Editor’s note: Airstream will host a fine art invitational exhibit of landscape art, May 31-June 5, at its headquarters in Jackson Center. This is one in a series of stories that will profile the artists whose work will be shown.
SIDNEY — Ask painter Tom Brown, of Irvine, California, what one piece of art he would own if he could have anything ever created, and he doesn’t hesitate for a second.
“I do own it,” he shouts triumphantly. “It’s in my hall.” It’s a painting of a moonlit Mount Fuji in Japan, painted by his mother, Dorothy “Dot” Meiners, in the 1920s.
Meiners was the one who “had the good sense to leave me to my own devices and helped (only) when I asked,” Brown said of his beginnings as an artist when he was a very young child.
“My mom died when I was 10 1/2 years old. I miss her every day. (The Mount Fuji painting) is a reminder of her talent. If the house was on fire, it’s the one painting I would grab to save,” he added.
Brown is a third-generation painter. His grandmother was also an artist. His son carries the tradition to the fourth generation.
Although he has been painting almost since he began to walk, Brown was not always a full-time fine artist. He graduated from high school in Erlanger, Kentucky, and studied art in Cincinnati before moving to Chicago for a job in an advertising agency, doing illlustration, design and art direction.
“I did whatever I could do to get paid for making pictures,” he said. He stayed there 25 years and moved to California 30 years ago. His advertising experience has influenced the way he now markets his artwork.
Brown sells small paintings on eBay and how-to ebooks and videos on Etsy for, as he says, “very affordable” prices. He doesn’t do it to make a living. He uses the popular websites for sampling, in the same way cereal companies or laundry soap-manufacturers distribute small-size packages of their products to induce consumers to purchase the full-size versions. Brown has found that commissions for large works come from people who have purchased his small plein air studies on the Internet. His website is www.tombrownstudio.com.
The World Wide Web is also a way to get his paintings before a bigger audience than a gallery can.
“In today’s marketing, you need to establish a broad footprint online,” he said. “I put everything online unless it sells right off the easel.” He has pulled his paintings out of galleries, except for a few that buy his work outright.
“They say, ‘Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door’ — but only if the world knows about it. If a painting is in a gallery, you have to hope that the right person is in that specific place, in that specific gallery and sees it. Now, if you use your head, you can get your work in front of everyone in the world,” he said.
That work is often compared to what is called California Impressionism.
“That’s what I had gravitated to on my own, before I even knew about (California impressionists). When I found them, I realized that’s what I was doing,” Brown said. He admired the art of William Wendt and Albert Ryder.
“It really spoke to me — how loose and bold and gutsy it was, the simplicity they put into a complex scene,” he added.
In his own work, Brown sometimes completes whole paintings using just a palette knife, an instrument without sharp edges, used usually for mixing paint colors on a palette. When a knife is used to apply paint, the paint lies thick on the canvas. Brown uses lots of pencil sketching, as well as brush work, in his paintings, too, and does much of his work “en plein air,” a French term meaning “on location.”
The pieces he creates outside tend to be small.
“You don’t paint large on location, because the sun moves. If you’re working on a painting for four or six hours, that won’t work,” he said. There is also the problem of dealing with a large canvas when it is finished.
“If you’re going to paint large on location, you have to think the way you would if you were doing a bank robbery. You have to plan how to get away with your treasure at the end. A large painting is like a sail in the wind,” he laughed. A painter has to manage to get the wet painting from the easel to the car and then into the car.
Sometimes the subject of Brown’s small painting lends itself to a larger piece and the plein air work becomes the study for something that is created in his studio. But because he works outside so much, he has become a very fast painter.
“Partly it’s a matter of how you approach it,” he noted. “I’m not trying to go fast. It’s that I don’t need more time. The painting is done in your head. You look at the canvas and the painting is done. You grab your brush and go along for the ride.”
He never, however, rushes people who take his workshops and classes. Brown teaches sold-out workshops every week at the Irvine Fine Art Center and for about a year and a half gave lessons via a local television program. The live workshops are especially interactive.
“He’s very sensitive to each student,” said 85-year-old Rose Allen, of Irvine, who has taken Brown’s classes once or twice a week for the last four and a half years. “He’s a good teacher. His art is different from my technique, so I learn his technique, which enhances my way of painting. He respects my way of painting. That’s pretty cool. When we leave the class, we know that we have learned something, but (he’s made it) fun. I like that.”
It’s the fun that keeps Brown at his easel.
“If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. It’s self-indulgence, really,” he said. And one of the most fun things to do is paint Airstream trailers, he confessed.
“I’ve painted hundreds of Airstreams. The first time I saw one, it really grabbed me. I was a teenager. It was so shiny, I had to draw it,” Brown said. He will create a new work specifically for the Airstream Fine Art Invitational exhibit. It will be a representational picture, which he hopes will sell in Jackson Center.
Occasionally, he creates abstract artworks, which he doesn’t show online. Sometimes, his wife, Kay, will peek over his shoulder at a landscape in progress and decide it’s something she’d like to keep.
When he’s not painting, he also likes reading — he’s into Robert Crais books right now — and listening to jazz: Pete Fountain, Leon Redbone, LeAnn Rimes, k.d. lang. He likes good movies. But mostly, “I love being with my wife,” he said. “Whatever we do, we do together. Every day with her is a joy.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.