Brent Cotton’s paintings have won national awards, including “Arts for the Parks top 100” and the CM Russell Museum CEO Award, and hang in prestigious collections. The following interview by Bill Muhlenfeld captures the quest and personality of this man. For more info, see www.cottonfinearts.com.
What piece are you working on right now, and what is your inspiration for it?
We recently returned from an annual family trip to the Selway River in Idaho. This rugged country and beautiful gin clear water inspired the piece I’m currently working on. It depicts two fishermen by a campfire near a deep emerald green pool. With this work, I’m striving to capture the depth and clarity of the water and the solitude that the fishermen are experiencing along that amazing river.
Tell us your earliest memory of painting something you were pleased with.
My earliest painting memory is going to my grandmother’s house and painting with watercolors at her dining room table. I was probably five or six years old at the time. I remember doing a tractor painting with big dark curls of smoke pouring out of the smokestack that I was particularly proud of.
You spent several years as a hunting and fishing guide in Alaska and Idaho before you took up painting as a career. What were the influences of that experience?
After I graduated from high school and was deciding my next move, I was torn between my love of art and the outdoors. I thought being a guide would allow me to work in the country that I love and also serve as inspiration for my art in the off-season. I still refer to those sketches and journals that I did when I was guiding, and my love of wild unspoiled places has remained strong and serves as constant inspiration for my art.
What is the creative process like for you?
It usually starts with a spark of an idea, whether I’m witnessing a beautiful moody scene in front of me or gazing at a photograph. I analyze the subject and decide what it is that captures my interest, what moves me and why. Then it is a matter of how to convey that to the viewer. I try to narrow the scene or subject down to its essence, focusing on the important elements such as light, mood, composition, etc. and leaving out the extraneous detail. I will quite often invent the mood and light if I feel I can do it convincingly. Some of my works are created completely out of my head but usually I have some sort of photo reference that I’ll use as a starting point. I work in oils almost exclusively and with a variety of techniques.
Your art has a certain nostalgic, almost “dreamy” feel to it. There is also a sense of solitude, of a certain peacefulness. Do you consciously strive for those elements in your work?
Those elements certainly are important to me and I do work with those in mind. I want to create works that people can escape into, can grow with, and that touches them not only visually but emotionally and spiritually as well. I paint what moves me and hopefully will move the viewer too. Some of my best pieces have evolved quite differently from what I had envisioned initially, so I like to let the piece do the directing sometimes. This can also fail spectacularly.
When you find a difficult moment while painting, how do you work to get past it?
I have learned to view the paintings I’m struggling with as a growing experience and realize those difficult pieces sometimes are necessary to push me to another level. In the past when I was frustrated with a piece I’d scrape it down and start over. Now I’m better about setting it aside and coming back to it later with a fresh eye and new perspective.
Which of your works has meant the most to you?
The paintings of my wife and kids are very special to me and hard to part with. Most of those stay in my personal collection. A painting I did titled Evensong was a pivotal piece in my career. It pushed me in a new direction, was a multiple award winner in a national show, and opened many doors for me with various prestigious galleries. It was also inspired by a time and place where I’d proposed to my wife and I wish I’d hung onto it!
What single person has inspired you most in your painting career?
I’m afraid I can’t answer that question with just one single individual, as I’ve had many influential people in my life. Starting with my parents who were extremely supportive and were patient with me while I got my career going and never told me I was chasing a pipe-dream. My grandmother, who was a talented watercolorist, was my first art instructor. In high school I had a wonderful art teacher who also encouraged me to develop my skills and pursue a career in fine art. Another very inspirational person has been my friend and mentor Christine Verner from Oklahoma. I can’t forget my wife, Jennifer, who is my biggest fan and critic; I wouldn’t be where I am without her.
Your collectors include people like Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey and Brent Musburger. Are you surprised by the interest in your work, and your own success?
I’ve been very fortunate to have my work collected by amazing people both well known and unknown. It’s been a joy for me to get to know the folks that collect my work and develop some wonderful friendships along the way. The level of interest in my work is still surprising and humbling to me.
How do you measure success in your art?
For me being able to pursue my passion of creating art, and being able to support my family by doing it is my definition of success. One barometer I have is setting and reaching my professional goals. I recently received two phone calls on the same morning inviting me to the ‘Prix de West Exhibition’ (pretty much the Super Bowl of western art) and the ‘Northwest Rendezvous Group’ exhibition in Helena. Both are extremely prestigious shows and ones I’d been shooting for since I started painting. That was a morning I won’t soon forget.
Just where do you believe your artistic impulse is now taking you?
It’s interesting how my inspirations change as I grow and mature. When I started painting I was drawn to photo-realistic wildlife, and from there I gravitated toward plein-air landscapes of rugged peaks and pristine wilderness. At this point in my career I’m inspired to create moody, timeless, landscapes and sporting art with a spiritual feel. I ultimately see myself moving more into figurative type works where the human element is more prominently featured in the landscape. We’ll see.
Which deceased artist from any age do you admire the most? (Why?)
There are many artists that I admire greatly, but none more than Michelangelo. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how important his work has been to the world. Standing in front of the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica was moving beyond words and still gives me goose bumps thinking about it. In my opinion that is the most beautiful piece of art ever created.
How do you spend your time when you are not painting? What do you do to relax and enjoy life?
Spend time with my lovely wife and kids. We have a four year old daughter and a two year old son. Another of my passions is fly-fishing, and you’ll often find me standing in one of the local rivers with a fly rod in my hand or rowing my drift boat. My wife likes to say that I’m a full time fly-fisherman who takes a little time off now and then to paint. I’m also an avid archer and love to hunt with my traditional longbow and wood arrows. I’m truly a blessed man to live, work, and play in the beautiful Bitterroot area.
What makes you laugh?
My kids—I love to watch their antics and their personalities develop. I also love to kick back with a good local micro-brew and share a laugh with friends, talking art, fishing, hunting, and life in general.
What one sentence best describes Brent Cotton?
I’m just an ordinary guy who wakes up every day grateful for the blessings and simple gifts I’ve been given.
Thanks, Brent! - DM