Painter Gordon Brown imbues his landscapes with elemental qualities
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the February 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
During a family dinner one day in the late 1970s, an uncle turned to teenage Gordon Brown and asked the kind of question older relatives tend to ask: “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Immediately Brown responded, “An artist.” With an approving smile, the uncle leaned toward his young nephew and slipped a $50 bill under the table. “Go buy yourself some oil paints,” he said.
It seems that throughout Brown’s life, the right people have popped up at just the right times to help him along his chosen path. The uncle with the $50 for paints was the first. Another uncle purchased his earliest oil painting, an imaginary landscape produced with tips from the Walter Foster series of how-to-paint books. Other influential individuals later came along without Brown seeking them out or even knowing whom to seek. They brought artistic companionship, guidance, instruction, and opportunities. Each one helped nudge open the next door in his art education and his award-winning fine-art career.
The cumulative effect was the rapid transformation of Brown’s artistic passion and inborn talent into experience and knowledge at the easel. Today the 53-year-old Colorado native’s art is characterized by surface texture, dramatic lighting, and a sense of movement even within quiet scenes. Aspects of his work pay homage to artists he has long admired—George Inness, Victor Higgins, and Russell Chatham among them. Yet over the years, elements from these and other important sources of inspiration have synthesized into Brown’s own, happily unfettered approach.
The first artist to show up in Brown’s life was Grand Junction-based painter Mark Rohrig, known for his compelling portraits of American Indians. Brown was just out of high school and working in an auto body shop when the owner called him over to introduce him to Rohrig, knowing Brown had an interest in art. “Mark was very encouraging. He told me to paint and just keep painting,” the artist remembers. Rohrig invited him to the opening of a solo show in Aspen, providing the young man with a glimpse into the gallery world. When Brown first entered into his own gallery relationship, his subject matter included teepees, horses, and other aspects of American Indian life.
But the landscape soon reasserted its lifelong pull. As a boy growing up beside Grand Mesa in southwestern Colorado, Brown and his younger sister and parents had spent countless weekends camping, fishing, skiing, and exploring the area’s canyons, creeks, and red-rock hills. By the time Chinese painter Shang Ding came into his life and became a mentor, Brown was focusing on the landscape and teaching himself to paint en plein air. Shang, an alumnus and instructor at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, lived in Grand Junction for a year, residing with Brown for six weeks. As the two developed an ongoing friendship, gaps in Brown’s understanding of painting were filled in. The fruitful friendship continued later through visits in New York.
One such East Coast trip, which also included abstract artist and fellow Grand Junction resident Jac Kephart, profoundly altered Brown’s perspective.He was in his late 20s, and it was his first major art museum visit. The trip revolved around a Monet exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but he experienced original work by other masters as well. “My eyes were really opened. It was very humbling,” the friendly, soft-spoken artist recalls. It was also extremely inspiring. In particular, Brown found himself drawn to the moody, atmospheric quality of Inness’ landscapes, a feeling he soon began incorporating in his own work.
Meanwhile, he continued his self-education. He pored over images of landscape paintings in art magazines, painted on location with an artist buddy on weekends, and every night after his day job, he returned to the easel to learn more. For a time he worked for the federal government, painting post offices around Colorado. One day his supervisor called him in and made a generous offer. Why not quit this job and paint landscapes instead of buildings, he asked, adding that if it didn’t work out, he could have his job back. “That gave me the chance to do my art full time and get totally focused,” Brown says.
In 2002 Brown was drawn to the California coast, having observed the energizing effect of a radical change in scenery on other artists. In Carmel, he found himself mesmerized by the ocean’s magnificence and power. “I need to come back to this!” he told himself. And so he did. For almost 10 years the artist and his family—by then including three children—alternated between the California coast and Colorado, with painting studios in both places.
During one jaunt down the coast, Brown walked into a San Diego gallery owned at the time by painter Ran Ortner, internationally renowned for his room-sized hyperrealist paintings of ocean waves. The two hit it off, and Ortner suggested a trip to New York to explore the avant-garde art scene. There they met up with Shang, and the three artists spent five exhilarating days roaming through art museums.
“You take something from all of it,” Brown reflects, referring to all the living and past masters who have impacted his life and art. “Even those who study with me—I get something from each of them. With Andrew,” he adds, “I’m learning things all over again.” Andrew is Brown’s 18-year-old son. The two currently share a large, spare, high-ceilinged studio in Ridgway, CO, about 20 minutes from their Montrose home. Three easels are set up, two for the father and one for the son. Andrew studied briefly with highly respected Denver artist and teacher Quang Ho, and occasionally the younger Brown asks his father technical questions as they work. But like his father, he often figures things out on his own. For his part, Gordon recalls Ho as another key figure who came along and supplied essential instruction at just the right time. “Before, I was just painting,” he relates. “Quang approached me and asked if he could show me a few things. I spent a night at his home and we worked together for 24 hours. He helped me understand how to approach a painting, why it was working or why not, the movement, chaos, all of that. It was a lot. It was good.”
High windows in Brown’s studio reveal the towering peaks of the surrounding San Juan Mountains, and on breaks he and Andrew frequently set out for nearby painting spots. Although he grew up just north of the San Juans, Brown is not yet intimately familiar with these mountains, which offer exciting new territory to explore. The two return again and again to the same visually striking locations—sketching, photographing, and experiencing each place in all kinds of weather and at different times of day. “You really get to understand the land that way,” he says.
It’s the same process Brown employs in all his landscape work. ROCKY COAST, for instance, depicts a scene he has witnessed dozens of times over the years as he hiked the coastline near Carmel. “I’ve seen that outcropping when it’s calm, when it’s stormy, when it’s misty. When it’s stormy, of course, it’s hard to paint on location, so when I’m out there I get impressions of how I want to paint it,” he explains. “Then in the studio the painting evolves, and I’m more focused on values, color, atmosphere. I just supply all the different qualities until it looks good to my eye.”
Brown recently gave up his compact Carmel studio, despite its excellent light and ocean views, planning to eventually seek a larger painting space in the same area. While continuing to paint as small as 12 by 12 inches, he has also begun creating pieces as large as 36 by 90, a size he enjoyed earlier in his career. Yet even without a coastal studio, he has a sizable cache of seascape sketches and photos to work from, along with mountain inspiration closer to home.
Whatever the landscape, Brown enjoys the flexibility of stylistic variation. Each painting becomes a reflection of his visceral and emotional response to the land in the moment, whether dramatically atmospheric, quietly tonalist, or alive with energetic brushwork and rich hues. IN THE BRUSH is an example of the latter approach. Fiery backlit grasses in a grove of winter trees provide the setting for cows grazing beside a stream. What caught the artist’s eye in the scene, along with the contrast of colors and values, was the juxtaposition of lines, shadows, and shapes. “It’s a kind of tapestry of woven verticals and horizontals,” he observes. While playing with surface qualities in representational works, Brown explores these elements even further in paintings that allude to the landscape yet remain entirely abstract. He expresses gratitude that galleries and collectors appreciate the diversity in his art. “It’s a freedom,” he says, and then adds with a smile, “I think when I’m painting, I’m doing it to please my own eye.”
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