Doug Braithwaite | Where Realism Meets Abstraction

Ogden Geometry, oil, 8 x 10
Ogden Geometry, oil, 8 x 10

By Virginia Campbell

Of the many qualities that can identify a painting as the work of a particular artist, brushwork is one of the most telling. Brush strokes are so distinctive that they’re often referred to as an artist’s fingerprints. Utah painter Doug Braithwaite’s brush strokes are bold, thick, linear, and brazen in their painterliness, even as they build into a convincing realistic picture. They recall the work of William Wendt or Edgar Payne, two brush-happy early 20th-century landscapists from whom Braithwaite has learned a great deal. You get the feeling Braithwaite must like the sensation of unleashing his buttery swaths of paint onto canvas, and indeed he prepares his canvases with 10 coats of gesso just for such smooth gliding.

His confident, unmediated brushwork is crucial to his central focus in painting. “I’m interested in that point where realism breaks into abstraction,” he explains. “I take a painting toward realism, and then I hold it back with brush strokes.”

Braithwaite’s painting icy pond shows him doing just that. Painted from an extremely low angle—just above a trout’s-eye view—the picture’s bottom half is a curving expanse of dark water that faintly reflects sky and nearby trees. But, interestingly, our eyes are drawn through the water’s surface to shapes beneath. Fresh snow billows on the surrounding banks and lines the weeds and twigs, setting up a dramatic cross-play of long shadows and bright, reflected sunlight. A real moment is deftly caught here, a small beauty instantly recognized by anyone who has come upon a stream in the woods after a snowfall.

Life on the Lakebed
Life on the Lake bed, oil, 20 x 24

But just as you feel the leap of pleasure that occurs when something in your personal memory finds itself mirrored in the external world, the paint shows itself for what it is—thicker or thinner slashes of pigment that do and don’t pass for snow or mud or algae. Looking at the painting, you can move back and forth between seeing the scene and seeing an abstract pattern of brush strokes and color. The soundness of composition supports both realism and abstraction.

Braithwaite is one of those painters who loves this fulcrum where realism and abstraction tip back and forth into each other. The seesaw effect is pleasing to the viewer, too. The sleight of hand suspends you outside of time for a brief flash—about the same split second that the quiet freshness of light and water might dazzle you on a winter afternoon. As Braithwaite points out, “There is life in large brush strokes.” They let the paint enact what the painting is about…

Featured in April 2007

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