Ryan S. Brown is an American painter in the naturalist tradition. After graduating BYU, Ryan went on to study classical painting in Florence, Italy, at the Florence Academy of Art, where upon graduation he won the Painting of the Year and President’s awards. Returning to Utah after his studies in 2008, Ryan opened the Masters Academy of Art in Springville, where he passes on methods and practices within the tradition of classical painting. Ryan’s work contains the time-honored qualities of craftsmanship in drawing, color, and composition that, although true to the tradition and heritage of painting that pays homage to past masters, have a uniquely current feel.
Art Notes: A lot of preliminary thinking happens before you begin a painting. Could you talk about the kind of reference-gathering, sketching, and studies you do before starting a painting? Why are those pieces important?
Every painting starts with what I think is a good idea (they aren’t always good ideas). I always have a specific model in mind, and various locations that would offer the proper settings for my idea. I also think about costuming and different variations of what I’d like the model(s) to wear and how that fits the general concept. We then spend a few hours taking reference photos in several locations, with several costume changes and several poses.
Over the next week or so, I pore over these images, looking for which ones have the right head position, hand positions, lighting, which may have better drapery design, etc. This also helps me refine my ideas and crystallize more definitively what I think will make a good painting. After this, I ideally take the model back and do a study from life to capture the natural nuances of color and value harmonies. With the photo reference and on-site study, this makes the painting much easier to envision and execute.
The final part of the process is taking the photo reference into Photoshop and trying out different ways of cropping it to see which format would be the most interesting from a compositional standpoint. Once I’ve chosen a format, I have to decide how big I want to paint it. I love to work larger, but those aren’t always easy to sell, so I have to be somewhat considerate of the collector’s wall. I will typically print out on an oversized black-and-white printer a few options for size choices. This allows me to tape those to a wall, step back, and really see how each size feels, or the kind of presence it has on the wall. Better understanding that physical presence is the final step before starting the painting.
Art Notes: What are you thinking through when you’re composing a scene? What does a painting need to have, on a compositional level, to be a strong painting?
Many of my paintings have more abstract themes like loneliness, longing, sorrow, innocence, or youthful joy and wonder. These abstract ideas can be depicted in a variety of ways. But I’d like everything in the painting to support the idea. So I have to think about how the color harmonies will support the idea, the general setting, and each peripheral element in the painting working to better define the idea — how the pose of the model, costume, and values will all go into the overall theme of the painting. And this is different for each work. But if I retain the idea as the first priority, I find it much easier to make compositional choices wrap around the concept.
Art Notes: You paint landscapes with and without figures. How does placing a figure in the landscape change your considerations for composition and design? (I imagine it's not as simple as just adding a figure.)
I make two types of landscape paintings. Most of my landscape work is invented. With these, I try to just make interesting color and mass combinations to create works of beauty. That’s my simple motivation. Some landscape paintings I create, however, are of specific places, in which case it becomes more important to get the character and drawing of the place correct.
When I add a figure, however, the landscape becomes a setting rather than a subject. Like it or not, most viewers will be more immediately drawn to the figure. So I think about the landscape almost as a stage setting, or scene for a larger narrative. The landscape certainly adds a mood, a place, an overall feeling, but the figure adds narrative. That’s what I love so much about painting the figure in the landscape — the potential for narrative.
Compositionally, how I place the figure in a setting really revolves around the narrative I’d like to convey. Sometimes the figure is swallowed up by the surroundings, giving a feeling of awe, or loneliness, or isolation. Sometimes the figure is much bigger and the landscape acts as more of a frame for the figure. But those decisions are made based on the idea I’m trying to follow.
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your painting process for a figure in the landscape? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
When starting a composition of a figure in the landscape, one of the first things I need to consider is how large I want to paint the figure. Usually I find I want to paint the figure a little larger, which in many cases means the overall painting would need to be quite large. I’ve learned over time that this is not always the best decision, as it can dramatically narrow the potential buying audience. So I’m learning to paint my figures a little smaller, which has been uncomfortable but useful.
Once I’ve settled on a size, I transfer a drawing onto canvas so I can get the exact placement and layout of every major element in the painting. Then I lay in the entirety of the canvas to try to establish a somewhat compressed version of the whole harmony of the painting. I don’t do any detailed, focused work until the overall feel of the work is well established. Then I typically work “back to front” — which I put in quotes, knowing that a two-dimensional surface does not have a true back to front. Rather, the idea is to think spatially and establish those things farthest away and move forward in space so the elements in the painting stack forward.
You also paint portraits. When someone is first starting to work on portraiture, where should they focus their attention? Why?
They should first learn to draw impeccably, ideally under the watchful and corrective eye of a great teacher. This will dramatically economize the time it takes them to develop their skill. Work from life as much as possible. Learn the anatomy. I don’t think it’s a good idea to avoid the use of photography. I believe that at some point most artists are likely to employ that tool in their process, so they should learn to use it, learn its strengths and weaknesses, while also working from life.
Learn your color harmonies from life. The camera cannot imitate natural color. Learn to construct and sculpt with your paint, which is to say, learn to think sculpturally. Learn to connect your sense of sight and touch in order to better control that definition in your work.
And lastly, figure out why you want to paint portraits, or use them in your paintings. What is it about a portrait that helps you say what you want to say? Always, the main motivation for learning anything should be how understanding that thing might better serve your vision as an artist.
Art Notes: Skin can be challenging to paint. What’s important to get right when painting skin?
If you are painting a self-contained figure, meaning perhaps a single head on a dark background, then you really want to understand flesh tone from life. Studying the model from life is imperative if you’re going to make these paintings. But if you are painting flesh in a larger setting, then the flesh tone just needs to feel like flesh in a relative manner to the surrounding elements. In this case, there are no rules beyond understanding color relationships and color harmonies. This is a much bigger issue and one with an ever-changing target, as each new painting is likely to have its own unique color harmonies.
Art Notes: When you’re stuck in a painting, what questions do you ask yourself about why it may not be working?
I first assess the overall. Is the composition good from a design standpoint, from an abstract standpoint, and from a color and value harmony standpoint? If the overall effect is working, I then have to assess what area is creating discord. What feels uncomfortable?
The best paintings allow the viewers complete viewing comfort. Nothing about the execution of the painting feels awkward or out of place. The viewer is free to just experience the scene, the narrative, or the emotional context of the idea. When something is uncomfortable (that could be edges that are too hard, values that are too contrasty, drawing errors, etc.), those areas of discomfort need to be identified and adjusted.
Oftentimes these can be difficult to pinpoint. In the case where I’m having difficulty identifying these problem areas, I reach out to artist friends for feedback. Not everything they say is relevant, but much of it often is. Having several eyes assessing a work from various perspectives is incredibly helpful and an indispensable part of my process.
Learn more about how Ryan Brown works by checking out his videos here.