INSIDE Cowgirl Up! • The Russell • State of the Art: Colorado • Western Landscapes MARCH 2016
Above: Solitude of the River, oil on linen, 48 x 60â€? Opposite page: Brent Cotton paints on location.
From winding rivers to infinite sky, painter Brent Cotton channels nature and its etheric light with his timeless landscapes. By Michael Clawson
n the early 1900s, author Norman Maclean, then a youngster, moved with his family to northwest Montana, a place that would not only contribute greatly to his writing, but would fundamentally change the way he saw and interacted with nature. “Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-
The Valley Awakens, oil on linen, 16 x 24”
count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise,” Maclean writes in his most famous work, 1976’s A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” Less than 30 miles from the locations that inspired these words is Stevensville, Montana, home to painter Brent Cotton, who can relate to Maclean’s sense of time and place amid the famous Big Sky Country. The two men also
share a hobby, fly-fishing. “It’s almost a spiritual thing, staring into a river. It’s slightly hypnotic, like staring into a campfire,” Cotton says. “It’s mesmerizing.” Cotton is one of the rising stars of Western landscapes, where his breathtaking works— equal parts moody observations in a tonalist style and the atmospheric grandeur of luminism—have commanded prominent attention amid a string of successful solo and group shows, and at major events such as the Prix de West in Oklahoma City. His works are dramatically painted and composed, and his sense of color and light reveals a contemporary edge coming out his traditional subject matter.
He pushes the boundaries of what a landscape can do with pockets of hyperintense color, abstract elements that he finds hidden in plain sight, and his effective use of light and time—his paintings are often set so close to sundown that the sun is nearly entirely extinguished; think golden hour plus 45 minutes. The Montana painter nearly wasn’t a painter at all, though. He began his art career as a wood carver, even venturing once into Trailside Galleries—an eventual home for his painted work, just many years later—with a carved steelhead trout, a piece he had worked on for weeks. “At the time I was a hunting and fishing guide, and also a ranch hand. It kept me busy,
and I would divide my time with outdoor work and carving. My bird and fish carvings went hand in hand with my love of the outdoors,” Cotton says from his Montana studio. “I walked in cold, didn’t call or anything, to Trailside with this huge piece and showed it off. They were impressed and offered to buy it, but at a price that was so low I had to say no. The carvings took so long that I figured that I was getting paid about 25 cents an hour. That was the last carving I ever did.” With his brief brush with Trailside and the sting of what felt like rejection on some level now behind him, Cotton began thinking about what was next. Having been in galleries
showing his carvings off, he had taken notice of the painted works, and saw an avenue of opportunity to turn into. He started to explore two-dimensional art in workshops, where he primarily painted what he already knew so much about, wildlife. He showed promise, and artist Christine Verner took notice and later invited him to her Oklahoma ranch where he could hone his skills as a painter. Upon his return to Montana, Cotton began to dial in his own unique style, one that he admits was created by seeing what he liked and didn’t like and playing around with the paints. “A lot of it was trial and error,” he says. “I was trying to find my voice.”
Riverdusk, oil on linen, 20 x 30”
A major breakthrough came after a series of forest fires tore through the Montana landscape. Cotton went to the devastated patches of forest and put paint to canvas. “As bad as those fires were, they really allowed me to experiment with that moody, atmospheric and tonalist kind of painting I’m doing today,” he says. “I began to focus on form, light and mood, and I just continued to pursue it. I was asking myself, ‘How do I separate myself from everyone else?’” He further developed his unique style after a move to Hawaii, to Maui’s Upcountry, where he lived 4,000 feet up a volcano, with sightlines that would lead out over the Pacific and down onto picturesque beaches. “Every afternoon the clouds would build and then they would descend down the volcano and we would be completely submerged in clouds—moody and mysterious and foggy and the light would shine through in interesting ways,” he says. “It reinforced all the work I had been developing at
that point. Before it was fire-damaged forest in smoke and clouds, now it was mist. It allowed me to play around with a more tonalistic type of painting. I was really drawn to it. It really sucked me in, and it was kind of a spiritual style of painting. And it really solidified me as a tonalist painter, even though I don’t see myself as a purely tonalist painter today.” Not only did he discover his voice in Hawaii, he also met his wife, Jennifer, who was also a Montana resident living in Hawaii’s tropical splendor. The couple would eventually return to Montana, where they are now raising their two children, and where Cotton continues to draw inspiration from the landscape, whether it’s his favorite fishing spots in winding streams or snowy winterscapes with panoramic views of the Bitterroot Mountains. “I feel blessed every day that I get to walk to the studio and just create,” the painter says, adding that each artist’s particular struggle is what defines who they are. “The agony and
Early Summer, oil on board, 20 x 30”
ecstasy of creating a piece is the driving force. It calls to me. Everything you have to overcome ends up informing you as an artist.” Cotton’s newest works are variations of his tonalist and luminist themes. And many of them feature a solitary figure fly-fishing in the haze and atmosphere of his painted light—Maclean would be proud. In Solitude of the River, the painting is keyed in on this glorious yellow light that floods the horizon in a late evening fantasy that seems to stop time except for the tumble of the water on the rocks and the whipping motion of the fisherman’s pole. He revisits this figure in the brilliantly focused vignette of Morning Rhythm, which zooms in from the landscape to
reveal a more intimate moment and also some of Cotton’s methods—“90 percent palette knife, 10 percent brush,” he says. In works such as The Valley Awakens and Early Summer, Cotton takes abstraction—in shape and color—and draws attention to its frequent place in nature with converging lines, complementing forms arranged neatly on his axis of fading light and, in Early Summer, with two telephone poles emerging from Montana’s grasslike derelict boat masts revolting from the rising tide. “I love to design the painting, particularly the flow of a painting, as it captures my eye. Usually it’s light that pulls me in, a
spark of something with some backlighting or sidelighting, or just something with an interesting lighting effect,” he says, adding that George Inness and Winslow Homer have inspired his compositions greatly. “From there I can capture the essence of the scene in a subtle way that’s not contrived. I enjoy those intimate scenes that are a little bit closer up and less wide-open vistas. The quiet scenes allow your eye to relax through the scene and take in the paint. That’s why waters and rivers lend themselves so well to my work.” Western painter Nancy Dunlop Cawdrey, a fellow Montana artist, owns several of Cotton’s works and has painted with him before. “What
Morning Rhythm, oil on linen, 6 x 8”
Autumn Memory, oil on linen, 8 x 10”
he does with a palette knife, creating that essence of light, is just extraordinary. People respond to the feeling that he puts into the spirit of a place—he captures that,” Cawdrey says. “He can make his paints sing. And yet, he’s such a modest guy who takes great pride in going out for first light or last light or to see how the sun shines through the trees or off the surface of water. He’s really devoted to capturing subjects in his own unique way.” Today, Cotton’s works can be seen in museum exhibitions, a number of important Western collections and in several major galleries including Trailside Galleries in Jackson, Wyoming; Sportsman’s Gallery in Charleston,
South Carolina; Samarah Fine Art in Whitefish, Montana; and Huey’s Fine Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And while his work circles the country with increased interest and acclaim, Cotton himself still prefers the rivers and streams of Montana over anything else. “Being near the water is just good for the soul, whether you’re fishing or not. It’s a creative recharge to be there and take it all in,” he says. “I get to be immersed in nature and all the peace it provides. The water, the light, the symphony of birds in the sky—all of it is a place I can escape into. I will never tire of painting it because there’s so much for me still to explore.”
Painter Brent Cotton near his Montana home.