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Interview : Harley Brown

(Rachna Singh in conversation with Harley Brown, a renowned Canadian Artist ) 

The Wise Owl talks to Harley Brown, a Canadian artist best known for his realistic and beautiful depictions of Native Americans in traditional dress. Harley Brown was raised in the Canadian town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. In his teen years, his family moved to Calgary, Alberta where Harley attended the Alberta College of Fine Art and began to draw and paint the Old West. He has been a member of the Prix de West since 1977 and is also a member of Cowboy Artists of America. Harley Brown has received many accolades and awards in a number of national art events.

Harley Brown loves to share his knowledge and has conducted innumerable workshops in the US and aboard. He has illustrated several national magazines and authored numerous articles on art techniques. He has authored three books which have become bestsellers, namely ‘Confessions of a Starving Artist’, ‘Harley Brown’s Eternal Truth for Every Artist’ and ‘Harley Brown’s Inspiration for Every Artist.’

Thank you so much Harley for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We are delighted that you could take time out of a packed schedule to talk to us.

RS: Your artwork is beautiful. Our readers would be eager to know about your journey as a creative artist. When did you first realise that you wanted to be an artist? Were there any special people in your life who encouraged you to follow your Muse?

HB: My love of art began at the age of seven; I remember the moment so well. My father was an artist and one morning, he brought out a few of his drawings. He was showing them to me and one totally grabbed my eyes. The moment I saw it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And that feeling never left me right to this moment I’m writing these words. 

From then on, every day, I filled page after page with drawings. My dad was teaching me perspective, shadows, colour, form, design. My young mind seemed to understand immediately what he was showing me.  

As the years went by, in grade school and high school, my thoughtful teachers understood my obsessions and went along with me. Once in a while they’d give me money to go see a movie in afternoons if the film had anything to do with art or music. (I was also learning the piano.) It all worked out because I passed all my grades and graduated. 

My dad and his art and my observations of the great classic artists was powerfully flowing into my fledgling mind. Allowing me to create two-dimensional art from 3D reality. 

After high school the story takes on some interesting and often bizarre twists and turns. 

RS: Did you face any obstacles in the pursuit of your creativity? Tell us a little about how you overcame these problems.

HB:  At my early age, starting out in the Art World, everything was brand new, and “obstacles” seemed to be part of where I was going…I got used to them. I was kicked out of art college; galleries didn’t want my works; I was wondering what subjects to paint; technical skills needed a whole lot of developing.

Strangely, one thought stayed in my mind: get a peddler’s license and go door to door selling my art. I got it and started knocking on doors. First day… no sales. Yet what gave me a total positive lift was this: I was a full-fledged artist for the rest of my life. No Matter What!  That gave me strength beyond belief. And by golly, I got a sale at the 35th house. Doing a profile drawing of the lady’s son. Payment: $1. True. That one sale led to others.

Yes, there were 'obstacles' and plenty of them. At the same time, they didn’t affect me negatively any more than a contractor building a house or sailing a ship across the sea. It all became normal each day. Of course, if there was a sale or I did an art piece that really inspired me, oh yes, I had joy. No matter what happened in my art, there was never a feeling of failure or sadness.

I learned right from the start to fix my mind onto what was important… and that was my life would be art. I’ll mention here that there were a few other things over the years needing that “Fixed Mind” and it surely worked. And this is so important, my dad said to me many times: “make your mind up on something positive and no matter what, stick with it.” I’ll now pass his words on to others.

Back then, I had to have solutions to unexpected moments. Perhaps a difficult customer, the necessary business end, finding a gallery., developing my technical approach with art; finding subjects to paint; trying to make a living with family. I was 'learning on the job.' All the while, my life as an artist has been wonderfully inspiring.

RS: You have made a name for yourself as an artist that excels in the depictions of Native Americans in traditional dress. Our readers would be curious to know about the inspiration behind these portraits.

HB: Actually, I began portraying Aboriginal peoples starting in my late teens in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. That part of Alberta has many First Nation villages. I lived a few blocks from one major tribe, and I’d often visit, enjoying times with them constantly. Also, annually many Aboriginal tribes would come to the world-famous Calgary Stampede celebrations. They would set up camp right where the Stampede events happened. I was always there, sketching them or photographing them for later in my studio; this continued for many years.

My admiration for First Nation and their traditions continues. I have often been to their reserves in Alberta and Montana and joined in their powwows. Something that has certainly stayed with me all this time has been to keep their traditional clothing, beadwork and headdresses accurate. I often think of how inspiring this part of my art journey has been. Over six decades portraying these grand individuals. Each child and each adult, so heartening…so memorable.

RS: Your works are mostly pastels. What drew you to this medium?

HB: I had worked with charcoal and pencil drawings and oil paintings while in art college. But had never tried pastel. One day, I was in an art store and saw a small set of pastels. I didn’t think I’d get into them, but they were there, for sale. I bought them, came home and put them on a studio shelf.

Then one day, I had no pressing projects and thought, okay, let me see what these pastels can do. I got a piece of regular drawing paper and had a few sheets under it for padding. Clipped them onto a board on my easel. I then opened the pastel box with about 20 sticks in it; placed them onto my side table.

I grabbed the sienna and started laying down a few strokes just to get the feel of what they could do. I can say here and now that after about one minute, I was literally, totally hooked. I loved how they responded to my hand movements. How I could lay one colour on top of the other. Rub with my fingers. Put in small details, fill large areas. My skills and emotions combined, and I remember smiling, my eyes glazed with delight.

Yes, I continue doing some commissioned oil portraits, etc. but pastel and I have a lifetime love affair. I can say to this day, holding a pastel stick and laying a stroke onto special paper still excites me beyond description. Pastels are a major part of my existence… like eating and breathing. 

RS: Please tell us a little about your creative process from the time an idea strikes you to the finished work. How do you decide on a subject to paint, what medium to use, what paper or colours to use…

HB: With Art, like music, writing, acting, sports, all of life, we often don’t mind taking chances; going off route. I’ve always enjoyed creating a variety of subjects on paper, from burros to sailing boats. Still, through all these many decades, my main artistic love is portraying people. Even on an airplane, I might see the profile of a passenger across the isle, with a certain aura and interesting lighting. My sketch pad is out and I’m at it. 

And this feeling happens when I have a specific person I’m going to portray. I’ll walk around her, carrying a stage light and ask her if she would move about. Then there’s the moment that hits me and I’ll quickly ask if she would 'hold that pose.' I bring my easel over and the creating starts with her genuine, natural 'pose.' 

As painting subjects, women are classically inspiring in any way they personally want to “pose.” This has been true for centuries past and will be, forever into the future. 

I’ll often take a multitude of photos of subjects thanks to today’s amazing cameras. What mostly happens is that the “model” will relax with some very interesting photos taken. I’ll study them later in a calm atmosphere. My conscious mind concentrates on just what photograph will work. At the same time, my instinctive inner mind knows which photograph will be best. That inner mind is brilliantly there within us all. Our outer conscious mind is the conductor, and our subconscious plays the music. 

Most of the time, I work with pastel. Pastels and I are fully connected aesthetically. Once in a while, conte or pencil on white paper. For my pastels, I’ll generally get a special pastel paper that’s an off-white colour like a light sienna or a light warmed grey. I have different coloured pastel sheets of paper in my studio shelves. Often, I’ll randomly pull out any one of them. That’ll immediately start my artistic mind moving.

I have the pastels on a table right next to me by the easel. Again, my intuitive self will grab a colour and get going. That hue may or may not influence the next pastel stick I get. I don’t go wacky during this time; I know what I’m after but also, I allow my life of art affect my artistic trip. Like playing a jazz solo on the piano. The basics with the interpretations. 

Finishing an art piece needs an understanding. There are times near the end when I decide to redo an area and for good reason. There are other times, I’ll put the piece aside for a day or two, then come back to see it fresh. That might reveal some parts that need extra work and other parts to leave alone. Or don’t touch any of it! Finished.  

Experience is a great teacher in “knowing when to quit.” Leave it be. Still, once in a while I’ll see my work on a gallery wall and spot some detail on it that needs fixing. Generally, I smile within at my fussy nature.

All my life, being an artist has been a blessing that has kept my mind young and mostly filled with joy. Any kind of 'creating' is an important part of being. 

RS: Are there any artists (old masters or contemporary artists) that inspire you? What is it about the work of these artists that attracts you?

HB: Throughout my life, many artists have inspired me. During my childhood and onward, it was my father, showing me his marvellous artworks. He got me drawing and understanding the basics and skills needed to create art.  

I continually wondered how certain artists brought to life particular subjects on canvas, examining details in their works. The clouds in the sky, that running horse, the highlights on a face. Colours, shapes, designs, the passion for creating. 

And at that time, Rembrandt was a special inspiration and influence. His great paintings capturing the shapes of forms and shadows with soft, hard and lost edges, composed masterfully, working his brush stroke by stroke. The same with Degas, Cassatt, Sargent, Sorolla, Repin…and many more. All were 'influences' in the same way that my surrounding world helped me understand life and encouraged my part in it. And I will add here that as the years carry on, we artists become ever more individual. So much so that each of us accomplish works that are totally recognizable creations. “Ah, there’s one of Harley’s over there on that wall.” 

Yes, all the artists I’ve admired then and now are quite different from one another, even painting similar subjects. Like listening to Renee Fleming sing “Ava Maria” then hearing it sung by Maria Callas.  Both uniquely different and memorable. 

The artworks of all the historic artists have not gotten 'old' over the many years. The 'Mona Lisa' portrait continues to get our attention and her particular expression will fascinate viewers a thousand years from now. Rembrandt’s self-portraits bring him alive as if he was sitting beside me, asking me how my day went. 

Who is history’s best artist? I remember an old movie where a musician was asked: “Who is the best composer of all time?” 

The musician answered: 

“Amongst the greats, there is no best.” 

That can be said about all the greats in all The Arts. 

There have been many inspiring times in my life’s journey. With the many artists I’ve known from my early years right to this very day.  

Back when I was starting my career, many artists I eventually met were living in New York, doing art pieces for magazine covers, wide ranges of illustrations and major film productions. In the late 1960s many of them as well as well-known portrait and landscape artists moved West to Arizona where I was living. It was my good fortune that they began to have their artworks in the same galleries as me. That’s when I would get to know them and build close friendships.  

During those times, large groups of us went out and painted together with landscapes, animals, old structures and individuals who were more than willing to pose for us.  Once in a while, I was with artists who painted only animals; I was happily into it with them. So much of the time, we eagerly painted whatever inspiring subject that was in front of us. We would often travel to areas that were quite challenging and we couldn’t wait to set up our easels and lay oil strokes onto canvas. Our artistic energy had no limits.

Each evening after painting all day, we’d get together and talk about what we just created, explaining what we had in mind with our works. This went on for wondrous years of my life. So many of those artists I was with were, and are, absolutely Well Known and in the Great Masters category. Something that was a true dream in my early years with hopes it would someday come true. It sure did. 

I can say we were in an art world that affected all of us in such positive ways. We would each paint with our own particular approach, but we also pushed ourselves creating works that were beyond what was familiar to us. Unbelievably uplifting. It motivated our minds and spirits as we were relentless in expanding our observations and originality within our art. I’m so thankful that being together with these artists was a big part of my life in the most genuine and heartfelt ways. 

RS: You have written 3 bestsellers on your art techniques namely ‘Confessions of a Starving Artist',
‘Harley Brown’s Eternal Truth for Every Artist’ and ‘Harley Brown’s Inspiration for Every Artist.’ You also generously share your knowledge with others. What is the most important advice you would like to give art wannabes or upcoming artists?

HB: A few decades ago, I had a talk with one of my mentors. He showed me so much of the real basics of art. Basics that work with portraits, figures, landscapes, still-lifes, anything in realism. He said  to me something I truly held on to. He told me that with all I’d discovered and learned: “Harley, pass on to other artists what you’ve learned and know in art.” Within a short while, I started doing workshops that went on for many years.

I never believed in competing with other artists. If there’s any competing it is with myself. While I’m on the subject, I’m happy for other artists when they win awards. I’ve gotten a few. We’re happy for each other.

Every day, take a short while to draw from life. Valuable moments. 

If there’s an error in a drawing or painting, fix it right away. Or it will effect other areas.

If an artwork doesn’t sell, keep on going. Nothing should get in your way.

An artist to remember here: Vincent Van Gogh.

Once in a while, create something different. And never forget: Art Keeps Us Young. 

A master’s words to me when I asked him for a final thought about art. He said: “DESIGN”

Thank you so much Harley for speaking to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your creative endeavours and hope you give us more of your beautiful work to cherish and treasure.

Art Work of Harley Brown

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24"x 20"


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Walking Buffalo


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The Journey Begins



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Young Dancer

14" X 10"


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Left Hand

Conté 20"x16"


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The Audition
22" x16"

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