About Artist Robert Brownhall
The amazing things human beings build inspire me. What would the great painting storytellers of the past, Hopper, Da Vinci, Brueghel and Canaletto think of this incredible modern world we have made? Epic cities, giant bridges and skyscrapers amaze me. Our civilisations are visible from space now but how did it all get here? Where does the mysterious gift of human intelligence come from? When I paint large city panoramas it is an attempt to try and tell the amazing story of human civilisation. I use my imagination to deliberately overpower night lighting, distort perspectives and make the scenes ‘larger than life’ to try and express my admiration for it all.
An equally amazing story is the story of life and nature on this planet. Life is such mysterious and wonderful magic. Planet Earth is a beautiful oasis in the vast empty desert of space. The scenes in my paintings are nothing without the amazing lighting and weather that nature provides. Every day I study and remember lighting from the Sun for future works. Rain and mist tell a beautiful and melancholy story. I watch and study them whenever they appear. Sometimes I glorify trees, the ocean or natural landscapes in my paintings. I always hope these works will remind people that nature is a marvellous gift. But why do people need reminding and when will we learn to be good caretakers of planet Earth?
With such a clever creature in charge of this world you would not expect to see anything going wrong but this is not the case. Despite the warnings from science for decades and alternatives being offered the fossil fuels have been burned into Earth’s sky on a huge worldwide scale for a very long time, leading to Climate Change. To me, this is the opposite of clever. From the biggest skyscraper to the smallest pacemaker keeping our grandparents alive, science has ‘made’ this modern world so when scientists tell us it is time to stop fossil fuelling, then we should do exactly that, without hesitation. Wind farms and other renewable energy subjects are inspiring me more and more lately. Imagine every person on Earth becoming more environmental in their thinking all at once. It would be the greatest revolution and the next generation would inherit a wonderful, healthy planet instead of the Climate Change disaster we may be heading towards.
Another subject I like to paint is the life of the people in these modern times. All of my figures are imaginary. I have trained myself to make people up to suit scenes because then I have the flexibility to tell any story. I drive around the suburbs watching people doing everyday things. A person checking the letterbox, carrying their shopping home, walking a dog or talking on the phone might seem mundane but these things are very important I believe. They are the way we live our lives in this age, they are art. Humour is often a possibility in these works. Though we are the cleverest creature we often do odd things that make no sense. Sometimes I like to paint crowded places. People rush around in cities, living their lives, struggling to get to work, struggling with children. These scenes are a good chance to make energetic, animated compositions. But what are they really doing? What is modern life for?
I like my paintings look like dreams. After thirty years of painting I have discovered that this is my painting ‘personality’. I paint from colour noted drawings because with this method I feel free to change and enhance the look of things using my imagination. Sometimes I turn a sunlit sketch into a rain painting or a midday sketch into a sunset or a night painting. I believe imagination is the key to painting. I do not care about every tiny photographic detail in a scene. I prefer instead to simplify things and concentrate on the imaginary lighting, the brushwork and the story. I have drawn since I was a child. I tried painting directly from photos for a while after art college but felt ‘unsatisfied’. I returned to drawing and I learned to explore my mind and paint interpretations of reality instead. Edward Hopper and my other art heroes of the past used imagination to travel beyond the normal look of reality in their paintings. They created great visual poetry but did not lose the character of things along the way. I admire this. I would like to paint the modern world using this idea.
I believe the things that happen to us, make us ‘who we are’. Now that I am at the middle point of my life I have realised that a dramatic near death experience has made me an artist. Recently I decided to read an old newspaper story from 1971 about myself for the first time. The words in this article had a profound effect on me. I began to think about myself in a new way. The way I am, and all of the things, both positive and less positive, that I have done in my life seemed to make sense as I thought about what had happened to me. I walked back into my painting studio, looked at my work all around me and I started to see my paintings in a new way as well.
When I was three I fell into a creek at Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia, and near-drowned. ‘Only one hand was visible’ as I was pulled out of the water with no breathing or pulse. Lifesavers could not revive me on the beach. They managed to do this in a nearby ambulance. I had a very tough night that night in hospital as well, fighting for my life. I believe my mind recorded the experience of this strange, super dramatic day, and I think the way it felt was etched forever into my subconscious. I became a quiet and shy child with a phobia of water after my experience. During my teenage years I became anxious. I often had a rapid, out of control heart rate and a tight strangling feeling in my throat. I did not know it at the time but I believe the incident from some fifteen years earlier had left me a lingering ‘edgy’ feeling in my subconscious. I discovered that long hours of drawing settled me and took my mind to a better place. I drew everything in the family house, everything in the garden and then bought a bike and backpack to start drawing the city. Other things like surfing, being in nature and the sunshine, hard physical exercise and yoga helped as well. The more I did these things the better and stronger I felt. Now at fifty, after climbing eight thousand trees in my twenty year day job, surfing fifty thousand waves, and making hundreds of drawings and paintings, I feel steady and strong. Art is not just meditation and therapy though. When I look at my paintings now I feel that I can actually see the story of that day in them. The scenery is normal in each painting but the imaginary element from my subconscious is ‘flavoured’ with that dramatic day, I believe.
There are several themes that have appeared in my paintings over and over again during the last thirty years that I think relate to my near drowning drama. Rain is one of these. I have imagined rain many, many times from drawings. It becomes the subject of these paintings, but it does not really feel right until it is so heavy that the scene appears to be underwater or disappearing. When I look into heavy rain it feels familiar. I believe it triggers an intense memory of being underwater on that day. My imaginary singular human figures are often quite strange looking. They are not usually perfect and beautiful but have the appearance of somebody who has had challenges or struggles in life. My crowded scenes have always included over animated figures. They do not feel right to me until they are imagined up, highly energised and almost struggling. I think after that dramatic day a sense of struggle has always existed in the back of my mind. Shadows have been an obsession of mine throughout the last thirty years of painting. They usually dominant the compositions and are often long, as you would see in the late afternoon. They have an extra drama and a melancholy that matches something in my mind, but they are often not perfectly matching the object they are from. They feel more right when they are surreal or distorted. The large number of night paintings I have made over the last thirty years are very dark and dramatic. They are not a half night, they are an intense night made with Black. Some of these works include ‘abandoned’ dogs or cats, broken down cars or old rundown buildings that seem ‘lost in the dark’. Some feature beautiful distant shining lights or reflections on the dark water. When I see these things in reality they feel somehow familiar and strangely beautiful to me. My big elevated night panoramas are intended to tell a spectacular story. Elevation has always been an obsession of mine. I try hard to over power the lights and distort perspectives in these large works, to create an overwhelmingly beautiful and dramatic feeling. I cannot remember very well what I felt when I blacked out in that water and came so close to death all those years ago, but when I actually think about the idea of dying the main feeling I have is one of peace, rather than terror. Maybe the Human mind is programmed to bounce back with wonderful feelings when it is experiencing near death trauma or maybe, as most near death survivors report, there really is something ‘supremely beautiful’ in the dark, right at the end of life.
Warm comforting light is something that has appeared in my work many, many times over the last three decades. I glaze paintings in yellow to knock back the other colours so that the surreal warmth can take over. I believe it would have been an extremely glorious but also strange feeling to open my eyes to the sun again after being revived that day. It is probably a powerful feeling that any person would remember in the back of their mind forever. I have had dreams about being revived, coughing up water and then opening my eyes to frantic but relieved people. I then look around at warm comforting sunshine but the clouds, the tree shapes and their shadows seem strange. There is also a building in the sunshine in my vision at that intense moment. After visiting the place where my experience happened I found this building. It is a block of blonde brick units built in 1970, that still stands there. Beach holiday units later became one of my main subjects. I have painted scores and scores over the last thirty years, but I actually believe now all of my buildings in the sun, since the beginning, are versions of this building that I saw at the moment of revival.
. Despite my childhood near death trauma flavouring my paintings I work hard to make each one beautiful and poetic. Perhaps I am trying to change or soften the memory from disturbing to peaceful, a lifelong process of personal therapy. Maybe one day the memory of it will be erased from my subconscious completely. I have always felt that the surreal, dark drama that exists in my work needs to be grounded and balanced out with some humour. Comedy paintings play an important role in my exhibitions. Often these involve human figures doing nonsensical, strange and silly things or black comedies. Laughter is the best medicine, it washes away disturbing feelings. Where would we all be without it?
I believe my experience has had some positive effects on me. I have never considered myself a depressed person, I always try to ‘make the best’ of every situation. Since it happened though, I think an ‘edgy’ feeling or memory has lived in the back of my mind. I believe this feeling acts as a constant ‘driving’ force or energy that pushes me on to draw and paint. I also believe my experience has given me a toughness to hang on through adversity. I draw large city panoramas that take many, many hours, sometimes up to twenty or more, to complete. I hung on in that creek for a considerable length of time until help came. Giving up is not an option in my mind. I am good at holding my breath underwater in large surf situations and was good at toughing it out through long stressful tree climbing jobs, sometimes up to eight hours at a time, in my former day job. My fear of death has also been greatly reduced by my experience, I believe. I know it will return to me one day again in the future but I feel I know it because I have already been there. Facing death was an everyday necessity in my twenty year job as a tree climber. I always felt quite calm up high in trees. I think this is the reason that I survived that job. While the end of my life does not worry me much, I do have a strong feeling that time is running out. Paintings need to be made and shown to people. I appreciate being alive very much and I am so glad my dramatic experience had a good ending. A second chance at life is a marvellous gift and I want to make the most of it.
South East Queensland has been my home since I was born. It has provided me with so many great painting subjects over the last few decades and will provide many more in the future. At fifty years of age I feel ready to start painting some international scenes as well. America is the home of my greatest painting hero Edward Hopper, and has great urban and natural landscapes, familiar to us all through the movies we watch. What better place could there be to start some new explorations?
Robert Brownhall August, 2018
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.