About Artist Robert Brownhall

Artist Statement

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 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 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 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 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 these strange, super dramatic minutes, and I think the way it felt was etched forever into my subconscious. Later in life I became a quiet, introverted child. I liked being alone. I still like being alone now, looking at the world and then painting it for endless hours in my studio. During my teenage years I was anxious. Whenever things were even a little stressful my heart rate would become extremely rapid and irregular, and for years my throat felt tight as though someone was strangling me. I still get this feeling now sometimes, if I think about that day too much. I discovered back then that long hours of drawing and painting settled my mind. 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 super dramatic day, I believe.

There are several themes which have appeared in my paintings over and over again during the last thirty years that I think relate to my near drowning trauma. Rain is one of these. I have imagined rain many, many times from drawings, but it is always so heavy the viewer feels they are ‘underwater’ when they are looking at them. When I look into heavy rain I believe it triggers an intense memory from that day. My imaginary human figures are often strange looking, as if something dramatic has happened to them to make them this way. 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 I am seeing busy workers on building sites, people rushing around cities or at fun fairs, and this motion links up with an intense memory of struggling that day. I am not sure if the struggling is me or my rescuers. sometimes when I see crowds of people below me in sunshine it seems ‘familiar’ to me. Shadows have been the main subject in many of my paintings over the years, stretching back to the beginning. These shadows 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. The large number of night paintings I have made over the last thirty years have a very dark drama to them. Some of these works include dogs or cats, 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, again, I think they are reminding me of parts of my intense day all those years ago. My big elevated night panoramas are intended to tell 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 am not entirely sure 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 comforting, relieving 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 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 out all the other colours so that the surreal warmth can take over. I believe it would have been a truly incredible, glorious feeling to open my eyes to the sun again after being revived. It is probably a powerful feeling that any person would remember in the back of their mind forever, if they had been through a super dramatic near death drowning. I have had dreams about regaining consciousness, coughing up water and a small triangular piece of plywood and then opening my eyes to frantic but relieved people. I then look around at warmish, comforting sunshine but the clouds, the tree shapes and their shadows seem stranger than before. I feel I have become a different person now, in some way.
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All of the surreal, dark drama that exists in my work needs to be grounded and balanced out with 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?

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’ or ‘slightly disturbing’ feeling or memory has lived in the back of my mind. This are the best words I can find to describe it. I believe this feeling acts as a constant ‘driving’ force that pushes me on to draw and paint. I also have an inbuilt sense that time is running out from my experience. I know death will return to me one day again in the future. I do not really fear this because I have already been there. I was able to face death situations and extreme heights thousands of times in my dangerous twenty year day job as a tree climber and rough cyclone surf, with calmness. I have had serious car crashes where I have found myself afterwards just sitting there in the wreck of the car feeling strangely ‘at ease’. I do have a constant feeling that time is running out in life, though. Every hour of my life is precious. 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.

Louise Martin-Chew