“Renaissance Man” — A Rave Review

Tom Brand blends craftsmanship
of Old Masters, contemporary style

by Julie York Coppens, South Bend Tribune, Indiana
December 2, 2001

Painted Lady - Sold Oil painting by Tom Brand
Painted Lady

Getting to know a work of art is a lot like getting to know a person: It takes time, but the process moves a bit more quickly if we ask a few key questions.

Is the medium two- or three-dimensional? Is the subject representational or abstract? Is the treatment classical or contemporary? Are the forms linear, geometric and masculine, or more rounded, irregular and feminine? Is the composition formal or spontaneous? Is the artist dealing with positive or negative space? Is the color palette warm or cool?

OctagonWith the oil-on-panel paintings of Tom Brand, the answers are yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

Brand’s work, now on display at the Colfax Campus Galleries, confounds the categorical mind — and that suits the Michigan City-based artist just fine. Talking by phone from his studio in The Pines, Brand suggested that the title of this particular series, “Past and Present,” reflects the duality found in every square inch.

To begin with, the paintings on masonite — large, smooth surfaces cut to various shapes and set inside frames Brand crafts himself (one octagonal frame actually had a former life as a poker table) — are decidedly contemporary in style, but strikingly classical in technique.

“Very few contemporary painters paint this way,” said Brand, describing his time-consuming method of layering tints and glazes to achieve a luminous saturation of hue. It’s the same way many of the Renaissance painters worked, back when the creation of art was a much slower and more meticulous proposition than it tends to be today. “I’ve got the patience,” added Brand, a 74-year-old retired printer. “I’ve got the time.”

Even so, he often has four or five paintings in the works simultaneously, so that one might progress while another one dries between coats. With all the paintings, the first layer is a ridge-filling primer of shellac, then come the hues. The forms take shape gradually and without much planning on Brand’s part.

“I may start out with a very, very general idea,” he said — although some of the paintings, including the extraordinary “Painted Lady” (inspired by a species of butterfly) and “Cuban Interval,” an intensely rhythmic composition suggestive of an urban travelscape, are somewhat more specific. Several pieces seem to be the harmonious results of experiments in form, perspective and, especially with the circular “Tondo” paintings, composition.

“Obviously, the paintings are abstract, but I hope that the forms and shapes I use are provocative enough to gain your attention and perhaps to hold it,” Brand said.

With each painting, whether round, square or octagonal, the artist forges a clear optical path through the irregular forms, ensuring that the viewer’s experience will be dynamic but also coherent, ordered but also lively.

“It’s like the old saying, art is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent plain old labor. As I work, the paintings evolve,” Brand explained. “The act of creation is a give-and-take kind of thing. Sometimes you change your mind.”

Being open to these changes — and to the risks that come with them — can make the difference, he added, between a painting that lives and breathes and one that merely hangs.

“I hope my work shows that I’m having a good time doing it,” Brand said. “In a way, it’s very playful.”

A completed painting (“I know it’s done when I frame it,” Brand said, laughing) gets varnished and, finally, waxed. The finished product is much more durable than a typical painting on canvas, he said — a durability belied by the paintings’ subtle texture.

“I try to strike a balance between rough and smooth, between warm and cool — these are all aesthetic things you shoot for if you’re a trained artist,” said Brand, who trained himself years ago at the academy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Marriage, the raising of five children and the necessity of a steady income drove Brand to put his painterly ambitions on hold for much of his adult life; now, he said, he feels as though he’s making up for lost time. Brand plays hard — sailing and car racing are his two biggest hobbies — and he works hard, painting almost every day for hours at a stretch.

“When you get to be my age, you think, ‘I’ve got to do a couple hundred more paintings before I leave this mortal coil,’ ” he said, laughing a little. But the only recognition he seeks, Brand added, is that of his peers in the artistic community and, perhaps, a few viewers who know how to ask the right questions and who can savor the contradictions in Brand’s answers.

“I’m not going after the brass ring of popularity at all,” he insisted. “The point is, I enjoy doing it.”

Staff writer Julie York Coppens: (219) 235-6281
© Copyright 2001 South Bend Tribune. All rights reserved.

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