Meet Lew Brennan, an artist who lives and breathes life in rural Australia. His art reflects the landscape and the people that surround him each day.
What is your earliest memory of horses?
There was a new invention that captured everyone’s attention when I was a little kid…it was television. I can remember putting my blanket over the armchair and tying string around the arm while I watched some of the early cowboy shows. Old movies that weren’t old back then, and shows like Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, The Texas Rangers, Sugarfoot, even Zorro, they all had horses. All were in black and white of course. I was about 4 years old and there is a box brownie photo in my Mum’s album, of me on the armchair. I also have a vague recollection of both the ice man and grocery man coming around to everyone’s house on the street in a horse and cart. I am showing my age a bit here, but that’s how it was in Brisbane back in those days (I think around 1959). For some strange reason I was locked on to the horses and American Indians for ever after and I still have a drawing somewhere of running horses that I did in about grade 6 or 7.
What does riding or being with horses mean to you?
My actual riding experience started with my girlfriend, and later my wife, Maurene who was a pony club girl and who’s family had a farm at Redland Bay and also here at Cooran (QLD) where we later moved and settled. Maurene and I met at high school in Brisbane. I soon learnt to ride and my weekends were spent mustering the cattle and doing the farm chores – a great learning experience that I loved. We were married at 22 and the farm soon became our life. We moved up to Cooran and lived in the old run down farm house that was on a lean, had a leaky roof, wood stove and wood chip water heater. It was the beginning of our new life and our farming adventures, of which horses became a huge part for the next 35 years. Horses and cattle were our life, 24/7.
What have horses taught you the most?
Horses taught me more than I can put into words. The relationship that you can have with these magnificent animals still blows me away. To think that these massive intelligent animals are prepared to work with humans on the level that they do, is one of the world’s great wonders, and pleasures.
Lucky for me I met a guy on the building sites who was an amazing horseman and lived in Traveston, the next little town from us. Russell McEwan was his name and he taught me an incredible amount of horsemanship over about ten years, not only handling and riding, but health and care tricks that were really ‘old school’ and largely forgotten in the modern world. He taught me how to break and train horses, how to get them working cattle, while all the time learning how to relate to your animals in the most intimate way. At some point you just become one with your horse. It comes from time and passion. We were both breeding Quarter Horses and raising cattle. He still is. We leased property together, worked in construction together and we either worked or talked horses and cattle all day, seven days a week. Maurene was always with the horses too and would often take them to local shows on the weekends.
How did the ‘Equus Suite’ project come about?
Equus was a natural outcome from both my lifelong love and commitment to my art, and of course the horses that had been such a big part of our lives. From the early 80’s I was exhibiting in galleries around the Sunshine Coast and always had a rural bent to my art. After too many years balancing a busy life of construction, farming, small business, politics and art as well as Maurene and I raising a family, it was time to jump off.
In 2012 we made a major change and I focused on my art wholly and solely. I soon discovered that with the internet and new media tools like Instagram, the whole world was able to see my art and that out there in the world, were millions of people who loved horses, farm life, country values and realist art. So away I went. No longer did I have to wait for someone to walk into a gallery on the coast who happened to like horses and realism, and have some money to spend. Equus was a little packaged portfolio of drawings and paintings of horses in my own hyper-realist style, with which I set out to capture the emotion of the horse and transfer it to the viewer as if they were actually together.
What was the most challenging part of this project?
Aside from the technology part of things (which I get help with), there really wasn’t too much of a challenge. It was more about trusting my own artistic ability; setting higher standards for myself and finding the reference material I wanted to work from. I began searching the world for photographers who captured what I wanted to draw and paint. Then I had to contact them and ask to buy their work as well as the copyright to do my drawing or painting. It took some time. I tried to take my own photos but I was unsuccessful at capturing that powerful emotive moment, and access to wild horses wasn’t easy. After some time I found a girl in Northern California who treks into the remote areas of Nevada and takes photos of a band of horses that have been running wild since the Spanish invaded America. This was a dream come true, and we have had a great working relationship for years now. I’ve also found two other girls who are excellent equine photographers who I am now working with – one with racehorses and the other with polo ponies.
What was the most rewarding part of this project?
The Equus portfolio will be ongoing. I love drawing and painting horses in my own style and they are such a popular subject. I even did a New York street scene recently with a horse in it. The reward is doing what I love doing all day, every day and having it respected by thousands of people. What could be better than that?
I just love seeing people gobsmacked when they see one of my pieces in the flesh. I’ve seen people get teary, I’ve had a little old lady tell me she could smell that horse, I’ve had lots of people say they can see the horse breathing, I’ve had so many people stop and stare and say “Oh F@#k”. I love all of that. It’s the transfer of emotion that really gives me a reward.
What painting in your collection are you most proud of? I would love to hear the story behind this image and why you love it so much.
That’s a really tough question…if my latest drawing or painting isn’t my favourite then I get disappointed. For me as the artist, it’s not only about the finished image but it’s also about how you put it together. I’m always trying to push the materials and myself further, without losing the desired emotive outcome. That’s what life in the Studio is all about – constantly pushing and testing my skills and mental strength. It sounds a bit over the top I know, but some of these pieces take hundreds of hours and your mind can do strange things in an effort to take the easy way out. It’s a mental resilience test as well as a technical thing.
Anyway I think ‘Big Boy’ would have to be up there. I just find it to be such a powerful image. This outstanding Spanish blood wild mustang stallion has been the subject of several of my drawings. He is magnificent and heads up the band of horses in Nevada. He has been the most popular of my works and at 1m x 1.5m on canvas he is very powerful indeed.
What is it about equines that you love painting?
Capturing the character in the horse. People who know horses can read the drawing as if it was a real horse. Horse people are quick to comment about their ability to know the horse’s character and mood when they look at the horse’s eye in my painting or drawing. There’s a lifetime of practice at both my art and my horsemanship tied up in that skill.
How would you describe your painting style?
Rural Realism. I once coined a term for it, ‘Sururalism.’ It was a play on the words Real Rural and Surreal. I’ve dropped the use of it because people misread it as Surreal.
What medium do you use?
I’ve used just about everything over the last 50 something years from pencils, watercolours, acrylics, oils and charcoal. These days it’s entirely charcoal drawing or oil painting. I love pushing the charcoal into new territory. From what I’m seeing and hearing there aren’t too many people in the world who are handling charcoal the way I do which is pretty exciting. I like the charcoal and the oils above other mediums because they can be so dynamic and so powerful.
To see more of Lew Brennan’s work, please visit: http://www.lewbrennan-artist.com