Brent Cotton: Exploring the Mood and Drama of Nature

A Conversation with the Fine Art Painter

A Piece of Heaven, Painting by Brent Cotton

Brent Cotton spent his early childhood at the family ranch in Idaho. He has found two great teachers there who have, since then, shaped and refined his artistic visions. One of them is his grandmother, herself a talented watercolour painter, and the other being nature, the infinite source of inspiration for every artist.

Brent finds the greatest satisfaction in watching mirthful birds, listening to the chirps of cricket or the rustling of dried leaves. But nothing could probably surpass the blissful joy he experiences when he anchors his boat midstream and listens intently to the burbling of the flowing water. he translates those moments of joyful existence on canvas. The many views of the river, captured from dawn to dusk by the artist, immerse the audience in perfect tranquillity.

Most of your work revolves around the playfulness of soft light. What inspires you in recreating these scenes depicting sources of light and its reflections on the eyes and minds of the viewers?

I’ve always been drawn to mood and drama and the fleeting effects of light, and attempting to recreate those magical moments on canvas is something I’ve focused on in my work for about the last 10 years or so. My work shifted to a more tonalistic / luministic style when I was living on Maui at a very high elevation where the clouds would gather every afternoon on the slopes of Haleakala volcano and roll down the mountain immersing the area in mist. The mysterious and moody atmosphere had a dramatic effect on my work that continues to inspire me today. The other pivotal period of time in my transformation toward tonalism was when my wife and I moved back to Montana and we were enveloped in the smoke from the summer forest fires which also gave an eerie ghostlike mood to the landscape.

Backlighting is also something I’ve explored many times in my work and I continue to experiment with different techniques to create that feeling of intensity and brilliance. To pull off that illusion is both a challenge and a joy. Atmosphere and light can convey such emotion and I want to create works that pull the viewer from across the room and make them want to escape into the painting and the lighting does that. It’s amazing how light and mood can conjure up memories, in fact I had a collector tell me once ‘Your work makes me remember things I’ve never seen’. I love that!

Do you have a preferred time of the day and season that you love painting?

My favourite times of day are both early morning and late afternoon/early evening… the moments that don’t last long… the ‘Sweet Light’ times, where the shadows are the longest and the colour most saturated. I love every season as they all have their own character and mood. I feel blessed to live in an area with a rich variety of seasonal changes.

A Gilded Morning, Painting by Brent Cotton
A Gilded Morning

You spent a great amount of time in Idaho amidst pristine natural surroundings. Your current home also happens to be very close to nature. How did these aspects help in shaping the artist in you? As an artist and human being how do you perceive this relationship of man with nature?

I’ve always been a very outdoorsy guy and knew that I wanted to somehow combine my love of nature with my artistic desires, so after high school I became a ‘hunting and fishing’ guide in both Idaho and Alaska. These experiences allowed me to observe nature up close and personal and gave me lots of ideas based on my adventures. My artistic knowledge at that time was quite limited so I started taking workshops from artists that I admired and focused on painting in particular. Wildlife and pristine western landscapes were my primary subject matter at that time. I currently live in the Bitterroot valley of western Montana; a place of rugged beauty, blue ribbon trout streams, and a wonderful farming/ranching heritage. For me personally, being out in nature soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds is crucial to my work not just in inspiration for my art and soul but in being able to portray it with authenticity. It’s a part of me and I hope people can sense the love of it in my work.

Yellowstone Veil, Painting by Brent Cotton
Yellowstone Veil

How do you think technological advancement has affected traditional artists?

Well I guess that depends on the artist and how they want to use the tools that are available to us these days. Speaking specifically for traditional artists; I think photography, computers, etc. can really help, but you run the danger of them becoming a crutch too. I try to work from life as much as I can, keeping my drawing and observation skills sharp and in tune. But I do rely on photography quite a bit as far as composition and for accuracy. I know it has limitations on how it records light and colour; so I trust my eyes, memory, and experience with painting Plein-air to recreate that. I also do some work in Photoshop to help plan paintings, creating mood, or combining photos if need be. That is a great tool and one that has helped me a great deal in the early stages of some of my pieces. Now I have seen some artists actually printing off their photoshopped images onto canvas and then painting on top of those, or projecting their photos onto canvas and then painting them. To me, I think if you sacrifice your drawing skills for expediency that’s only going to hurt you and your reputation in the long run but that’s just this man’s opinion.

Have you been greatly influenced by any personality from or beyond the world of art, both past and present?

I grew up on a ranch in Idaho and my earliest artistic memories are of painting and drawing with my grandmother, my first artistic influence. I would watch her paint the scenes of the daily life there, and I would follow her lead sketching the cows, horses, tractors etc. My High School Art teacher was another influence that helped put me on the path I’m on now. When I first began taking workshops I met an artist from Oklahoma named Christine Verner who took me under her wing so to speak and I mentored with her for a few years. She’d studied all over the world with some amazing artists and her generosity in passing on that knowledge is a big reason I’m where I’m at today. Having a very supportive family and wife has made all the difference as well and I can’t overemphasize that, to not have their encouragement would make for a very difficult road indeed.

Spring Burning, Painting by Brent Cotton
Spring Burning

Your work such as ‘Spring Burning’ gives a sense of motion even after it having been captured in one frame. Do you have a personal favourite piece of art that gave you immense satisfaction and was painted closest to your imagination?

Well, that particular painting was one of those works, it was the first fire piece that I felt was successful in truly capturing the feeling of being out there amongst the smoke when I burn my pastures in the spring. It also won an award at the Oil Painters of America show and that was a nice bonus. A recent painting titled ‘Symphony of the River’ is a particular favourite of mine because I felt it encompassed everything that excites me, the dramatic light and the movement in the water, combined with the solitary figure communing with nature. Another would be ‘At Peace’, a small painting given as a gift to a cousin of mine after she’d lost her father and two brothers in a small plane crash. They were an avid fly fisherman and I felt this painting really captured their spirit and where I imagined them being.

At Peace, Painting by Brent Cotton
At Peace

From your artistic pursuits and your experiences as a traveller would you like to share with us any anecdotal story?

My favourite story combines art and serendipity I guess. I was a struggling artist living on Maui (I know, cry me a river right?) Anyway, I was supporting myself if you could call it that by painting plein-air by the beach and selling my little 8×10 oils for $50 to passersby. On some of these occasions, I happened to notice a beautiful jogger run past and wave and smile but never stopping to chat. Eventually, we did run into each other quite literally and found out we were both from Montana and turns out she was an amateur artist herself but too shy to stop and watch me paint. Long story short, we started dating and the next thing you know we’re getting married and moving back to the mountains and putting down roots here in Big Sky country. I went to Hawaii to meet a beautiful girl from Montana, funny how things work out.

Symphony of the River, Painting by Brent Cotton
Symphony of the River

How has the artist in you evolved over a period of more than a decade that defined his relationship with art? Any special exploration planned ahead?

Interesting question; I feel like I’ve grown so much in a myriad of ways as both an artist and person over the past 10 years. In the early stages of my career, I focused on wildlife and rugged pristine wilderness with no signs of humanity. Nowadays, I find myself drawn to the quieter pastoral landscapes and the seemingly mundane ways of rural life. I’m slowing down and noticing things that I might have driven right past and missed in my pursuit of greater vistas before. Now it’s becoming more important to capture some of the vanishing traditions and scenes of farming/ranching along with my continued love of rivers as mentioned above.

I want to challenge myself by putting emphasis on figurative works or at least making the figure a more prominent feature in the landscape. I’m also excited to venture back into sculpting, something I did back in the early 90’s but have put on the back burner since then. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all I’m afraid. It’s interesting how we artists grow and evolve, and who knows what or how I’ll be painting 10 years from now.

Portrait of Brent Cotton

Brent Cotton enjoys…

Brent loves being at or near any trout stream or high mountain lake. With his eclectic taste in music, he loves listening to anything from Copeland to Coldplay. The Hobbit is his favourite book. His favourite colour happens to be transparent oxide brown (‘not because it’s the prettiest, but it’s a very useful colour in so many ways’). Thai curry is his favourite indulgence while it comes to food, ‘the hotter the better!’

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Brent Cotton