Arriving at Elizabeth Brandon’s studio you might think that you took a wrong turn in the road and ended up in the middle of nowhere in front of an old country church. Inside the illusion continues as the northern light streams in through giant windows illuminating the room like a Van Dyke masterpiece. Watering cans and tapestries are strewn among the books and the flowers. It is a place that feels familiar and comfortable, and yet I can’t help feeling that there is also a great deal of mystery here.
Brandon’s work is simply beautiful. It is also deceptively simple. On first glance her paintings are images that are well known to us, friendly and inviting, and yet look a little closer and they become far more complex and intriguing. That’s the way Brandon planned it. Her paintings are meant to evoke a strong emotion in us.
I am challenged to study, to marvel, to explore, to want to touch, to taste. Her canvases are a celebration of the heart of nature. They capture the moment of perfection, when the full, vibrant life force is at its peak. The colors emphasize the play of light. The impastos are moist and animated. The glazes are soft and radiant.
Q: One of the things that impress me about your paintings is that the subjects are so real I feel a part of the experience of the painting. At the same time, I feel there’s a hidden message you want to convey—a vision I wouldn’t otherwise see.
The artist comes into the painting or the drawing. Part of you comes in to meet whatever that subject is saying to you. We’re really into the essence of the life, of the form. When I’m painting apples or cantaloupes I’m thinking about what it feels like when you put the fork in it and take a bite. To me, it’s a connection to everything in life. It’s my connection to the world.
I don’t want to complete a painting to the point where there’s nothing for the viewer to come in and dream about or wonder or be pulled into…. It’s not so classical and academic that it’s too stiff. That’s why we go back to the old masters, because there’s more of that poetry and life essence. It’s a big idea, and it’s something you could spend your entire life trying to reproduce and get better at all the time. When it comes to putting this nebulous idea of light and form and shadow and shade, you can’t get there from copying. It’s a different path. The principles are one thing, but it’s the person playing the music that makes it beautiful.
Q: I look around your studio and I see skulls, anatomical figures, a bust, shadow boxes…. How are the old-master principles of light and shadow learned by using these objects? How do they help you capture the essence of your subjects?
When light hits an object, it won’t hit the object next to it at the same level. So when I paint, I create a shadow box around the subject so that you see what I want you to see. There’s the greatest light, and there’s a place in the painting that’s absent of any light. In the center there are a lot of middle tones and half shadows and real shadows and a lot of different levels of the light. So I want to get the feeling that the light is permeating and moving around the object, and you’re not seeing everything equally. It’s like music or poetry—you’re telling what’s more important, what’s less important, where you play, where you give a lot of attention and provide detail. When you are painting a landscape, how do you paint black and white that’s in front of you and black and white that’s a mile away? Everything that’s out there is reflected in air and is pushed away, so not only are we painting across the canvas but we’re painting the depth and the breadth. So when the sun comes in, you have the warm blues here and the cool blues there, and all that’s still reflecting into every tree, every blade of grass, everything. It’s a very complicated symphony.
Q: It’s obvious that in order to translate your vision you are using not only the skills of how to draw and paint, but also craftsmanship in the creation of materials. How are the old-master traditions influencing your techniques?
The old masters knew so much, and they were scientists. They studied how to put paint on a canvas and keep the quality, the brilliance of it forever. And a lot of that was lost knowledge, especially by the time of the Impressionists. We put a lead coating on the canvas to hold the oils on there permanently instead of acrylic, which is man-made. We make our own oils, our own canvases and our own panels. It makes a difference in the quality of the colors, in the brilliance that you get. It’s not that you want to be an old master—I wouldn’t want to be Rembrandt or Velázquez, because they were what they were, and I would just be a poor copy of that. So I’m trying to find out what about that sparks me. I’m painting in a different time, and my subjects are different, so I’m using those principles, but I want to live today.
Q: You’ve painted portraits, figures, landscapes and interiors, which are very challenging, and yet you’ve become most well known for your still life work.
I evolved into still lifes. When I first left New York, it was difficult to get models. And then you learn how to paint objects with light so you set up still lifes, which is in itself difficult because, how do you set this up to be interesting? You go back to the old masters to learn how they did it and pull the ideas into your own compositions. Painting still lifes also allowed me to keep painting from life while I was having children and continue to evolve.
Q: Why do vegetables, fruits and flowers fascinate you? Is it their perishable nature that challenges you as an artist?
I think they’re beautiful, and flowers in particular are very difficult to paint. Even if you set up a flower, they’re changing, they’re dying, they’re moving…and so, like a landscape, you need to capture it as quickly as you can. Hopefully your skill set is present so that the craft is working for you.
Q: You’ve mentioned that one of your goals as an artist is to capture “connecting moments.” Can you explain that for me?
It’s like the “ah ha” moment. Like you are looking at a beautiful sunrise and you think, oh wow, this is everything. If two people are talking about their lives or their friendship and they both understood something at exactly the same time, that’s a connecting moment. So to me, those are the moments when you feel most alive. If I’m painting an apple, and I got the apple just right, then it’s like there’s the apple essence. And I nailed it with just the right brush stroke. I don’t know how I got it, and I may not be able to get it again, but oh my goodness! And someone else will know it when they see it. So I think there are certain moments that are breathtaking—and they can be little breaths; they don’t have to be big—and you know it when you experience it. To me, that’s pretty exciting.
Q: You donated to the state museum and the governor’s mansion the painting Roses and Eucalyptus. Why did you donate that particular piece, and how did that come about?
I think it’s a good representation of me because of the florals that I do. We toured the mansion after the renovation, and there was some really interesting art and there was still some wall space left, so I thought, let’s get a Brandon in here! Lois Riggins-Ezzell, who runs the state museum, wanted one of my paintings, so I suggested this one. She and [First Lady] Andrea Conte were really excited about it, and I was really pleased that they were so receptive to having the painting.
One of Brandon’s passions is art restoration and conservation. She is particularly concerned about current attempts to clean the artwork of the Realist masters in a manner that destroys the initial vision and science behind the paintings. She is a member of ArtWatch International, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a voice for these important works of art.
Q: There are obviously situations that require a damaged painting to be restored or cleaned, but I understand you feel that many times this is done needlessly.
For years there has been a problem with big business and politics and cleaning older paintings in a way that lacks knowledge about the process that was used. Sometimes they do need cleaning, but you have to be careful how you do it because you take off some of the paint and the oils and the glazes. Our teacher used to talk about this, and one day someone heard that they were going to take Rembrandt’s portrait The Noble Slav down and clean it. And we thought, they can’t do that! So we had a march on the Met, and we found out later that that really started the idea of ArtWatch. It’s in New York, London, and (I believe) Rome or Florence.
It’s just a voice to keep the old masters from being wiped off, because once they are, you can’t get it back, and the process will be lost again. So ArtWatch is really gaining ground, and the last big event they tried to tackle was the cleaning of the Sistine chapel. Well, it’s a different Michelangelo once you’ve cleaned off the breath that pulls it all together. You don’t want to use harsh chemicals, because chemicals can continue to work on the painting even after you are finished cleaning. So you have to have a knowledge of what the oils and varnishes were, and how they were put on there, and why they were put on there, and make sure the cleaning doesn’t penetrate too far. The first thing you notice if an old master has been cleaned is that all the shadows have been taken off. For us it’s important to preserve the old masters for future generations, and it even extends to sculpture. You can destroy a sculpture pretty fast by sandblasting it. When you have new administrations come in and they are more into the modern art, they are not watching carefully over those masterpieces in the way that others might in that field.
Q: With your work and the work of other Poetic Realists gathering
momentum, do you think there is a trend toward rediscovering traditional methods of painting?
There’s been a resurgence of the nineteenth-century academia. Now, more people are wanting plein-air, and I see a lot of workshops all over the U.S. on this type of painting. I see people going back to painting a cast and learning how to draw. I think art will move further back to the old masters and past academia. I think that we have lost so much information that artists want to gain back. I see that coming around again, a thirst for that knowledge. Why are we attracted to the old masters? Why are there some of us that want to paint that way? It’s because it gives us a way to express ourselves creatively.
by Lisa Venegas