By Todd Wilkinson
Can a single painting alter the course of an artist’s career? Of course it can. Many have. Brent Cotton can count the ways.
In 2003, Cotton made a huge, career-transforming splash with a portrayal of Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald that won him the People’s Choice Award at the annual Arts for the Parks competition. The entry was an oil painting titled EVENSONG. While its narrative involves a lone kayaker plying Glacier’s legendary mountain tarn at sundown, Cotton’s approach, presented as a study in light, is minimal, semi-abstract, and impressionistic. Uncommonly provocative, it seizes the eye with a streak of sparkling water that has the effect of a horizontal lightning strike flashing into our consciousness, crystallizing focus and flow through a sparseness of brushwork. Moreover, Cotton’s sophisticated treatment of background would make any urban minimalist cheer.
Who says contemporary landscape painting in the West can’t be soothingly nostalgic and electrifyingly avant-garde at the same moment? Cotton, who eschews blue skies and high noons, is drawn to the crepuscular extremities of day, to what he calls “the sweetest light.”
But it wasn’t always this way. Cotton will tell you that he doesn’t remember when he began interpreting the world differently, although today there are few traces left of the artist he once was. A former adherent of realism, he painted western wildlife and landscapes as if he were a devotee of Charlie Russell.
Yet somewhere between his submersion inside of cumulus cloud banks on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he lives in the winter, and summers spent absorbing the magenta sunsets that flare from wildfires in Montana, Cotton abandoned detail for tonalism. And friends swear he acquired a knowledge that reaches back to a time far beyond his own ken. “Talking about his work is an emotional experience for me,” says Rosemary Moore, a gallery owner in Hawaii. “He is like a reincarnated master.”
A native of Idaho, Cotton was born in 1972 near the Mormon town of Blackfoot, where his family worked a cattle ranch. When he was in grade school, his parents moved to Lindsborg, KS, and he stayed there through the end of high school. A chronically disinterested student who dreamed of becoming a cowboy, he also had a proclivity for art, nurtured by a teacher who recognized his ability to draw.
In 1990, the Cotton clan moved back west after Brent’s graduation and settled in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. Cotton went to outfitting and guiding school, parlaying a teenage fetish for hunting and fishing into a job leading sportsmen on mule pack-trips into the wilderness.
Painting represented only a distraction to bide time, and he naively emulated the illustrative style he saw in sporting magazines, duck stamps, and cheap restaurant placemats. Cotton also did some wood carving, depicting songbirds and gamefish. His portfolio was good enough that art representative Wally Grewe decided to take the kid on as a client. “I thought he had a lot of potential as a painter, but there are a lot of painters with a lot of potential who never reach what is possible because they lack the discipline,” says Grewe, owner of Ponderosa Art Gallery in Hamilton, MT, which will be featuring some of Cotton’s latest paintings at an autumn 2005 show. “Brent is tenacious,” Grewe notes. “He kept challenging himself. He was unwilling to pause until he felt he had uncovered the truth of what it meant to be a painter. Tonalism is his response.”
Grewe introduced Cotton to more ambitious horizons, including a cadre of painters trained at the nation’s finest art schools. Two were wildlife painter Guy Coheleach and Oklahoma’s Christine Verner, who invited Cotton to study with her at her studio. Largely self-taught, Cotton also has attended seminars led by Jim Wilcox, John Moyers, and Howard Terpning. On his studio wall in Stevensville, MT, he has an easel painting that Terpning helped him finish. But Cotton reserves his sincerest homage for Verner and for another close friend, Jackson Hole painter Keith Huey. Of Verner he says, “She opened my eyes to a world of art that I didn’t know existed and helped me gain an understanding and appreciation for different styles and techniques.”
Huey he met in 1996 at a wildlife painting workshop in the Tetons taught by ultra-realist Carl Brenders. A few years later, by coincidence, their paths crossed again on a guided safari to southern Africa. It was then that they became fast, fateful friends. In 1999, Huey invited Cotton to join him on a spur-of-the-moment beach-bumming painting trip to Hawaii that ended up lasting four months. By morning the two bachelors body-surfed, then climbed on bicycles in the afternoon and pedaled to a couple of resort areas on Maui where they set up their easels. Pooling their resources, they would knock off formulaic landscapes and sell them for $50 each to tourists to generate money for food and rent.
“We would paint these little sunset scenes and pictures of waves crashing on the rocks. It was great,” Cotton remembers. “We met a lot of nice people from around the world, and we sold our paintings for a pittance.”
Near the end of his stay, Cotton was short on cash for a plane ticket home, so he started churning out paintings faster than ever. One memorable afternoon, a pretty young girl named Jennifer jogged by. She noticed Cotton’s easel and stopped to have a look. It turned out that she was on vacation from Montana. Instantly smitten with one another, they had their first date that night and eventually married.
“Brent has this knack for good fortune that I admire,” Huey comments. “When we were in Hawaii together, he would sell his paintings to people like Maria Shriver, he would always find the best spots to paint, and he ended up finding the girl who became his soul mate.”
Cotton’s tonalist style was forged by two natural forces—the Hawaiian tropical atmosphere and forest fires in the northern Rockies. Following their wedding, Cotton and his wife rented a Hawaiian cottage located in the inland upcountry of Maui, surrounded by cattle ranches, pastures, and groves of eucalyptus. Every day, giant tidal waves of cloud rolled off the Pacific and gathered in the foothills where they lived. Nature presented him with no alternative but to respond. The muted, diaphanous light softened Cotton’s use of color, and he came to understand how mood can be strengthened when details in a landscape melt away into the fog.
After amassing a stack of canvases, Cotton wandered into a gallery where Rosemary Moore was working and asked if she’d carry his work. “My jaw dropped,” she remembers, noting that Cotton soon delivered dozens of paintings and every one sold in a matter of days. Down the road at Hana Coast Gallery, director Patrick Robinson also agreed to represent Cotton. One morning, a local resident dropped by to purchase a few new works for her private hideaway. It was Oprah Winfrey, and before she left she had bought several large Cotton canvases that would hang next to works she owned by deceased European masters.
The progression into tonalism that started in Hawaii became complete when Cotton and his wife returned to Montana the following summer. Forest fires broke out, and the artist spent every afternoon outdoors studying the smoky light. “As devastating as the fires were, the way that light filtered through the thick atmosphere had a positive influence on my work,” he comments.
These days, Cotton mentally composes every easel painting in advance. “The mental strain in painting can be pretty extraordinary,” his friend Huey remarks. “It becomes agonizing if you mess up. Brent tries to minimize some of the stress up front.”
While in the field, Cotton may take a photograph or complete a fast small painting. Back in the studio, he refines the idea with pencil and paper, explores different compositional elements, sometimes using a computer, and roughs out the design. Then he maps out the painting and starts in. “I try to have a vision in my head, and I work toward that vision,” he explains. “Sometimes I am successful at achieving the vision, and sometimes I’m not.”
Years ago when Cotton painted simplistic wildlife scenes, he worked in watercolor and acrylic, even employing an airbrush to bolster a sense of photo-realism. Once he tried oils, though, he could never go back. He works alla prima (without layering), wet on wet, from top to bottom. He never stays very long—a couple of weeks, at most—on a single painting. He favors this technique because it allows him to be more spontaneous. “I don’t let layers dry and come back and paint endlessly over the top,” he says. “I try not to stew on every painting. I’m not like George Inness.”
He sets the tone and value, he says, by first blurring the white canvas with transparent washes. He next applies denser, more opaque paint, yet not so heavy as to obscure the original layer. “Each painting is different, but for the most part,” he describes, “I like to work from the top down, finishing as I go. Theoretically, when I reach the bottom I should be finished except for a few adjustments here and there.”
Routinely he is asked by colleagues if he enlists glazes to enhance the timeless feel of his work. Most are usually stunned when he says he does not. “The depth and softness is accomplished purely by color mixing, paying close attention to values and transition in edges,” he explains.
In SUMMER’S WARMTH, the viewer is soaked in a bath of gloaming rays that are a reference to eternal, welcoming light. For Cotton it is a tribute to everywhere and nowhere in particular. In another painting, A BLESSED EVENING—which created a sensation at the annual C.M. Russell art auction in 2004—a lavender sky lit up with radiating light is filtered through a copse of cottonwood trees.
Cotton’s palette, which began as a “hodgepodge of randomly selected colors with no clue as to how to mix them,” has been simplified to just six standards: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, transparent oxide brown, and ultramarine blue. A self-described romantic, he credits Russell Chatham’s signature portrayals of Montana as influences that show how tonalism can assume a gamut of expressions. “I’m drawn to settings that speak to my soul,” Cotton says. “They pull you in and make you pause to absorb and reflect. To me some of the most eye-catching paintings are deceptively simple and void of any detail.”
EVENSONG is perhaps his most emotionally charged work. Its genesis came near the end of a stint that Cotton had as Lake McDonald Lodge’s Artist in Residence and emanates from a spot along the lakeshore where the painter proposed to his wife. As soon as he saw the solo kayaker gliding toward the blinding light on the lake, with the sun perched just above the mountains’ summit, he knew he had been handed an opportunity. “I was struck by the solitude of the moment, the silhouette of the kayaker in his own world,” Cotton says. “I wanted to convey the drama as simplistically as I could.”
Recently Cotton constructed his first permanent studio in Stevensville, MT, after living out of a suitcase nearly his entire adult life. “I was working on a large commissioned piece out in the yard because there was no room inside when a large gust of wind came up and sent the half-completed painting flying off the easel and sailing across the yard, landing face-down in the grass,” he recalls. “It was then that I said to my wife, ‘This is ridiculous … I need a place to work.’”
Despite the flood of commissions pouring in, Cotton vows never to let himself become pigeonholed in his pursuit of the sweet light. “Am I curious about where Brent is going with his work?” his friend Huey asks. “No, I am not. I am happy with where he’s at.”
Cotton is represented by Ponderosa Art Gallery, Hamilton, MT; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Hana Coast Gallery, Hana, HI; and Cotton Fine Art Studio, Stevensville, MT.
Featured in February 2005