Jeremy Browne | A Sense of Place

Jeremy Browne captures the essence of rural life

by Norman Kolpas

Jeremy Browne, Open Spaces, acrylic, 18 x 30.

Jeremy Browne, Open Spaces, acrylic, 18 x 30.

This story was featured in the September 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art September 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Paintings by Jeremy Browne may well induce the uncanny sensation that you’re not only seeing the scene he portrays but also actually hearing it: The hush of a snowy night and the barely audible crackle as snowflakes settle on the metal roof of a wooden barn. The muffled stomping of unseen hoofs in a stable. Maybe even the faint static of a radio being tuned behind the one illuminated window of a darkened farmhouse.

Browne’s works intrigue through the precise yet undeniably romantic way in which they powerfully conjure very real-seeming rural worlds. Encountering them for the first time, art lovers may quickly sense an aesthetic kinship with Andrew Wyeth’s images of coastal Maine. Or, if they’re well versed in 20th-century Canadian masters, Christopher Pratt—an 82-year-old painter and printmaker of the Maritime provinces—may come to mind. Browne unhesitatingly acknowledges both men as inspirations. “I’ve heard of that guy,” he quips when Wyeth’s name comes up.

Yet the 41-year-old Browne’s painstakingly executed acrylics demonstrate a quality and character that are uniquely his own. They possess a keen eye for detail that is traceable, perhaps, to childhood hours spent happily studying plumbing plans for large buildings drafted by his father, a piping engineer. They express a serene love of the countryside, fostered during frequent weekend camping trips he and his younger sister went on with their parents on drives north from their home in Brampton, Ontario—a city where he still lives today, less than 30 miles west of Toronto. And they often provoke deep curiosity, borne of his innate inclination to storytelling. “What’s happening?” is a question he says people looking at his works have asked him occasionally. Browne prefers not to answer, adding only that he hopes his scenes evoke more of a sense of peacefulness than unease.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Browne did not show any particular early promise as an artist—no murals drawn in crayon on his nursery wall, no province-wide prizes in kindergarten competitions. Sure, as most youngsters do, he’d occasionally draw, both at home and in school. “But I don’t think the talent was showing itself then,” he wryly adds. When he was a ninth-grader, however, “my parents signed me up for a city-run art course, not from the standpoint of thinking they had a young Picasso on their hands, [but] as something I’d just enjoy doing once a week.”

Preteen Jeremy did enjoy it, and a major turning point soon came the day the instructor set up a pair of apples beside a small overturned basket and had the students paint watercolor still lifes. “I was happy with my details, and shadowing, and the colors I chose,” he says. “It was the first time I recall capturing a realistic look.” The next day, he brought his painting into school to show his art teacher, Miss O’Brien. “When she saw it, she offered to buy it from me for $5. She had me sign the painting, and I felt incredible. Receiving that money really drove home that I had created something someone else wanted.”

From then on, says Browne, “art became the focal point for me.” He drew all the time, gradually setting his sights on a career in animation and hoping to earn a degree in the innovative program in that field offered by Sheridan College in nearby Oakville.

He put together a portfolio and sent in his application, which he learned was one of about 6,000 the college received for 60 spots. So Browne was disappointed but not surprised when he wasn’t accepted. Instead, hoping to better his chances, he enrolled in Sheridan’s one-year art fundamentals course. At the end of that year, he reapplied not only for animation but also for the illustration program—and this time was turned down by both.

So Browne decided to change direction, entering a three-year course in business fundamentals at Sheridan, where he graduated with a certificate in marketing. During those years, he says, “I probably didn’t do much art at all.” He went on to work in marketing for a lighting manufacturer in nearby Mississauga, and for the next five years or so he barely picked up a paintbrush.

That changed, however, after he moved in with Amanda, his girlfriend since high school and now his wife, who began working midnight shifts as a press operator. “She would go to work around 7 p.m., and I’m not a TV person, so I got back into painting as something to do with my time until I went to bed. I started painting the rural areas north of Brampton that I knew so well from childhood. After all, back then there were no iPads, so you stared out the window a lot.” On weekends, he began driving those same roads once again, taking photos of farmland and farm buildings. He quickly realized how much fun he was having trying not only to capture the scenes in watercolor but also to focus on “recreating fine details like the texture of the barn wood.” Soon, he says, “that set me on the path I’m now following.”

Works of other like-minded artists guided him. Christopher Pratt’s spare, almost Japanese-like images of “landscapes, especially snow-covered fields, centered around some sort of structure” guided him in paring down the elements of his own paintings. As for Wyeth, Browne adds, “I definitely gravitated toward his barns or farmhouses, and I absolutely loved his earth-toned color palette.”

Gradually, thinking of what he hoped would become his growing ranks of collectors, Browne switched from watercolors to acrylics. “One of the downsides to watercolors,” he explains, “is you are unable to varnish them, and they have to be under glass at all times, where they’re still subject to potential damage. With acrylics, I can paint wet-in-wet like watercolors, but the colors are bolder and stronger. And once acrylic dries, you can varnish it, and it becomes completely lightfast and fully protected.” Still, he continues to paint on sturdy 300-pound watercolor paper—which not only allows him to achieve fine details but also enables subtly textured background effects—that he mounts onto foam or birch panels.

Painting at night and on weekends, Browne exhibited at local art fairs for almost seven years. About 10 years ago, as he gained skill and confidence, he sent an email to Settlers West Galleries asking how he might apply to have his works included in their widely respected American Miniatures show, held each February. “The next day, I got an email from owner Stu Johnson, saying he’d gone to my website and that he’d be happy to have me in the show,” Browne says. That January, he wrapped up two paintings and shipped them off. Both sold, and since that time the gallery has always had some of Browne’s works on hand. Other representation followed, both in the U.S. and in Canada, and he’s been a full-time fine artist since 2010. “I set that as my personal goal by the time I was 40, and I beat it by six years,” Browne notes.

Browne needs to work full time to meet the now-steady demand for his works. Each piece takes, on average, about a week to complete, working on only one painting at a time from start to finish, “so I can put all of my energy and attention into it,” he says. His well-disciplined approach begins with reference photos taken on regular drives through the Ontario countryside, as well as camping trips and longer journeys with Amanda. “I’ll pull over and primarily photograph with my Nikon P900, and I also have a sketchbook with me just for the pleasure of it,” he explains. Back home in his basement studio, using the reference photos, he sketches possible compositions with pencils and gray-toned markers, “trying to decide the angles and how close or far the structures will be.”

Next, he paints small color studies, determining “how the sky is going to look, or the color of the barn wood.” Then, he decides what overall finished size the painting will be, cutting and gluing together the paper and panel. With a mechanical pencil, he sketches the final composition in faint lines.

Only then does he begin the actual painting. “I work back to front, starting with the sky, brushing in clear water and then three or four layers of colors, lightest first, drying each layer with a $20 hair dryer from Wal-Mart,” he says. Then come the buildings. “They definitely take far longer, focusing on the detail and recreating the textures, in anything from four to eight layers of paint, with each layer a little dryer and thicker as I build up color and texture.” The final layer on buildings he calls his “splatter effect,” in which he adds the textured look of knots and other imperfections in weathered wooden boards. This is accomplished by dragging a palette knife across a trimmed, stiff brush that’s loaded with dark brown or blue-black paint. Background and foreground details, from trees to meadows to fence posts to shadows, come last. The results are deceptively simple scenes of such uncanny depth that the viewer feels drawn in, senses fully engaged.

Browne is now looking forward to applying his approach to new subjects beyond his familiar rural Ontario scenes. “My wife and I are planning a trip to the Maritimes, and I imagine the definite possibility of fishing shacks and coastal sheds and lighthouses, with inlets and the ocean in the background,” he says. No doubt those new paintings will cast his net even wider, as more viewers are drawn in by a lamp glowing in a window, or the moonlight shimmering on the sea, or maybe even the faint sound of waves lapping on the shore.

Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY; Petroff Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada;

This story was featured in the September 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art September 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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