Ørnulf Opdahl: A Painter of Landscapes and Lover of His Coast

Looking out the window of Ornult Opdahl's studio in Godoy, Norway.
Looking out the window of Ørnulf Opdahl’s studio in Godoy, Norway.

Ørnulf Opdahl has never given up on a painting.  In his 50 years of creating landscape abstracts in oil and watercolors, he always finishes what he begins–eventually. Sometimes, he said, it might take a while, but he never leaves the canvas unfinished or painted over.

Ornulf Opdahl with his wooden boats in Godoy, Norway.
Painter Ørnulf Opdahl with his wooden boats.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, we visited Opdahl’s two studios on the island of Godoy, Norway,  through a tunnel across the water from Alesund, the town where he was born.

First he showed us the studio where he began painting on the island. Up on the walls were scribbles which he told us were potential names for future paintings…and the floor was a thick carpet of layer after layer of dried paint.

He is one of Norway’s most famous and revered painters, and his work has been exhibited in London, the Smithsonian and in all of the major galleries of his country. He is close friends with  Norway’s Queen Sonja, but that doesn’t give him airs, or make him anything less than charming as he shows us the work he’s been doing for so many decades.

One of his favorite subjects is the Alnes lighthouse, which he’s painted from many angles and in his very abstract and dark technique. When we toured the 1850s-era lighthouse, a gallery of Opdahl’s work graced each of the floors we climbed to get to the top.

He took us down to the newer of his studios, this one right on the water and bordered by sheep pastures. In an adjacent shed, there were four ancient wooden rowboats, another passion of his. There was a row of 13 small oils that were all, he said, being worked on at once. He said it takes about two months to finish one, but that he puts a little into each. “It’s those two seconds that you first thought of the painting that you have to remember each time you come back to it. That’s the challenge,” he explained.

Ornulf Opdahl's work for an upcoming show in Oslo.
Ørnulf Opdahl’s work for an upcoming show in Oslo.

A month-long voyage with a team of oceanographers yielded a beautiful collection of watercolors of among other creatures, octopuses, which he said are among nature’s smartest animals. These clearly defined animals were much different from the work he usually does, which is mostly dark with lots of shadows and points of light, representations of familiar landscapes most Norwegians quickly recognize.

On the wall next to some of his recent paintings was a small painting of a parrot, rendered, he said, by his grandson. “His dad said he couldn’t have a parrot so he painted one instead.”

He picked up a thick book of his work from his earlier days, showing the impressive transformation over the years. He once painted in a much more detailed style, and he said he used to think he had to put a figure in each of his landscapes. Now the impressions of Iceland, Scotland and his beloved Norway coast need no additional adornment.