Interview with Brienne M Brown

October 19, 2020 10 min read

From a very young age, Brienne showed talent in art and music, but wanted to pursue a career in the sciences. She started her education at the University of Utah as a double major (Art and Chemistry), eventually receiving a BS in Chemistry and finishing with a Master’s degree in 2004. After graduation, Brienne worked in a Toxicology lab. In 2008, she left her toxicologist job to raise her first child and began to paint more consistently. Today she is winning award nationally and has signature status in the National Watercolor Society, Western Federation of Watercolor Societies, and many more.

 

Watercolor has repetition for being difficult. Why do you think that is and do you think it is deserved? Why?

Watercolor does have a reputation of being difficult. I think it is because people are afraid of not being able to fix “mistakes” and painting with watercolor requires patience, planning, and relinquishing some control.  This can be intimidating, especially for those used to painting in other mediums. For example oil and acrylic, which both let the artist manipulate the image along the way. Also, when painting with watercolor an artist cannot hide a bad drawing.  So, confidence in drawing helps.

So, I think this reputation is somewhat deserved. However, there are also so many positives and benefits for painting watercolor. You don’t need solvents. If you let it, color mixing is exciting, and the water and pigments can do a lot of the work for you. Painting in watercolor can also be a quicker and more direct method for expression. For plein air painting, supplies needed for watercolor can be less and lighter than for pastels or oil.

 

 

You work en plein air. What does working en plein air give you as an artist?

Plein air painting has been essential in improving my work both in and out of the studio. By working on site, I get to learn from life and gain a greater understanding of light and shadow. Photographs are wonderful tools for artists, but they lie. Shadows are generally darker and colorless in photographs and the light areas can be washed out as well. The other issue with photographs, is they are automatically composed. That composition could be good or bad. By painting en plein air, I have learned to pay attention to these things and make adjustments.

I like to treat plein air painting as information gathering. It is an unreplaceable teacher. Also, there is an energy I get from painting on site that is hard to replicate in the studio. When I look at a plein air painting I have done, I remember that location, the sounds, the smells, and the people I met that day more clearly than I could ever get from just snapping a photograph. I feel all this infuses itself into my work.

 

 

Even if someone is a studio painter, how important is working from life? Why?

Even if you never show anyone your plein air work, working from life is essential. I think this is true no matter what your subject. For example, you want to paint figures or still lifes, working from life is important so that you can understand form and how light and shadow works.  As a landscape painter, working from life is just as important. There is no greater teacher than learning from nature and experiencing it at the same time.

 

 

Could you walk us through the steps of your painting process? What do you need to have figured out at each step?

My basic painting process is as follows:

    1. First, I need to choose my subject.  This is so important when on-site, but also just as important when choosing photos for inspiration.  Not all beautiful scenes make good painting subjects. This is an important lesson to learn. I look for interesting value shapes and patterns which I can use to create strong compositions. I of course want to relate to my subject, but I still need to focus on those basic design principles to make a good painting.
    2. I will then do value studies in my sketchbook to plan my composition. I do a value study for every painting, both in and out of the studio. It is not that I can’t be adaptable as I paint, but I like to solve a lot of the design issues before I start. I feel this is especially important when working in watercolor since we cannot adjust the overall design too much as we work.
    3. I will then draw out the composition on my watercolor paper lightly. This drawing can take me anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes depending on how complex the scene is. I am more careful drawing in this stage than with the value study, because I want to get angles and positions at least believable. I love to draw, so this is a fun stage for me. I do not try to rush it too much.
    4. I will do a first wash over the entire paper, painting around just those areas I want white. This first wash is light in value, and so I am using a lot of water with a little bit of pigment. To do this wash, I have pools of color which generally consist of at least a red, yellow, and blue. This stage is the most fun because I get to just let the colors blend and mix how they want. I am toning my paper and getting rid of white, as well as, setting the colors of the lightest shapes.
    5. I usually let the first wash dry and then recharge the pools of color on my palette with more pigment.  I will then focus on painting the middle value shapes and connecting as many of these as I can. While I paint and connect shapes, I will change colors and vary their relative temperatures.  This is the most difficult, and yet the most important, stage.
    6. Finally, I will add the dark shapes and details to finish the paint. By this point, I am focused more on the painting itself than the scene in front of me or my reference photo. I try to focus on what my painting might need to make it stronger and have the mood that I want. I usually try to stop at about 90% done and then leave the painting for a week or so to see if anything else needs to be changed or added. If not, then I am finished.

 

 

How important is planning your work? What does planning allow you to do that you wouldn’t be able to do without planning?

Planning is especially important in my work. Therefore, I always take the time to do a value study before I start painting. When we paint, we are creating an abstraction from life. This is true whether you are doing representational or nonrepresentational work. The breakup of the two-dimensional surface is important to consider, and something I am always thinking about in order to create an interesting and dynamic design. For me, it is not always just about what the subject is but how I am going to present it in order to get my desired design and mood. Therefore, the planning stage for me is essential.

With that said, it is just as important for me to be adaptable to my plan. I do not feel that the planning stages take away from my creativity because watercolor has a mind of its own. I like to say that watercolor is slightly controlled. While I am painting, there is a conversation between me and the paint itself. Even though I have a plan and an idea, I am always open to what the watercolor might want to do. I find that the best paintings come during the times when I am listening and not forcing my will.  This troubleshooting nature of painting is what keeps me engaged and excited.  

There are times when I do not plan but just paint.  These are times when I just need to play and experiment.  I find it useful every now and then to play and do exercises to keep learning and improving my skills.

 

 

You use both transparent and opaque pigments in your work. Where do you use transparent colors and where you use opaque colors? What is important to remember when working with both.

I do love using both transparent and opaque watercolors in my work. I love to use contrast of various elements of art while painting, and paint consistency is one of these elements. When transparent passages are contrasted with opaque passages, transparent passages feel even more transparent. I love using this.

I will use some opaque pigments in the early wash stages because it can give a different quality to the wash. Also, you will not see the opacity too much because it is over white paper. I will also use some opaque paints at the end of the painting process for details and my accent lines.  It is important to remember however to be careful when grazing with opaque paints.  I will do this when I want to push back the value of something or decrease the details. But it will give a milky look to the glaze.

I generally do not use a lot of opaque pigments during the middle value stage, but this is a generalization and not a rule. Usually when I am mixing a lot of colors, I use only transparent colors.  However, I do like to splatter into a transparent area with opaque and let the colors mix as they will.

 

 

How do you approach color in your work? Do you keep with the local colors you see, or do you change it? How and why?

I do not try to mix the exact colors that I see. I focus on values and then choose colors that are harmonious and convey the desired mood. In other words, I tried to match values and not colors. This is more freeing for me because I can then choose the colors I want and that mix well together. Also, I like to think of the values as the structure or backbone of the painting. The colors are the flesh of the painting which helps create the mood.

I mix a lot of colors on my palette, but then I let a lot of colors mix on the paper as well.  For example, I start with parent pools of color and then create a mixing pool. As I am painting on the paper, I reach for the parent pools to push my color mixtures one way or another. This creates much more interesting color passages.

 

 

How do you think about composition? What is important to have in a painting for it to have strong composition?

Composition and design are important and that is why I take the time to do a value study before every painting.  Composition is the arrangement of the principles of art and how they relate on the 2-dimensional surface.  The arrangement of value shapes is a big one for me and why I do the value study.  With the studies I am also trying to solve design issues such as tangents, eye movement, etc. before beginning the painting.  But I will also make notes of colors and textures because the arrangement of these elements is also important.  


The value study is just the beginning, I continue to think of composition as I paint, always asking myself if there is good balance, unity, variation, rhythm, etc. in what I am creating.  This may seem complicated, but these are the questions going through my head.  I am never asking myself, “does my painting look like the scene in front of me”?  


Not every painting will be totally successful and there is not only ONE solution in composing a painting, but this is why I paint.  I enjoy the “problem solving” nature of painting.  To have a strong composition, it is important to think about the elements and principles of art and to keep asking yourself, “what can I do to improve my painting”.  We do not just want to put our shapes on paper without thinking and hope it will work.  This will not bring consistently strong results. 

 

 

What is the biggest challenge you see watercolorists facing with plein air? What advice do you give them?

I think the biggest challenges that watercolorists are facing with plein air are the elements.  More than any other medium painting with watercolor on site can be drastically affected by the weather. While you are painting on location, you must gage what kind of day it is.  If it is a humid day, the paint might not dry very quickly, or at all. On these days I do not add as much water and sometimes use the heater in my car to dry the paper if needed. 


However, if you are painting on a hot dry day, your paint may be drying as you are laying it down. On a dry day, I make sure to use more water than usual. I also make good use of my squirt bottle. In other words, you must adapt the way you apply the watercolor depending on what the weather is. This can be difficult, and it takes practice.


The best advice I can give is to focus on the process and not the final product when you are plein air painting. If you focus too much on getting a good painting, you will just get frustrated. There is no wasted plein air painting experience when we instead focus on the learning process.  If you happen to get a good painting at the end, that is a bonus, but should not be the goal.  

 

 

When you are struggling in a painting, what are the questions you ask yourself?

When I start to struggle in a painting, I usually take a step back and maybe even take a break. When I return to the painting, I compare it to my value study. I look to see if there is something in the value study that I missed in the painting. I also ask myself is there something bold that I can do that will help pull the painting together. 


I usually try not to compare my painting to the subject too much because often it is the big shapes that are messed up and not the details.  Details are fun to paint, but usually no amount of added detail will save a painting. Think of it this way, what draws you across the room to look at a painting? It is not the details, but big value shapes and how they are composed.  However, the details can keep you interested once you are there.

 

To learn more about Brienne M Brown, visit her at her websiteand on Facebookand Instagram


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