About Artist Robert Brownhall
I want to make paintings that say something about this age, the look of the city and the way the people live.
Robert Brownhall, 2016
Robert Brownhall is a realist painter, inspired by his local environment. Over twenty years of painting he has developed a unique, quirky style and a birds-eye view of scenes, characterised by a strong connection to place, moody nocturnes, broad sweep panoramas and gritty vignettes of urban life. These range from urban scenes and recreational areas in Brisbane and on the nearby Gold and Sunshine Coasts, to the ski slopes of New South Wales, and the New England Highway and Sydney. These paintings have significantly extended the visual poetry associated with these areas of work and play in Australia.
Brownhall’s realism is not slick. The humanity and visibility of his brushstroke is as important to him as that of his figures and there is a filmic quality in the work induced by the light and moody glazes. His power in defining, recording, his prescience in the capture of buildings and scenes now lost, frames the way that we have seen and experienced the psyche of the cities and towns in which he has worked.
He cites Edward Hopper and Pieter Bruegel as influences, but equally important to him is process. Brownhall draws — as a way of thinking through images, to record the scenes he observes — often from his car or high rise buildings, beaches and parks — and as an end in their own right. At night he may use a torch or street light, allowing the light to ‘paint’ the scene. Notes about colour, mood and ambience may be recorded on the pencil sketch. However he notes, “When I paint from a drawing, the scene changes with the translation”. Imagination fleshes out the sketch, creating the strong artistic personality evident in the finished work.
As a result, Brownhall’s paintings are not ‘real’ scenes any more than a novel is a transcription of life. There is something amiss, strange, or intriguing here, alongside a sensibility that lulls you into a false sense of reality.
He works from a home studio on an acreage property at Upper Brookfield, on Brisbane’s western outskirts, not far from where he grew up. He spends most of his time in the ‘studio’, up close and personal with family life, his art an integral part of the way that he, wife Sarah and their children live.
“Each show is a diary. A painting is my personal memory of a scene. I like to develop a good sense of proportion and composition in a painting, but also like a contemporary edge, visible brushstrokes. Colour mixing is important — as is tonality, and a sense of humour which strikes me as very Australian”.
This text utilises material from conversations between the author and Robert Brownhall and also from an essay published previously with Robert Brownhall’s exhibition of twenty years work at the Museum of Brisbane (2011). For more information, see the full essay text for Somewhere in the City: Urban Narratives by Robert Brownhall, 2011.
When I was a boy I liked to draw. I would draw all sorts of things in a naturally realistic way. After failing by a small margin to gain entrance into architecture and industrial design courses at university, I drifted toward painting. I started to become interested in the urban landscape as a subject. I could see that cities have great stories to tell, and I had the feeling that I should be saying something about the modern world I was born into.
Whenever I look across a city I find myself lost in admiration for the things human beings can build. The urban landscape is an incredibly complex combination of architecture, engineering and science. Where has the mysterious human mind come from? Things like giant gravity defying bridges and skyscrapers amaze me. Buildings in cities have lifts moving up and down inside them, and electricity and water flowing through pipes in the walls. Every room has machines and appliances running on this electricity. People are in these rooms communicating with others across the world on their computers. Jets fly across the sky and cars fill the roads, stopping and starting at traffic lights run by computers. All of the building materials that make a city are taken out of the Earth. By some sort of magic concrete, bricks, steel and glass are sculpted into all sorts of interesting shapes. For millions of years the night was dark on this planet but now it is alive with colour and light. Cities are visible from space in this age. Everything from the smallest house to the most massive skyscraper has been dreamt up and designed by a person, engineered by someone else and then constructed by a builder. If you were born one thousand years ago you could never have imagined what this modern world be like. The story of our civilisation amazes me and this is why I paint large urban panoramas, architecture, bridges and machines like jets.
Human beings are the super builders of this world. Cities are expanding all the time, growing larger and larger, but how much is too much? Is there any limit or plan to this urbanization? It all seems a bit mad to me. Will cities cover the Earth completely in the future? I hope not. Nature is extremely precious. It is the most beautiful thing on this Earth and we have an essential primitive connection to it. Vast areas need to be set aside for it, so it can be protected. Sometimes I make paintings of buildings and bridges under construction. In these paintings I deliberately create a frenzied, over energised mood in the work, to try and tell the story of the human being as mad builder.
As I grow older I find myself becoming more and more environmentally minded. One thing that disappoints me about cities is the way they are fuelled. Why would the clever creature of this Earth think it is acceptable to use the sky as a dumping ground for so much coal and petrol burning for so long? We have never been able effect the Earth’s weather until now, it seems. The sun feels hotter and extreme weather is happening more and more. Sometimes when I look at a stormy sea, a fiery sunset or trees tossing in a storm, I have the feeling nature is under pressure, but are people are even thinking about these things? An artist can be a good messenger to the people. Some of my paintings describe what is happening to nature. Dramatic rainstorms, broken or twisted trees, strange clouds and hot sunsets appear in some of my paintings now. Some other paintings simply celebrate the beauty of nature because I think people need to be reminded of this. Renewable energy subjects such as wind farms are inspiring me more and more lately. Our inspirational intelligence is the answer. Why not fuel it in a clean way? There is only one precious Earth. There is nowhere else for us to go.
Cities are full of great human stories. I believe the life of the people in this age is a very important subject. What are they doing out there in the suburbs and in the crowded city centres? How is it different to past ages? The inclusion of people is often a good chance for some comedy. Sometimes we are not the most sensible of creatures. I find everyday life very intriguing. A person walking a dog, carrying their shopping home or painting a house may seem mundane and unimportant to some people but I believe these things are art and deserve to be in paintings. In some urban scenes I create bustling crowds from my imagination. I try to suggest the struggle of modern life in these paintings. People with briefcases rushing to work to make money, older less mobile characters and parents struggling with children are recurring subjects. For many people life is not easy in this age.
When I paint I prefer to work from a drawing rather than a photograph. These days I make some drawings from photography but all of my paintings are made from the drawings and my mind. I want my paintings to look like imaginary memories or dreams. The dream look is my natural look. I am not sure why but I find myself chasing it for every painting. The drawing process is good for me because it cuts the scene off from it’s exact appearance. I am then free to use my imagination to transform the look of things and enhance the scene. Two of my favourite artists, Edward Hopper and Pieter Bruegel, worked this way. Their poetic paintings are very inspirational to me. A photographer can take an amazing shot in a split second that shows millions of details. The viewer is transported instantly to the place in the photo. The camera is an amazing invention but there is a special, primitive magic about painting. Arts experts keep telling us it is out of date and they have been able to cast it out of many art colleges and galleries. Despite this people still love it the most. They won’t be told what to like. Long live painting!
After the Second World War my mother’s German family were given residency in Australia. She met my Australian father on Bondi Beach in Sydney, and they moved to Brisbane, where I was born. Brisbane has great subject matter for painting, It has interesting architecture to draw and paint, and a great river winding through it which looks stunning at night. I have been a keen surfer since I was a boy. I have visited the Gold and Sunshine Coasts for surfing day trips more than one thousand times. Despite a drowning experience when I was three, I love to be in the ocean riding waves for hours and hours. When I am surfing I find all negative thoughts disappear.
Cities outside Brisbane interest me also. I have always wanted to visit and paint these other mysterious places. As I approach fifty years of age I feel the time is right to make some big explorations. The world seems smaller in this age.
Robert Brownhall March 2017