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 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 sunrise and sunset lighting 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 this modern age. 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 night painting. I believe imagination is the key to painting. I do not care about every tiny 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 a bit ‘unsatisfied’. I returned to drawing and I learned to explore my mind and make 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 is probably the main reason I draw and paint. 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 and overpowering effect on me, straight away. I began to think about myself in a new way. The way I am, and all of the things, both positive and negative, 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 completely new way.
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 get my lungs or heart working again on the beach. They managed to do this in a nearby ambulance. Though my heart and lungs had stopped working, my brain was still alive. I just kept hanging on somehow. I believe my mind recorded the experience of these strange, super dramatic minutes, and I think the way it felt was etched forever into my subconscious. It was quite a violent experience being revived as well, I believe. An x-ray from several years ago showed I have scarring inside my lungs. They still feel ‘sluggish’ and ‘asleep’ now until I exercise vigorously each morning. When I finished high school and several things went wrong at once, I became very anxious and I found myself looking for calming remedies. I discovered that long hours of drawing and painting, surfing, being in nature and the sunshine, hard physical exercise, yoga and some other less positive things could take away that ‘edgy’ feeling that lingered. 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. I have learned to ‘beat’ the feeling. 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.
I believe I can see my dramatic day in the imaginary heavy rain paintings I have been making for twenty years. Usually I take a dry, day scene and imagine it in rain. But this rain is always so heavy it feels like you are ‘underwater’ when you look at it. For a long time I have been imagining busy figures in construction sites and urban areas. But these figures are far more animated than what happens in reality. Their ‘high’ or ‘mad’ energy has come from my mind, and I think this too relates to that day. I would have been struggling and people around me would have been struggling. Even though it only went for minutes I think this ‘struggle’ would have been very intense and I think it has been etched into my mind forever. I have painted so many night paintings over the last thirty years it is hard to remember them all. They show distant lights shining through the darkness, people and animals “lost’ on night streets and big dramatic city panoramas drawn from very elevated vantage points. In these elevated scenes you feel as though you are flying high above the world when you look at them. I think these night paintings could relate to the experience as well. Many near death survivors describe a ‘supremely beautiful light’ coming out of the darkness. I cannot remember this clearly, but the fact that I have been obsessed with this kind of subject for so long, I feel comforted by the night and I have very little fear of my future death when I think about it, suggests that, perhaps, I have had a similar experience. Maybe my ‘lights through the dark’ show us that something beautiful and amazing happens right at the end of life.
My experience on the beach ended with an intensely wonderful moment when I was revived. Can you imagine your heart and lungs suddenly working again, gasping your first breath, opening your eyes to the sunlight and knowing that you are back alive again after being in such a strange dark place? I have had dreams about this moment. I cough up water and a piece of wood, like a sharp stick, my eyes open to the light, everyone around me is incredibly emotional and relieved. Ever since I began painting I have been drenching scenes with warm, yellow, afternoon sunlight from my imagination. Usually I glaze whole pictures in Cadmium Yellow mixed with varnish when they are finished. It knocks back all the other colours and the yellow warmth takes over. Did the event happen in the afternoon? Bundaberg is surrounded by sugarcane fields. There is often a warm glow in the sky as the sun shines through the cane fire smoke. I do not know if any of this is true, but warm light feels very good and comforting to me. It is symbolic of things feeling peaceful again I think. There is a surreal, strange element to these imaginary warm paintings, though. Things like trees, water and clouds in the light are re-imagined and a bit unusual. I was back alive but things were stranger or a bit more distorted than before. After the incident my condition in the hospital was described as ‘only fair’. It would have been a difficult night, fighting my way back.
All of the strange drama that exists in my work needs to be grounded and settled down with some humour. I have always felt the need to include comedy paintings 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 sadness and fear. Where would we all be without it?
Another thing my near death event has instilled in me is a sense of urgency. I know death will return to me one day again in the future. I do not fear this because I have already been there when I was three. I was able to face death situations and extreme heights thousands of times in my dangerous twenty year day job as a tree climber with calmness. What death feels like is stored somewhere in the back of my mind. I do have a constant feeling that time is running out, though. Every day of my life is precious and 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 happy 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.