BORN TO THIS LAND, OIL, 24 X 36
By Norman Kolpas
Excitement buzzed through the first grade at Elgin Elementary School in little Elgin, TX, 25 miles east of Austin. Pencils in hand, the best artists in the class huddled over their desks, intent on rendering the most realistic interpretations possible of a photo their teacher had posted on the wall.
“It was a big steamship. The Titanic, I think,” recalls Brian Grimm almost three and a half decades later. In this art competition, he was locked in battle with his closest friend, Raymond, “the best artist in the class” by Grimm’s own admission. “I just marveled at his pencil drawings. I knew I had to do a really great job to beat him,” he says. “Raymond ended up winning, which I kind of knew would happen.”
Grimm took his defeat with a maturity far beyond his years. “Being that I lost, I knew I had to keep doing better,” he says. “So all through school I would draw anything and everything. I would copy photos from magazines. I would buy art books and try to duplicate in pencil what I saw. I was fascinated that a human hand could create something beautiful with such a simple tool.”
That kind of humble, single-minded dedication to honing his skills and improving his art has served Grimm well. Today, at the age of 39, he enjoys a growing reputation as one of the nation’s most accomplished wildlife artists, creating hauntingly lifelike images in oil of animals surrounded by the beauty of their natural habitats.
Nature subjects enthralled him from his earliest days. “Growing up on a fifty-acre farm, I was wandering in the woods as far back as I can remember,” he says. “Our five dogs would come along with me, and we’d have a day of it. We saw mostly rabbits, which the dogs loved to chase, and also a lot of snakes, raccoons, possums, skunks, and an occasional white-tailed deer.”
Back in the classroom, Grimm continued to excel in art, though materials were limited in the local public school system. “We didn’t have the funds for a lot of paints,” he says, “so everything was pretty focused on drawing. I mainly worked with a regular number-two pencil.”
His art teacher at Elgin High, Dr. John Oliver, recognized Grimm’s singular talent and strived to foster it along with the interests of his other students. “Around the 11th grade, he went out and bought us a big watercolor pad and some watercolors, so we could start dabbling in another medium,” says Grimm. Oliver also encouraged him to enter a drawing in a students’ competition connected with the annual Artists Autumn Harvest in Austin, the largest indoor art show in central Texas.
“I got a ribbon for participating, but I didn’t place in the competition,” says Grimm. Once again, the young artist took it all in stride. “I saw the quality of work a lot of the students had done, which made me want to get even better.”
SEPTEMBER SUNRISE, OIL, 24 X 36
The quiet determination that saw Grimm through this minor defeat also helped him through a major personal tragedy. During his sophomore year of high school, his dad died of cancer. “That was a numbing time,” he says, words still coming with difficulty when he talks about the loss. “As the baby of six children, with all the others having already grown up and left the farm, I felt some responsibility to try to stay close by to help.”
After high school, he enrolled for a two-year degree in commercial art at Austin Community College. Afterward, instead of pursuing a bachelor’s degree, he “settled into work mode,” designing and drawing for a sign company in Austin, work he later developed into a successful freelance career. “I specialized in calligraphy and hand lettering,” he says. “I really loved the precision of it, and the feeling of freedom I had using my hands to create.”
Human hands, however, were becoming less and less necessary in the graphic design business in the 1990s, as computer programs did more and more of the work. “I started realizing that I didn’t want to press buttons to create art,” Grimm says.
Fortunately, one of his customers, a single mom named Valisa, gave him just the encouragement he needed. He shared with her his desire to tackle something more ambitious than signs and logos. “She gave me a kick in the pants to start painting and get serious about my work,” he recalls. “Serious” hardly begins to describe the dedication Grimm brought to this pursuit.
With Valisa’s encouragement, he painted diligently, periodically bringing his works to wildlife painter Ken Carlson for advice. He had met the well-known artist years earlier through his sister, who was a neighbor of Carlson’s in the Texas Hill Country town of Kerrville. “I was blown away by his paintings, and I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Grimm says. “One important piece of advice Ken gave me was to use a bigger brush than I thought I needed. I was working too tight, and my paintings still had a stiff, commercial look to them. A big brush loosens you up, and as a result your paintings look more painterly and full of life,” he says. “Finally, after about a year, Ken gave me the go-ahead, and I showed my paintings for the first time at an outdoor art show in Salado, Texas, in April of 1999.”
He sold his first painting at that show. More important, though, his work caught the eye of legendary Texas landscape artist Dalhart Windberg, who invited Grimm to come visit his studio and gallery in nearby Georgetown. Grimm stopped by later that same week, and the master artist gently critiqued his works, explaining to him how eliminating excessive white paint from his palette would result in more lively colors.
By late 2001, Grimm’s painting had progressed so far that Windberg started selling the young artist’s works in his Georgetown gallery. “That was a big boost to my spirit,” admits Grimm, now finally able to give up his graphic design career. Other prestigious representations were to follow: Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY, and Whistle Pik Galleries in the Hill Country town of Fredericksburg.
Grimm and Valisa married in 2003, and along with Valisa’s two sons, Cole, now 17, and Cooper, 15, they moved to Fredericksburg. The same year, Valisa, without telling her new husband, sent some images of his work to Morris & Whiteside Galleries in Hilton Head, SC. The gallery selected Grimm’s work to appear in their Western Heritage Show that September. “One lady bought all of my paintings,” he says. “There was no looking back.” Indeed, Grimm’s reputation continues to grow.
In a studio that has taken over the garage of the family’s home, Grimm will spend up to a week on an individual painting. The size of his artwork has grown from modest 11-by-14-inch pieces to paintings as large as 5 by 4 feet. Each painting has its start in outdoor observations made on his ever-more-frequent travels to places like Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons, where he takes numerous photographs and makes sketches in pencil and paint. Back home, he begins with many thumbnail images. “I’m a designer first,” he says, “so I’ll spend probably as much time on the design as I will on the actual painting.” From the thumbnails, he works up 4-by-6-inch value drawings, to concentrate on the interplay of dark and light areas; then he moves on to 6-by-8-inch color studies.
Finally, he begins the actual painting, which he does on quarter-inch-thick hardboard. “I like to build up paint, so I don’t want a canvas to dictate my texture,” he explains. He applies three or four coats of gesso, layering the white primer into a rough-hewn crosshatch pattern. “I need that to hold the thick globs of paint I like, which can get up to half an inch in some areas.”
His artist’s eye, trained for years in exacting graphic design work, captures amazingly lifelike images of nature’s denizens—bear, elk, moose, deer, bison—in painterly brush strokes that convey a sense of immediacy so powerful, you almost smell the sharp scent of evergreens or hear the whistling of the wind through tall grasses. “I want you to feel as if you can walk into one of my paintings and the texture of the paint will rub against your legs,” says the artist.
That’s quite an ambitious goal for someone who has only been painting full time for less than a decade. But it seems more than attainable, given Grimm’s lifelong dedication to pursuing artistic mastery. “I don’t believe in shortcuts. I go to the source and, above all, draw, draw, draw,” he says, expressing an approach that has held true for him since the first grade. “It’s like I tell our boys: ‘Do your homework.’”
Featured in August 2008