off or out of bridges, port facilities, rooftops, and even from a public sidewalk adjoining the water treatment plant.

Buildings from Above  charcoal on paper  27 3/4" x 37 1/2" circa early 80's

TD:  When an artist spends time painting on location, strange encounters or risky situations can develop.  Do you have some interesting memories of things that have happened to you while trying to concentrate on painting outside?

CN:  I have had dozens of strange encounters while painting on site as with most other landscape painters working on location. Even when deep in the woods seemingly alone, someone always appears to turn up.  People have thrown rocks at me and snowballs, and splashed water on me from a canoe. While painting with friends at Penn’s Landing during the summer, we were constantly surrounded by crowds continuously commenting on our paintings.  “He’s ok but he’s certainly no Rembrandt“ seemed to be the most popular comment.  

The most unusual encounter happened while we were painting across from the oil refineries in South Philadelphia.  A young boy approached us and asked if he could join us and paint.  As he went to get his supplies, he asked us if he could bring his pets as well.  We said yes, of course. Several minutes later, he reappeared with a small canvas and easel, and a small cage.  He asked us if we would stop painting and see his pets.  In the cage, there were two snarling rats; not white rats but nasty, angry, brown rats trying to escape.  We politely thanked him and packed up and left.

Steaming Upriver  oil on linen  36" x 50"  2010

TD:  In your bucolic scenes of Maine, you paint with more saturated color and crisper brushwork than you typically use in your urban scenes.  It’s interesting that while you choose to paint hard-edged subjects like buildings and highways with a lush, wet-on-wet effect, in your natural landscapes your trees are painted with relatively precise edges.  It seems as though you have two completely different worlds of subject matter, with different approaches.  You use strong diagonals in the design of your urban and industrial scenes, while generally you use a quieter composition in your landscapes with fewer angles and more horizontals.  Yet your landscapes are not quiet; the saturated color has an equally powerful affect.  What were the challenges of changing your approach?

CN:  Your observation is very accurate, but I honestly don’t have a clear response.  When I confront these two different subjects, there is something in me that subconsciously takes over and directs my paintings in different directions.  When I tried to reverse that process on some paintings, more often than not the results have not been overly positive.  Your question has given me food for thought for my future work.

Rosehips oil on linen 40" x 50" 1987

However, I do recognize that I paint differently in different settings; I have become an advocate of letting my memory direct the painting.  While working on location en pleine air, the interval when my memory takes over is much shorter than in my studio.  En pleine air, my memory takes over between the short interval of looking at the subject and then looking at the painting and applying paint.  In my studio paintings, this memory interval is much longer.  This somehow is my naturally engrained response to these two different settings.   

River Ice  oil on linen  44" x 62"  2001    

TD:  You spent a year working abstractly.  When was this, why did you decide to work abstractly, and why did you stop?

CN:  I have come to love some abstract painters, with Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn being my two favorites.  In the early eighties, I came upon a room with a series of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings at the National Gallery.  I remember actually having chills and becoming totally engrossed with the intensity of a quasi-religious experience.  At that moment, I decided that I wanted to explore abstract painting for myself.  I only produced about six paintings over the course of that year.  This foray into abstract painting was both depressing and exhilarating.  Starting the paintings was easy, but searching for a direction to complete the painting was devilishly difficult.  Often times, I left the studio feeling confident that I had completed the painting on my easel only to arrive back at my studio the next morning to realize that it was nowhere near where it needed to be.  My final analysis from that year was that I needed to mature more as a painter before I should seriously try abstraction again.  In spite of my dissatisfaction with my abstract work, a small gallery in Pittsburgh showed them and sold all four that they had taken.  The remaining two were lost when a gallery in New York City that had decided to show my work closed and disappeared in the middle of the night.  One thing that my yearlong experiment with abstraction reconfirmed in my mind was that Diebenkorn’s work was genius. 

 (Untitled) oil on linen 84" x 60" 2004-2013

TD:  Many artists have recurring images or themes that they return to several times, and this seems true of you.  Can you explain your reasons for the recurring theme of a red chair?  How about your beach scenes?

CN:  For many years, I had several director’s chairs in my studio.  I was looking for an object to put in the foreground of a painting that I was working on.  After much searching, I realized that I was sitting in the perfect object.  The chair was red, ideal for placing on a green background.  It also had a complex shape and could be placed to cast dynamic and visually interesting shadows. I realized that the empty chair added a small but real sense of mystery to the landscape, composition.

Croquet  oil on linen  50" x 60" 1998

Two Women and a Ball  oil on linen  (diptych)  78" x  58" 1990

TD:  As a landscape and cityscape painter, is finding new and stimulating areas important to you?  Do you ever feel that you’ve exhausted the subject of Philadelphia?

CN:  After completing a number of Philadelphia paintings, I sometimes feel that maybe I have used up my subject matter.  However, after taking a break from painting urban environs, driving in the car, taking a walk, or hopping on a train refreshes my list of future painting material.  The late afternoon is my favorite time for gathering fresh ideas because of the extreme shadows and the warmer light.

The Bridge oil on birch 24 x 24 inches 2010

TD:  Please name some of your favorite painters. Have your choices changed over the years?

The list of painters whose work I particularly admire is eclectic, but list has remained largely constant throughout my career.  Some of my favorite painters include BonnardMatisseMarquetDerain, DiebenkornWillem de KooningTheodore RobinsonFairfield Porter, Sidney GoodmanEdvard MunchAlice Neel, Manet, HopperBellowsCezanne and Klimt….just to name a few.

TD:  Please tell us about a few interests or hobbies you have outside of your painting career.

CN:  For many years after college, I played competitive soccer and softball.  I have been a golfer since I was ten years old, and have tried to play most weekends during the warmer weather.  I also enjoy wood working, and I have built several pieces of furniture.  I still enjoy astronomy and read as much as I can on the subject.  Over the years I have also enjoyed sailing and early on I owned two daysailers.

TD:  Your upcoming show at the Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia opens January 8. How many paintings will you be exhibiting? What range of subjects will be included?

CN:  I will be showing about 18 to 20 oil paintings and a small group of gouaches.  Most of the paintings are Philadelphia-based landscapes with a number of paintings from my trips to Maine.

Lowering Sky oil on linen  52" x 40" 2013

TD:  Once your show opens and you have a chance to catch your breath, what do you hope to focus on next?

CN:  My show at the Gross McCleaf Gallery will be my first one-man show, since I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about eighteen months ago.  Painting with Parkinson’s has been a learning experience.  I have learned to take cues from my body as to how vigorously I can paint and when I shouldn’t paint.  I know that I will have to make constant adjustments as the disease progresses.  So far, my right hand has not been affected by tremors.  Once I have taken a brief break, it hopefully will be full steam ahead.  I know I will continue with urban paintings along with the Maine works.  But, I have also been toying with the idea of revisiting the beach paintings, and figures in the landscape and in interiors.  Time will tell and I’m looking forward with optimism.

Taryn, before I finish I want to thank you for inviting me into your blog and I want to tell you how much I appreciated your probing and carefully constructed questions. I have enjoyed the experience.

TD: You're welcome, Chris. I want to thank you as well for sharing your thoughts and memories of your work and life as an landscape and cityscape painter.

Chris Nissen's solo show opens January 8 2014 at Philadelphia's Gross McCleaf Gallery, with the opening reception January 10.

You can find out more about Chris at his website, his fine art Facebook page, and at the Gross McCleaf Gallery's website. You can also listen to his NPR radio interview as well as watch a short documentary film made in his studio in Moorestown, New Jersey.

Chris Nissen with Marian Locks in her Gallery in the 80s


  1. Thanks for your very good interview. Enjoyed very much.

  2. Thank you Taryn. What a great read. Nissen's work is gorgeous - what excellent composition and colour! He's had an interesting path and you asked good questions. I felt like I was in a coffee shop listening to the two of you chat. I keep going back to Rush Hour and The Mill. Wonderful.


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