feature By: Jeff Nedwick | April, 18
“Most wildlife art is exactly the opposite of a masterpiece. You feel you’ve seen it a thousand times before;
yet another mallard, yet another wolf, yet another chickadee.
And it looks as if it’s been done with a lot of effort – every single hair or every single feather.”
– Robert Bateman
Every artist aspires to create a masterpiece, a statement so eloquently expressed that it leaves viewers feeling they have seen the familiar for the first time. The challenge lies in turning the ordinary – a game bird or a hunting dog – into something extraordinary, something that calls to mind a forgotten memory. This is precisely the aim of wildlife artist Leah Brigham.
Brigham’s oil paintings evoke a deep sense of nostalgia and tradition, a yearning for upland bird hunts of past generations. Their appeal lies in the ability to transport the observer to a simpler place and time, when hunting success had as much to do with the number of stories to share as it did the number of birds harvested.
One of her personal favorites – “Still Life” – depicts a harvest of one grouse and woodcock alongside vegetables and cooking utensils. When viewing the piece, one can imagine a lone hunter, returning from an afternoon spent in a familiar aspen stand on a cool fall afternoon, grateful for a dinner’s ration. Its beauty is in its simplicity: a subtle reminder that hunting success can’t be measured in social media “likes.”
Like many artists, Brigham often taps the roots of her personal experiences for inspiration. For example, the cover illustration for this issue of The Upland Almanac grew from time spent in the woods long ago as she cut her upland hunting teeth on ruffed grouse, often hunting them with her father in the Pennsylvania woods near her childhood home. “I grew up loving ruffed grouse. It was my dad’s favorite bird,” she says.
It’s no accident that Brigham’s paintings tease the imagination of the viewer. Every painting strikes a balance between detail and abstraction: detail to focus the viewer’s attention on the primary elements of the painting and abstraction to suggest – but not dictate – the context.
To break from the “painting every single hair or feather” photorealistic technique she employed early in her career, Brigham uses painting knives instead of brushes when abstraction is desired. Painting with knives is a bit like frosting a cake. She loads paint onto a flexible, metal-bladed knife in generous portions and then applies it to the canvas in smooth, broad strokes. The shapes and sizes of the knives vary to achieve the desired effect: large blades for smooth, flat areas like water or sky and smaller blades for reflections or groups of trees. Varying the direction and angle of the blade relative to the canvas provides additional nuances. Compared to painting with brushes, the overall effect is imprecise and nebulous.
Brigham’s knife work blurs the edges and encourages viewers to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps.
“It was different at first,” says Brigham. “A feeling that I was losing control. But it really changed the way I do things. I no longer paint every blade of grass. I paint a field of grass and give it some knife work so you can see the grass without actually painting it all.”
Another of Brigham’s paintings – a portrait of a Brittany – illustrates this point well. The detailed brushwork in the dog’s head and shoulders contrasts with the brightly colored knife work used on the young growth forest and grass in the background. The forest and grass could be a stand of young birch trees on county forestland in Wisconsin or a clearing of tag alders in a Michigan Grouse Enhancement Management Site, but their real identity and location exist solely in the imagination of the viewer.
To further focus the attention of the viewer, Brigham added even more detail to the dog’s eyes. The overall effect is a sense of heightened intensity in the dog’s gaze, an intensity that lingers in the imagination long after the eyes have left the painting.
Capturing such intensity requires familiarity with the subject matter, and familiarity requires access. Unfortunately, being present at the precise moment a dog goes on point or a covey of quail flushes is difficult. Brigham overcomes this challenge with a little help from her dogs, especially an English pointer named Ch. Caladen’s Supremacy – aka “Sue” – that competes in various horseback field trials. Training for field trials allows Brigham to take photographs from horseback to document the expressions, subtle muscle flexes, pauses and changes in direction associated with a dog tracking a bird.
“It’s a different way of seeing a dog. When you’re on foot, you can’t see them 100 yards in front of you.” Since there are thousands of potential dog/bird interactions, any one of which could be an inspiration for a new painting, Brigham attempts to capture as many as possible.
Horseback field trials improve the chances for unscripted bird/dog encounters, but sometimes scripted encounters are a more effective (and certainly more efficient) means of documenting the subject for a new painting. A secondary benefit of field trialing is access to pen-reared birds, which when utilized with a bird launcher, enable Brigham to stage specific interactions.
“I want to see that reaction. I want to see the dog’s expression. It gives a little more connection to the bird,” she says.
Field champion dogs may be ideal for bird hunters, but Brigham finds started or untrained dogs to be some of her more inspiring subjects. These less disciplined dogs provide a wider range of reactions to a flushing bird – some jump, some drop – than fully trained field trial dogs, and their reactions are probably more like what most hunters see in their own dogs.
Different bird species also provoke different reactions in dogs. The startled expression of a setter as a ruffed grouse flushes thunderously under its nose is quite different from the momentary confusion of a pointer as a covey of quail scatters in multiple directions.
“I want to be able to depict that difference in my art,” says Brigham.
Although Brigham’s experience with dogs and dog training have helped hone her skills as an artist, advice and guidance from experts of the two-legged variety have had the biggest influence in her career.
Bubba Wood, manager of Collectors Covey gallery in Dallas, is a frequent sounding board for Brigham and one of the people who encouraged and coached her as she was breaking free of photo-realism. She’s also studied the work of Bob Bertram, the late Robert Abbett and the aforementioned Robert Bateman but is quick to point out, “You have to come up with your own style. I never look at someone else’s work while I’m painting because it’s got to be my work.”
Having painted professionally for only five years, Brigham still views the development of her own unique style or signature as a work in progress. “My main focus is to just get better,” she says. In her relatively short career, her work has already been featured in several publications, including The Upland Almanac and the Ruffed Grouse Society Magazine, and is now on display at Collectors Covey.
Brigham currently teaches art at a middle school in Dallas but eventually plans to make painting a full-time career. Not all great artists are good teachers, but some teachers turn into great artists, and for Brigham, the inspirations and motivations of both teacher and artist are similar.
In painting, there are tipping points or breakthrough moments in the evolution of a new piece. For Brigham, similar moments occur in teaching, e.g., when a student who is struggling to understand perspective correctly identifies the vanishing point. Such “Aha!” moments drive Brigham in both art and education.
“Teachers don’t realize how much they influence their students,” says Brigham.
Although educated as an art teacher, Brigham began her career teaching math and science at an inner city Houston middle school. Shortly after switching to teaching art, she recognized how math and science could be used to help kids understand basic concepts like perspective, vanishing points, basic animal shapes and the spatial relationships between them.
“Using math and science to establish the foundation or basic framework helps break the creative logjam,” she says.
Whether as an educator or an artist, Brigham inspires others to draw upon their inner knowledge or imaginations to see things from a fresh perspective.