Montana artist Brent Cotton, the top winner in the August-September contest of the PleinAir Salon, paints the fantastic moments when the sun and atmosphere conspire to create unbelievable scenes of beauty.
Lead Image: “Willow Morning,” by Brent Cotton, oil on linen, 8 x 8 in.
The piece that won him First Place last month in the PleinAir Salon contest is a good example. “I painted ‘The Awakening Dawn’ early this year for the Prix de West event,” says Cotton. “It was done from a photo from my collection that I had looked at several times, and for whatever reason, this time it jumped out at me. The resulting painting ended up looking nothing like the photograph. The light on the back of the hills was pure invention. That early-morning alpine glow seemed like it would create the moody scene that would take viewers on that path for a walk through the woods.”
But the reason Cotton could depict that striking scene is because he has seen it so many times, and painted from it, too. “I feel very fortunate to live in an area that provides endless inspiration,” says the painter. “I am an avid outdoorsman and spend a lot of time outdoors and in the stream, and I spend a lot of time observing. I used to do a lot more plein air painting. Those early years of working from life played a crucial role for me as an artist, to train my eyes to observe and my brain to recall. The moments that I want to capture, I usually don’t have my camera with me. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to travel far to get great subject matter and be immersed in the landscape here, with vistas and quiet pastoral scenes. A lot of the times that I’m outdoors it’s dusk, twilight — the sweet light time, when the shadows are long and the mist is coming off the river. That mood and atmosphere and drama, that’s really what excites me and gets me excited to get in the studio and capture that.”
The piece was much talked about and was sold on the opening night of the Prix de West, and it was purchased by the chairman of the Prix de West committee. “I was striving to catch some kind of interesting mood and fleeting effect of light,” says Cotton. “That’s what I tried to capture, and I’m glad it resonated with people and struck a chord. I paint what moves me. Fortunately, the things that excite me resonate with the viewers as well, so the feedback and compliments are very gratifying. But honestly, I feel like I’m winging it sometimes. Sometimes a painting works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Cotton also won Best Nocturne in the PleinAir Salon contest. He won it with “Twilight Camp,” a familiar scene for the painter, a devoted outdoorsman. “That is a scene that I have witnessed countless times,” he says. “I liked to tell that little story, a timeless piece that could have been done 100 years ago. I don’t want to date my paintings. I hope that when you look at them you can envision them happening long ago.”
He knows that in his painting he is walking the line between veracity and expressiveness. It’s the challenge of depicting those nearly unreal moments in nature when the colors are truly fantastic. “It’s all about the mood, and trying to achieve that dramatic effect,” says Cotton. “I try make it as accurate as I possibly can. It’s hard to capture in photos, and very hard to capture it en plein air because it is changing so quickly. So it must be done more from memory than anything else. I have to push it a little bit from what is in nature, but that’s OK in art. You can do that and get away with it. I frequently do that, with a lot of backlighting and interesting lighting in general. For me it is trying to create that contrast, making darks a little darker and lights a little lighter. Paints are limited in how bright you can make them, so to fool the eye you have to alter things a bit, make it darker around an element to make the element seem lighter. That is what I seek out, those little effects that we’ve all seen and can relate to — but they are not common.”
Again and again, Cotton expresses gratitude for his life and the land where he lives. “It’s quite a joy to be here where I can observe the rural way of life, the ranching and farming, and see it through an artist’s eyes,” he says. “That is pretty important to me; I grew up in a ranching family. It may seem mundane to some, but it has a beauty. If you seek out that interesting light, it turns the uninteresting into something sublime. I feel like the man living the dream. My studio is a short walk from my house. I shoo the chickens out of the way and chase away the white-tailed deer, and I can pursue my passion and make a living doing it. The accolades that come your way are just icing on the cake.”
The PleinAir Salon consists of six bi-monthly contests, with the First, Second, and Third Place winners of each contest, and the category winners, automatically entered into the annual competition. First Prize in the annual competition is $15,000 cash and the publication of the winning image on the cover of PleinAir magazine, along with a feature story. Second Place earns an artist $3,000 and an article in the digital edition of PleinAir magazine. Third Place yields $1,500 in cash. Three additional finalists win $500. Aside from First, Second, and Third Place overall, categories include Best Oil, Best Pastel, Best Watercolor, Best Acrylic, Best Plein Air, Best Building, Best Figure in the Landscape, Best Floral, Best Landscape, Best Outdoor Still Life, Best Nocturne, Best Water, and Best Artist Under 30.
The winner of each bi-monthly contest is featured in this e-newsletter and profiled on OutdoorPainter.com. In April, the $21,000 in prizes will be awarded to the annual winners at the 2016 Plein Air Convention & Expo in Tucson, Arizona.
The next chance artists have to enter into the contests, and ultimately, for the $21,000 big annual payout, is right now, with the deadline for the October-November contest coming up fast on November 30. For that contest, PleinAir tapped the talents of Jim Peterson, owner of the Mockingbird Gallery in Bend, Oregon, to serve as judge.