Brian Slawson conjures the light fantastic to create realistic paintings with an element of mystery
By Rosemary Carstens
Busy small-town streets, abandoned buildings lit up by a setting sun, quiet mornings along a meandering river—scenes like these draw painter Brian Slawson like a kid to a candy store. He braids together a scene’s elusive strands to create paintings that converge on realism yet never deprive it of its mystery. “I want to create paintings that draw you back in every time you look at them, that you can live with for years and still get lost in,” Slawson says.
Slawson’s paintings employ detail as a crucial element that intensifies the experience of each work, particularly in his cityscapes. Clearly rendered minutia, such as street signs, architectural details, and even distant power lines in the background, lend a heightened degree of realism, allowing the viewer to feel part of the scene. In his breathtaking wilderness landscapes, it is Slawson’s attention to how light and water change a scene’s overall effect upon our senses that makes his work so compelling.
Although the drama of the American West inspires much of Slawson’s best work, it was the Midwestern landscape where he grew up that taught him the value of close observation and fed his ability to capture the unique, and sometimes fleeting, details in any scene. “The landscape here can be very subdued,” he says of his home state of Kansas. “I’ve learned to see the subtleties of my subjects and to emphasize them in my paintings. I’ve found that even the most unassuming scene can be breathtaking in the correct light—like that single magical moment of sunlight breaking through the clouds or exploding on the horizon.”
Growing up in Kansas, Slawson enjoyed a rural, all-American childhood. He and his brother spent daylight hours roaming the fields and woods, zipping around on bikes, or whiling away hot summer afternoons fishing. Art was also a large part of those years. Slawson’s father was a graphic artist and the creative director for the local CBS TV and radio affiliate, and his stay-at-home mother painted landscapes. Both parents actively supported the boys’ artistic leanings through painting instruction and art exercises. In the evenings, their dad would draw up “crazy shapes,” then challenge Brian and his brother to make something of them. When Slawson thought about a career, he imagined he might follow in his father’s footsteps and become a commercial artist.
But as Slawson grew and entered high school, art slipped off his radar as bass fishing, cars, and girls ascended in priority. It wasn’t until he attended Washburn University to pursue a degree in wildlife management that he returned to art. Requirements to sketch subjects—such as plants, fish, and dissected pigs—in his classes soon reignited his interest. He began working in graphite and then, in 1992, transitioned to oils.
About that same time, he landed a job as a billboard painter. He spent weekdays painting giant advertisements and evenings and weekends honing his fine-art skills in the studio. Painting billboards later led to a graphic-art position designing them on the computer. All told, he spent seven years as a billboard painter and about five as a graphic designer. Both positions sharpened skills that would become vital in his fine-art work: the ability to create any color using a very limited palette and technology-aided composition.
As Slawson gained more recognition for his fine art, he began dreaming of painting full time. When his painting CANYON MAGIC won both the Best in Region and the Grand Canyon Association purchase awards at the 2006 Arts for the Parks show, he and his wife decided the time had come.
Whether it portrays mountains, rivers, canyons, a desert, or a cityscape, a Slawson painting always contains two signature elements: dramatic lighting and the sense that a story lies just beneath the surface. “I don’t necessarily try to convey a specific story,” he emphasizes. “I just want people to have the same curiosity about the subject that I did. This probably applies more to my urban scenes, where I’m attracted to old theaters, diners, bars—places that are a little gritty, a little timeworn.” Slawson favors scenes that reflect a lull in the action—anticipatory moments poised on the precipice between scene and sequel.
On a recent trip to Santa Fe, the rich color that appeared in the moments after a rainstorm made Café Pasqual and its corner location irresistible. “The heightened richness of the wet adobe and the crazy reflections of the colorful newspaper machines really appealed to me,” says Slawson of the inspiration for RAINY DAY IN SANTA FE. “I absolutely love painting wet city streets and cars!”
Scenes like this one, with its kaleidoscope of colors and intricate details, require significant dedication and craftsmanship. But Slawson is no slacker when it comes to putting in the effort required to meet his goals. A typical day involves six or so hours in the studio each morning, a couple of hours of cycling, then, late in the evening, back to the studio for three or four hours more.
When preparing to begin a painting, Slawson compiles dozens of digital photos, thumbnail sketches, and other reference materials he’s gathered on location. Then he sets up a slide show of his photos, winnowing them down little by little to a handful, each containing some key component of the scene that he feels is usable. Employing his Photoshop skills and his natural instinct for composition, he arranges the various elements of his imagined composition, quickly cutting and pasting and moving the subject matter around.
Once he feels satisfied with the arrangement, he crops the scene to present it at its most dramatic, then prints the resulting image. Using this tool as a visual reference, he sketches the scene onto his canvas. While he heavily employs technical assistance in his composition, he believes well-honed drawing skills are the foundation of his creative work, particularly in capturing the details and highlights of his slightly altered realities.
Next, he blocks in areas of color, working on values and colors over the entire canvas at once, applying layer after layer of paint over many days to build the depth, texture, and realism he is known for. He uses a very limited palette: just five colors plus white. Color harmony comes naturally to him from his many years in billboard work.
More often than not, Slawson alters the sky and lighting in his paintings, making the painting very different from what’s seen in his reference materials. Because he loves the enhanced effect of light at key times of the day or night, he prefers to choose what maximizes the scene’s drama.
In CLEARING STORM, for instance, Slawson captures a location near his home which he cycles past daily. The diagonal lines and vanishing-point perspective of the railroad tracks were interesting in themselves, but he visualized how the scene would look at other times of the day. In the end, he chose to depict the place at sunset. Here everything Slawson strives for in a painting comes into play: Ordinary subject matter is made magical and intimate through skillful use of light and color harmony. Anyone who has ever been on the edge of a prairie town at the end of a blistering day can attest to the faithfulness with which this painting portrays the quiet beauty of a blazing sky just as the sun slips below the horizon.
Pieces like this one have helped Slawson’s list of followers continue to grow. His work is found in galleries, museums, private and corporate collections, and the permanent collection of the Grand Canyon Association. He exhibits regularly in shows around the country, including the Oil Painters of America’s regional and national shows; he is a signature member of the organization. In 2010 he placed among the jury’s top 60 at Greenhouse Gallery’s Salon International show.
This year, Slawson was selected as an Artist-in-Residence in the Rocky Mountain National Park program. For two weeks in July and August, he lived and worked in the William Allen White cabin, where he continued to observe the details while also appreciating some of this country’s grandest and most remarkable scenery.
As Jay Nelson of Strecker-Nelson Gallery in Manhattan, KS, sums up, “One of Brian’s greatest strengths as a painter is his power of minute observation—the illumination of an electric bulb beneath the gable of a barn at dusk, rust stains on aged stucco, a driftwood snag in a swift river. Out of such trivia, he makes poetry in paint.”
American Legacy Gallery, Kansas City, MO; Lovetts Gallery, Tulsa, OK; Highlands Art Gallery, Bernardsville, NJ; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Strecker-Nelson Gallery, Manhattan, KS; www.brianslawsonfineart.com.
Featured in October 2011.