Rob Brownlee-Tomasso

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Rob Brownlee-Tomasso is a painter who treats his subject matter to a graphic sensibility with black outlines, many layers and uncommon ingredients. He takes an unusual approach to his materials. For him it is all about breaking the usual conventions of art.

Like many artists, as a young person Denton Rob Brownlee-Tomasso was advised to go to school to be trained for his day job and keep his fine art as a side interest. So he studied graphic design at Glassboro State College, now called Rowan University, in southern New Jersey. After many years working for agencies and freelancing he is now putting his primary work focus on large dramatic paintings on unusually shaped canvases. He treats his subject matter to a graphic sensibility with black outlines and a high contrast sense of color with many layers and uncommon ingredients.

Rob Brownlee-Tomasso:
Getting away from art instruction is kind of the reason why my work has gone the direction it has. Not saying that art instruction is bad. But for me, I think, hopefully I got the right amount and then went off on my own.

I enjoyed putting texture into paintings. And I was trying to figure out the best way to put in texture. First it was heavy application of paint. Then it was building up gesso. I finally discovered acrylic medium which is a great way to adhere sand and dirt to canvases. So I started doin' that. It worked itself out that I would collect earth from the subject matter that inspired me.

I went to Italy nine years ago, and was inspired by the Pantheon, [thinking] and well let's collect dirt from around where the Pantheon is, take it home and mix it into the canvas. So that became what I did most of the time. And lately that has progressed that places where I visit I take pictures, do sketches and I collect dirt. There's all kinds of bottles of all kinds of earth all over my studio from all the different places I've gone.

But you can see the color of the soil. So, that also helps with the palette. If I already know what it's going to be like as far as the palette goes when I am looking at the dirt; when I am looking at the dirt I can see how dark it is, how light it is, how muddy it is, if it is sandy. Sometimes it will have little sparkly mica in there, things like that. So it almost rally gives the work a direction just from the start.

I really like using the dark outlines: kind of a stark contrast. A lot of time when I use heavy textures, I'll need to contrast that or make the subject matter stand out more. So, I'll do heavy black lines. And one of the things I've started doing with the layering aspect is riveting, putting separate pieces of canvas, some mixed media kind of things: screws and bolts. And in the past year I've been incorporating branches into the paintings; where actually one or two of the sides of the canvas will be a branch that I procured form the place that inspired me.

One of the things that people usually mention about my work is that my canvases aren't usually rectangular. I'll use different angles. Sometimes I'll use five sides instead of four sides. And, there will be strange angles. And I just think it makes things more interesting. A lot of times I'll work it out in my sketch book. And, I'll decide what the composition is. After I get my subject matter, I'll just draw the shape of the frame around, and try to figure out what the best way to use the composition that way. So it ends up having a lot of weird shaped frames in my canvases.

Rob is considering doing a series on cars after recently visiting Daytona Beach and collecting a gallon of sand there. But he and his wife enjoy hiking and birding so what he sees and finds on the trail continues to inspire his work.

Rob Brownlee-Tomasso:
I'm thinking of switching gears. But there are a couple of really neat bird settings that I'd like that I have, that I'd like… I saw a hooded warbler at, um Cypress Swamp, down near Solomon's. So I have a branch that I collected from there. And I have some sketches of that. So I'd like to do my hooded warbler at some point. But there's… I can always go back to the birds. The birds are so much fun to do: so rewarding. And there might be a different direction to take on the birds. I think, being into birding, and I am not the greatest birder, you know. I am usually thinking about the dirt I am picking up off the trail more than: "What kind of bird is that?"

But I think I will always do birds to a certain extent and the styles will change. I did a series of birds in trees paintings that was inspired by Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely. And I did twelve of those canvases. And I sold several of them. So those were really fun to do and that's kind of why I got back into doing bird paintings. My newer bird paintings a little more realistic. So I am tryin' to think about what direction to go when I eventually get back to doing birds. I might change the style of the subject matter a little bit.

Rob says that most of his creative process begins simply with pencil and paper.

Rob Brownlee-Tomasso:
Well, I'm big into the sketchbook. Pencil sketching for me is everything. But, Ggenerally I don't refine over and over again. I usually, when I build the sketch in the sketchbook, I can usually only do it once and then the painting comes out of it. And I'd say that is true for 99% of my stuff. I do the sketch in the sketchbook and if I like it, it becomes a painting. If I don't then I just turn the page and do something different.

But the sketchbook is a really important part of the process because it keeps your creative mind going. It think if you can draw well with a pencil in your sketchbook, you can do anything as far as art goes. So for me that is the most basic key skill to have. That's to sketch.

For me it's easy to be inspired. I have more ideas than time to paint them. So that's a really cool problem to have. I have dirt from really cool places that I don't know if I'm ever going to make a painting out of. So, I'll sit down and work in the sketchbook. And, when I find something that really clicks, and I think "This is going to be a really good painting, then I'll go ahead and do it. I think an artist, if you are really inspired and motivated you can work under any circumstances. You can figure it out and you can make it work.

Rob has work at the Ouvert Gallery in St. Michael's and participates in the resident artists program at Annmarie Gardens on Solomon Island. You can also see his paintings at Turnbridge Point Bed & Breakfast and The Foundry both in Denton.