A Charcoal Artist
Interview: Rachel Brownlee
(Rachna Singh in conversation with Rachel Brownlee, Nebraska-based Artist )
The Wise Owl is in conversation with Rachel Brownlee, a Nebraska based artist who specialises in extreme high realism large format charcoal artwork. She portrays western life in an honest and even discordant manner because while fine western art is typically pastoral and romanticized, her work contains sometimes unattractive, old horses, and gritty details. She believes that traditional western life and the people and animals involved should be portrayed as they lived which can be rough, dirty, and even painful. Rachel has held several solo exhibitions and won accolades for her work. She was awarded the certificate of Merit in the Luxembourg Art Prize (2021), Best of Show in Mountain Oyster Club Art Sale (2021), Carnegie Arts Centre Anniversary Show (2021), BBAS Art Show (2021) and Nebraskaland Days Competitive show (2021). She also received the Lyn Dietrich Award and People’s Choice Award in the Oregon Trail Days Vera Delaney Show (2021), among others. Her work is available through Settlers West Gallery in Tucson, AZ.
Rachel lives on a large family cattle ranch in Ashby, Nebraska with her husband, daughter, and son. She lives the life she draws and often uses neighbours as models for her work. Her studies come from her own cattle, horses, and daily life on the ranch. Representing this diminishing lifestyle
respectfully is important to Rachel.
Thanks Rachel, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We are delighted to talk to you.
RS: You have a fabulous body of artwork Rachel. I believe you started drawing and sketching when you were just 7 years old and sold a commissioned piece when you were just 9 years old. Our readers would love to know a bit about your artistic journey.
RB: I started drawing as a child. I was home educated along with my six siblings. We had no art education or exposure to artwork. People told me I was good at drawing, but I had no comparison at the time. I drew as a hobby through my teen years and sold a few pieces. I explored getting a graphic design degree in college, but the advisor told me to pursue computer science instead. Not knowing any better, I agreed and completed that degree in 2015. I worked as a software engineer for several years. Occasionally I worked on a piece of artwork throughout college and even though I hadn’t touched it in so long, I was better each time. After getting married and returning to my husband’s cattle ranch in 2016, he encouraged me to start drawing more. I started to sell pieces regularly and do commission work. In 2021 my work was accepted into a major show, and I won the top prize. Since then my work has been in high demand, and I draw full time now.
RS: I believe you are a completely self-taught artist. Were there any artists (traditional masters or contemporary artists) who inspired you and from whom you learnt various techniques of realistic art that you excel in. Did you have any creative mentors who encouraged you to pursue your talent?
RB: My skill really developed in a vacuum. I did not see artwork of any kind until about 2020. We lived in such a rural location that we didn’t have museums, galleries, or art teachers. I remember reading about Leonardo da Vinci in school curriculum and I thought “I could be like that” which is why I pursued writing ambidextrously, and studied technical subjects as well as artistic ones. My sisters were supportive of my work early on. One of them gave me a book about drawing horses and a drawing pencil. It was so special to me that even though I have used up thousands of pencils, I still have the stub of that one pencil!
RS: You are a software engineer by qualification, and I believe have even created cattle management software for large ranches. Your application MooManager was well received. How do you juggle such diverse interests?
RB: Leonardo da Vinci has been my role model since I read about him in history. He promoted the idea of the 'Renaissance Man' who could succeed at all subjects. I think, for me, the idea of software and artwork are both so technical that they aren’t using different sides of the brain as people often say, but they are on the same path of study. Both are black and white, ones and zeroes. I pursue both using math, ratios, scales, studies of proportion. I think that bothers some people who think artwork should be more emotional and free, but it is just a different style of creation.
RS: Your artwork is mostly in charcoal. ‘A Cold Start’, ‘Still Waters” are beautifully done. What attracted you to this medium?
RB: I was never exposed to paint as a child. I may have grown differently in my creative process if I had been. However, I love charcoal. It is kind of a wild medium that a lot of people feel is beyond taming. I developed ways to use it cleanly, some of which surprise other artists because they have never heard of them before. The deep blacks of charcoal allow me to create convincing photo-realistic work that is harder to achieve with graphite. The powdery quality of charcoal allows me to use pencil as well as a brush. In fact, much of my work is now done with a brush and my pieces are technically called paintings instead of drawings.
RS: You also work in ink illustrations encompassing a family name and meaning. What inspired you to work in this sub-genre?
RB: I have always loved the Victorian style of 'sign painting' with floral and decorative attributes. It is a novel break for me to do something like that with the intricate details. I started taking family names and adding the decorations from meaningful items in the family background, whether family history, or occupation, or the meaning of the name and putting it together in a stylized way. It creates really significant pieces for families.
RS: Some of your works have what I would call a philosophical facet. ‘Tenuous Grasp’, 'Content to Breathe’ are some instances of this. What made you so philosophical about life and its ephemeral nature?
RB: My artistic talent is a God-given gift. Each piece is bigger than an image on paper, but is usually a symbol for a much greater idea in line with my respect for the talent God has given to me. I think He creates each of these pieces and uses me to put them on paper. 'Content to Breathe' is a title inspired by Alexander Pope poem. This poem celebrates a life spent working the land, living from the produce of it, and being content with one’s life. Many people working in agriculture could make more money or have an easier life elsewhere, but they
choose the pleasure of living and working the land and deal with the issues of having less. 'A Tenuous Grasp' was a concept I thought of while running one morning. I am a long distance runner; a hobby which fits with the resolute discipline my work requires as well as teaching appreciation of the land, the weather, and the physical body. I dwelt on the concept that our usage of the land is inseparably tied to the amount of wind and rain God sends. We can think that we have control over many things until we reach the problem of too little or too much rain and then we are largely helpless; a tenuous grasp we have
RS: Some of your works are intricately detailed like ‘Church of St John’ or ‘Things Unseen.’ What inspired you to create these pieces?
RB: Painfully intricate detail is my favourite medium. Some artists explore how light creates a beautiful scene, others use shape. I want to show the smallest details possible that make up the essence of a scene. In the case of 'Things Unseen.' I wanted to show every hair on the horse because the horse was unkempt in appearance. That bothers a lot of people, because they fear the horse isn’t well cared for. I would argue that those people haven’t experienced the exhausting, sweaty day’s work that results in an uncombed mane. The argument of pretty versus practical isn’t well shown in fine western art as most artists show the pastoral side of the western life. Each detail, each crack, each hair, each broken leather strap makes up the beauty of my work because it tells the life of fortune and famine experienced over ears. It is the same with the 'Church of St. John' in Ohrid, Macedonia. It has been there for hundreds of years and each rock reveals its story over time.
RS: Our readers would love to know something about your creative process; how you decide on what subject to paint, the preliminary preparation that goes into your work, the final touches etc. How long does it normally take for you finish one piece? The intricately detailed piece like ‘Church of St John’ I believe took 80 hours.
RB: I spend most unoccupied moments thinking about new pieces I want to create. Those ideas
come in dreams or are inspired by a title first, after which I dwell on how to portray the emotion in the title. Then I keep a sketch book where I draw a 2-inch by 2-inch sketch of the image. I have many photographs of ranch life that I consult for reference images of animals or cowboys. Sometimes I find a willing model for a specific pose and photograph them to use as reference images. After that I usually work digitally, creating an image in Photoshop so I can change the lighting and composition many times until I am happy with it. Then I take
my work to cotton rag paper and outline the forms of my piece. Because charcoal is nearly inerasable, I have to be careful to not smear the white on the paper so I work from left to right, top to bottom until the piece is done. I rarely make changes after I start using charcoal. I have to keep my hands washed and any charcoal dust vacuumed as I go so it doesn’t contaminate the rest of the paper. It is vigilant work! Pieces generally take 60 hours and up to 110 hours.
RS: Are you preparing for any exhibitions or participation in shows or art contests in the near future? Our readers/viewers would love to know more details.
RB: I am constantly preparing for shows, especially since most of them have up to three years’ lead time between applying and the event. I am participating in the Luxembourg Art Prize currently, which is a yearlong application of my body of work competing for a large cash prize which will be announced November 2022. I have two shows in November 2022 at the Settlers West Gallery and the Mountain Oyster Club in Tucson, Arizona. Most of my work this year has been in preparation for an exclusive show titled 'Tales of the West' at the Settlers West Gallery next March showcasing the work of five pre-eminent artists of the western art world, plus myself! It is an honour to be included among them.
RS: Would you like to give any advice to upcoming or wannabe artists?
RB: Artwork is subjective. It is up to you the artist to clearly convey the meaning you intend. It is not the fault of the viewer if they cannot ascertain your intent. That applies to modernistic as well as traditional work and concrete as well as amorphous ideas. Find a niche where your work is appreciated and keep working. Produce work constantly and get better at it all the time. Look at work that is not in the style you use and try to figure out why it is successful. You will find unexpected techniques in style, composition, and skill that you can incorporate into your own work.
Thank you so much Rachel for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. It was a delight talking to you about your craft. We wish you the best in all your future artistic endeavours and hope you win all the awards and accolades that you richly deserve.
Art Work of Rachel Brownlee
A Cold Start (2022)
20'' x 29''
Unwanted Hours (2022)
23" x 36"
Still Waters (2022)
19" x 19"
Fencing Rig (2022)
43" x 29"
Church of St. John the Theologian at Kaneo (2021)
16 x 20