If you have watched painters at work or have painting artists in your life, it’s easy to fool yourself that the medium is the goop—the expensive, not-quite-fluid plasticy color that comes in tubes and tubs and gets mixed and diluted and arranged, imaginatively, realistically or otherwise, upon flat surfaces. The work of Nashville painter Roger Dale Brown reminds viewers nicely that the painter, in fact, traffics in light. Paint is applied in ways to reveal the sources of light—the manner in which it reacts with objects, the spaces it cannot reach.
Brown paints in the plein air style that became popular in Europe during the late 19th century. The name means “open air,” and the trend corresponds to the time when paints first became available in tubes and allowed the artist to work away from the studio. The style emphasizes the importance of natural light, and was in many ways a celebration of the liberation that allowed an artist to visit a scene at different times of day and year to examine and capture the changing qualities of light. The result—typically small canvases or boards executed quickly, often in a couple hours’ time or less—is in some ways to painting what a sketch is to drawing, or what a snapshot is to photography. It is also something more. Among other things, plein air painting tells you much about the diverse sensibilities and priorities of every person who practices it.
Brown speaks with a Tennessee accent and both his work and his words have a way of bringing what he does down to earth.
“Plein air derives from Impressionism, but is more along the lines of Expressionist realism,” he says. “There’s more emphasis on light and shadow. I use more organic colors than the early Impressionists.
“I really like to study my subjects, the palette of colors, how one thing relates to another. It’s really intuitive. It’s about first impressions.”
New paintings by Brown, large and small, are currently on display at Lyons View Gallery on Kingston Pike. Brown says that about 80 percent of this show represents studio work. But he makes a determined effort to recreate the immediacy and volatility of his open-air experience in that safer setting.
“It is a challenge,” says Brown. “Everything is dynamic and changes. Light changes, it rains, dogs bark and people talk. You have to look through that. You have to hold on to that initial idea. In the studio you have more time to work through that. But if you’ve done enough plein air you can get that effect in the studio.”
Having Brown’s studio and outdoor paintings side by side in the sumptuous Lyons View space makes his point for him. It’s clear that he didn’t trundle the four-foot canvas now titled “Chesapeake Sky” into the field it depicts. But that’s a pointless afterthought. For all practical purposes now, he was there while he painted it, and he does a very nice job of taking the viewer along. It’s autumn, and the field that stretches out before you is a carpet of cornstalk stubble, after the combine. In the distance a barn and silo seem to hibernate. Along the field’s edge is a line of trees just beginning to turn, and growing in a pattern that tells you that their roots are along a stream you can’t see. All these things are lit, one senses very temporarily, by a tear in the cloud cover that allows in spare portions of gold and yellow and something salmon that’s reflected within the vapor of the clouds. You’ve seen it a million times. But it’s hard to imagine any other method so tenderly trapping that moment.
The late Kentucky artist and essayist Guy Davenport once defined art as the attention we are willing to devote to something. Brown says he spends some half of the year traveling, absorbing these places you can absorb in turn in an hour or two within the connecting West Knoxville rooms where his art now hangs. You’ll see scenes from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, South Carolina, North Carolina, and southern Missouri along the Mississippi River. Whether or not those geographical coordinates resonate in you, there is some power and positive energy in witnessing the manner in which those places have spoken to this artist.
“I always paint for myself,” says Brown. “It’s all special to me. If it touches some one else that’s fine. But it’s from my heart.” m