An Interview with Ryan Brown

As a painter, teacher, and spokesman, Ryan Brown is a passionate advocate for a return to traditional skills of art that demand excellence from artists and connoisseurship from audiences.

As a painter, teacher, and spokesman, Ryan Brown is a passionate advocate for a return to traditional skills of art that demand excellence from artists and connoisseurship from audiences.

I always loved to draw but it wasn't until high school that I thought seriously about art as a profession. My parents were always encouraging. I also had a teacher in 5th grade, Mrs. Grandinetti, who signed me up for an after school art class and advised my mother to get me the book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was pivotal in growing my interest. After receiving a BFA in Illustration, I studied drawing and painting at the Florence Academy of Art. It is there that I received the training that adopted me into the rich heritage of naturalist painting. The information and development of artists through this program has a teaching lineage that reaches back to the mid-18th century. I believe this is quite important as it is a distinct tie to knowledge and practices of the past that are still relevant today.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Alone. Oil on canvas. 40 x 70 in.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Alone. Oil on canvas. 40 x 70 in.

There have been so many artists who have been an inspiration to me, both living and dead, but I suppose the artist whose work influenced me the most at the most pivotal moment was Burton Silverman. I saw a major exhibition of his when I was a junior in college and it confirmed more fully my desire to be a fine artist at the highest level.

I believe there is a natural maturation process that occurs for every artist. The developmental stages where one learns the craft can be long and arduous. The development of personal vision can be just as long. I have experimented quite a bit through these phases and have matured into what I believe is now a very personal and sincerely defined aesthetic. My paintings have real purpose and relevance to me. I won't spend time on anything now without first deeply understanding why it is necessary that it be made. I have come to understand just how important my time is and have developed the discipline to only spend that time on impactful and meaningful work.

I have spent years studying and gaining an understanding of my materials. I use only natural pigments and natural oils. Synthetics have a much different refractive quality that interacts much differently with light than natural pigments do. I prepare my own supports and linen, working on a lead ground, which is historically the most stable and strong platform for oil paint. My color palette is essentially the same as that used since the 17th century. I use only the simplest oil mediums in my paint to mimic the practices of the old masters. I paint on rigid supports in every case possible to increase the longevity of the work and avoid future cracking. I varnish my work with the same conservators varnish used by the National Gallery. With as much time as I spend on each work, it is imperative that the materials I am painting on and with are of the highest quality and used in the most archival methods.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Spring Blossoms, Oil on panel. 24 x 18 in.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Spring Blossoms, Oil on panel. 24 x 18 in.

> Every work is different and requires a very specific process of problem solving. But there are similarities in the steps. I tend to think very narratively, so usually my concepts come in narrative form. I consider the entire narrative of a concept and try and whittle it down to its most poignant moment. That is the visual image I want to make, so the viewer can experience a more full sense of the narrative, rather than just the still moment presented. I almost always start with drawings from my imagination. These drawings help me visualize and refine the concept. They are like rough drafts of a novel. In these rough drafts I am considering lighting, staging, costume, point of view, action, interaction, rhythm, color, harmony and composition, both mass and linear. It is not until I feel I have a solid idea of what I want that I hire a model, create a costume (sometimes I make custom clothing for the models) and scout a location. Then I take the model to the location to photograph several different options where we try different variations of poses, different times of day (for different lighting effects), different variations on costume and different variations on background. This step in the process is where the idea really defines itself. All of the preliminary work from my imagination, although imperative, is limited and can only take me so far. Spending time with the model is where the idea really comes to fruition. Nature always presents more information in unexpected ways than is readily available to my imagination. After this initial photo shoot, where I may take thousands of images, I take a couple of weeks to pore over those images and let the idea mature. Sometimes, an idea that seemed amazing in my imagination, fizzles in reality and with time can become quite dull. It can be much like a child watching television near Christmas time. They want every toy on every commercial. But when they receive those toys, many of them aren't as fun as they thought they would be and they never play with them more than once or twice. Ideas for paintings can be like this, and it is important to allow an idea to mature in order to know whether or not it will grow into something greater than the original inception or begin to pale in relevance. Spending time with these images from my initial photo shoot gives me that contemplative time to consider more deeply the concept and why or why not it should be painted.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Charlotte's Chickens, Oil on canvas. 30 x 20 in.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Charlotte's Chickens, Oil on canvas. 30 x 20 in.

If the idea takes hold and grows, that is when I pursue the final painting. I make decisions on the size of the final piece, which is important as the size has much to do with the presence it will have when viewed. I also make final compositional decisions on the vantage point of the viewer, the placement of the model, the background, lighting, how the drapery is designed, and perhaps most importantly, the overall color harmonies and color composition for the piece that will impact the emotional response to the piece. I complete color studies, sometimes multiple studies, in order to achieve a balanced sense of color harmony. I do preliminary drawings of anything I feel I need to understand more completely before approaching the final canvas, such as portrait studies, hand studies, background sketches and drapery studies. I try to take as many solutions to the final canvas as possible. It is counterproductive and creates a far less appealing painted surface when an artist is constantly questioning through the process of painting rather than painting only well understood solutions. After all these preliminary efforts, I begin the final work. I usually draw the composition out on the canvas and begin painting. I try to cover the entire canvas the first or second day with an 'ebauche', which is a thin layer of washy paint meant to establish the general color and value tones that define an overall impression of the full piece. Establishing this overall impression across the entire surface before becoming too finicky about any particular area allows me to consider the overall balance of the piece from the beginning. This helps with the overall choreography of the individual parts that is so important in defining a focus and harmony in the finished painting. After the initial lay-in I usually begin to refine the area I want to be the greatest focus so as to set that as a standard by which all the other parts will balance themselves. It allows me to consider how refined or simple to leave peripheral elements in the painting, thereby further establishing and strengthening the area of focus. Throughout the process of creating the final pantingly greatest resource for information comes from the preliminary studies, drawings, paintings, photographic reference and also a myriad of master paintings I have surrounding me while I paint. All of these serve as the inspiration and knowledge base that informs the larger work. In the end, there is no one source that informs the final work more than the well defined purpose I have in my mind. Every decision that is made in the process is made for the benefit and realization of the mature concept. And the painting is finished only when that concept reaches complete realization and the handling of the paint is also sophisticated enough to make the original work an object to be viewed and not just merely a pleasing image.

> The easiest part of the process for me is the idea. I have so many ideas and so many things I want to paint. I find so much beauty around me that inspires. The most difficult part of the process is connected to the easiest, and that is narrowing the mass of ideas down to those that are the most pertinent and meaningful. Although so many things are interesting and beautiful to me, not all of it demands to be a work of art. There is a big difference, in my view, between making pretty pictures and creating works of fine art. The difficulty for me is choosing to work on only that which I believe I can transform from concept to a lasting work of art. Often times it is necessary when making those decisions to deny some very aggressive and valid outside influences, such as potential sales and market demands. It is very tempting to follow those paths that may lead to more popularity or monetary success. The discipline is in making that final choice based on what my priorities are in terms of what I want to achieve artistically. This has lead to a higher level of anonymity than I would prefer, but nonetheless is a deliberate choice.

> I run an art academy, so my daily routine changes somewhat but typically in the mornings I try to get most of my non-painting business done. I send emails, run errands, make panels, phone calls, etc. After lunch, if all the morning business is complete, I paint. I take breaks to teach in the afternoon and then continue painting until around 7:15. Three nights a week I do crossfit. Two nights a week I play basketball. One night a week I attend Micah Christensen's art lecture and Saturday and Sunday nights I'm home with my family.

> Get your education from an institution that teaches fundamental principles of drawing and painting with teachers who are qualified to teach those principles. This may seem simple, but it is actually quite complex as there are so few institutions or teachers that fit this advice. The biggest problem facing young students is the reality that there is little visual training in any educational program K-12 or in any university. Learning to see for someone who aspires to being an artist is like learning to read for someone who aspires to be an author. Imagine the literary world if there were no language education. What would our authors write if they never learned their ABC's or basic sentence structure? This is the reality in the visual arts. There are very few places and very few artists who teach and have been taught how to see.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Daydreams, Oil on canvas. 44 x 60 in.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Daydreams, Oil on canvas. 44 x 60 in.

> Each painting is different. For some, I hope they end up in private collections to be viewed in someone's home. That intimate and private setting is fitting for some of my themes. Others, I would love to be viewed in museums. Of course, the reality is that most people who view my work will view it online, and unfortunately, great works of art demand to be seen in person.

> I usually have 10-20 pieces in progress at any given time. At the moment I am finishing a portrait commission for a couple in Spain. I am completing a painting of my daughter on a bike, staged behind my studio and entitled "Tomboy". I'm working on a painting of two of my daughters posed as orphans at a gravesite that visually discusses the pathos of loss but also the bond of family. I am working on a painting of my daughter posed in an open field in a snow storm. I am finishing a painting of a model reading in the woods. I am working on a painting of my father in the landscape, sitting alone at a chess table, entitled "The Master and His Rival" which is a narrative about maturing into the understanding that life is a journey of self awareness, self improvement, and how our greatest rival is always ourselves. I am also working on a painting of my youngest daughter posed by a creek that narrates the theme of discovery and youthful curiosity. There are others, but these few are my priorities at the moment. 

For years I have wanted to paint a series of 4-8 large scale paintings of the conflicts in the middle east. The idea came from the sacrifice of my cousin who served 4 tours of duty with the Marines in Afghanistan. In speaking with him, I became more aware of the sacrifices so many were making so that I could maintain my way of living. At the same time, all I saw in the media was negative towards these wars. I realized that although the political reasoning behind these wars were not always pure, the sacrifices of the soldiers were still very real. I want to capture their heroic efforts, their time spent in service. My idea is to interview soldiers from all over the country and collect narratives about their experiences, everything from the bonds they made with fellow soldiers to combat scenes and how the spent their down time. The series of paintings I want to make would capture their existence and how they spent their time away from family serving their country. I would compose scenes from these collective experiences, do studies of the uniforms, weaponry, landscape and towns they served in. In each final painting I would use real soldiers who served as my models. Each person in each painting would be a real distinguishable person. And the experiences depicted would come from their real life experience. It would show, in real terms, to viewers exactly what these soldiers went through and how they spent their time. It would help us relate their experience and better appreciate their sacrifice. More importantly, it would immortalize their efforts for generations to see and feel. The reason I have not pursued this project is because it would take nearly a year to collect the information I needed before even beginning a painting. I would need to travel to visit soldiers and their families. I would need to visit camp Pendleton in California to do studies of machinery, weapons, equipment, soldiers and to stage the scenes for some of the works. And somehow I would need to pay for my living expenses, travel and the collecting of all of this information in the meantime. These works would also take between 1.5 and 2 years to complete and I would need money to live on while they were being made. I would love to presell them to collectors, with the idea that they would be shown in at least 4-6 major museums in a traveling exhibition and finally be donated to a war memorial museum where they would be on permanent display.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Sunset over the Pacific, Oil on panel. 20 x 30 in.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) Sunset over the Pacific, Oil on panel. 20 x 30 in.

> The best part of being an artist is living a life of passion and inspiration. The decisions I make are governed by this passion and inspiration. It is my job to see, appreciate and depict beauty. The worst part of being an artist is trying to compromise the two opposing forces of monetary needs and the artistic priorities that must govern great art. I think it is a struggle as old art. Painting for money rarely yields great art and painting without it is impossible.

> Artists who inspire me are Ivan Shishkin, Ilya Repin, Isaac Levitan, Emile Friant, Jean-Leon Gerome, Ernest Meissonier, Jules Bastien-Lepage, William Bouguereau, Edward Compton, Peder Monsted, John Waterhouse, Frank Bramley, Peder Kroyer, Albert Edelfelt, Arthur Streeton, Frederic Church, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, John Sargent, Edwin Abbey, Giacomo Favretto, Francesco Lojacono, Antonio Mancini, Dean Cornwell, Harvey Dunn, Norman Rockwell and many others.

> I think successive generations are bound to view art through their own lenses, and it's impossible to guess what those lenses will eventually be. But my hope is that over the next 100 years, the frivolous and pedantic shallowness of our culture will somehow subside and there will be a renewal of appreciation in real human achievement. My hope is that people will learn to spend their ever increasing free time on more mindful pursuits, and thereby come to a greater awareness of truth and beauty. And if this were to happen, I would hope that art like mine would be seen as part of the movement that helped reawaken these depths of thought and contemplation towards beauty.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) The Lord's Prayer, Oil on canvas. 32 x 24 in.

Ryan Brown (b. 1977) The Lord's Prayer, Oil on canvas. 32 x 24 in.

Ryan S. Brown, b. 1977

www.ryansbrown.com

@ryansbrown