Gordon Brown | True to Nature

By Stanley Cuba

My paintings are all about light and mood,” says Colorado native Gordon Brown. He never tires of the view from his converted barn/studio on the state’s western slope, which allows him to observe firsthand the various moods and palettes of the seasons. Brown has come to appreciate the subtleties and drama created by changing light and regularly incorporates them into his work.

Brown grew up in nearby Grand Junction, CO, and remains close to his roots. Three years ago he moved with his young family to Palisade, a small town noted for its fruit and wine production. Ensconced in his century-old home shaded by peach and apricot trees, Brown, 36, finds peace and inspiration in this bucolic oasis. From the balcony of his studio at the back of the property, Brown can survey the imposing Bookcliffs mountain range.

Brown made his first foray into art when he bought a set of oil paints while in high school. Although he had not painted until then, two of his oils—one showing a stagecoach coming down a mountain and the other a lake scene with the Mount of the Holy Cross near Leadville—won best of show and first place, respectively, in a high-school art contest. This early recognition sparked his interest in art and his desire to pursue a career as an artist.

Brown also received encouragement from several established artists in the area. Shortly after graduating from high school, he was introduced to Mark Rohrig, who invited Brown to his one-man show in Aspen, CO. From this experience in the professional art world, Brown learned that it was possible to earn a living as a painter.

Although Brown had begun painting without any formal instruction, he eventually studied with Jack Kephart, a Grand Junction painter. They talked about art, took painting trips together, and shared trade secrets. These trips gave Brown the exhilarating experience of working on-location and set him on the artistic course he still follows today.

In addition to Kephart, Brown studied with Shang Ding, an alumnus of the Beijing Central Art Academy. Shang stressed that painting from life—whether landscapes, still lifes, or the human figure—teaches the artist to work with true colors and movement and to paint spontaneously. Shang also introduced Brown to underpainting techniques, teaching him to start with blue and white paint and follow it with several glazes.

More recently, Brown has benefited from the input of Quang Ho at the Denver Art Students’ League. Quang helped Brown analyze the components of his paintings. “I’ve always had painterly instincts,” says Brown. “But Quang gave me a real understanding of what I’m doing; consequently, I now have more control over my paintings.”

Other artists that Brown admires include Clyde Aspevig—“his paintings make you feel like you’re right there,” says Brown—and Russell Chatham, known for the subtle color and light of his paintings. Brown has also been influenced by Albert Bierstadt’s 19th-century western landscapes, many of which are bathed in a soft, golden light. Similarly, Brown fell in love with the atmospheric qualities of George Inness’ work when he first saw it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA, about eight years ago. He is also inspired by the shapes, strong colors, and brushwork that Victor Higgins employed in his western subjects.

Like these artists who were motivated to paint their environments, Brown considers it his “responsibility as a painter” to record and reveal the natural beauty of the landscape as faithfully as possible.” Living and working on the Colorado Plateau provides him with an infinite source of inspiration.

Brown has loved nature since he was a child and spent time outdoors hunting and fishing with his family. As an adult constantly painting and observing nature, he is even more attuned to the landscape, learning how to paint different seasons and changes in light that soften the shapes of rocks, trees, and water.

Before painting in the studio, Brown spends a great deal of time in the field studying his subject matter. He does small oil studies and takes photos for use later in the studio. The photos are just a reference, however, and his final canvases bear little resemblance to them.

Brown considers his primary challenge to be establishing a successful composition while remaining faithful to a scene’s natural beauty. “As my work has evolved, composition has become as important to me as painting in a soft, realistic style,” he says. He begins by identifying and isolating the underlying abstract shapes of a particular scene. Then he simplifies the design by reducing the masses to three basic values: light, medium, and dark. “If I’m not moved by the resulting abstract design,” he says, “I keep searching until I find a better combination of abstract shapes. Only then do I become truly committed to the painting process.”

In addition to subject matter and composition, Brown is also concerned with conveying the feelings he experiences when he’s out in the landscape. A painting of a view from the edge of a canyon, for example, has made some people feel dizzy—high praise, in Brown’s estimation.

When Brown paints on location, he not only records what he sees but also imprints his feelings in his artistic consciousness. After working on a composition in the field, he takes the painting into the studio to continue working on creating a mood. Frequently he studies a piece for a long time. “The painting is calling out for improvements,” he says. “Eventually I figure out what they are.”

Brown wants his paintings to have a soft, natural feel, whether the subject is a quiet pastoral scene or a dramatic passing storm. “Believability is very important to me,” he says. “The light and shadow, color, atmosphere, depth, and space must be as true as possible.”

Thus far, Brown’s paintings have focused on the Grand Valley on the western slope of the Rockies. He plans to expand his repertoire, though, with a trip to the West Coast. Having seen the fresh, energized works that resulted when other Colorado-based artists took such trips, Brown looks forward to new challenges posed by the different topography and atmospheric qualities found near the Pacific Ocean.

Whatever he chooses to paint, however, Brown wants nature “to come to life—to be revealed and appreciated. Ultimately, my paintings are about the purity and beauty of the landscape.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Sally Harvey Gallery, Basalt, CO; Breckenridge Gallery, Breckenridge, CO; Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; R. Paul Mooney Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; and Fritzler Fine Art, Mesa, CO.

Featured in February 1998