Contemporary Charcoals: Brianna Lee

This week’s blog, the next in our “Contemporary Charcoals” series, features the work of California native Brianna Lee. Blending a love for the technique of the Dutch Golden Age masters with her unyielding inspiration gleaned from the everyday, Brianna infuses her works both in charcoal and oil with an unabashed and refreshing vibrancy. Brianna took some time out of her busy schedule (in addition to accepting commissions, she also manages her own atelier) to tell us a bit more about her artistic ideology. For more of Brianna’s work, check out her website, her Facebook page, and also her atelier website, South Coast Art Center.

Brianna Lee

Reclining Nude, Nitram Charcoal

NC: What do you hope your works communicate to the viewer?

BL: My ideas are continuously evolving but I think ultimately I want to move the viewer emotionally. I believe that beauty has the power to give hope to others in their darkest moments and that art can elevate us above the mundane demands of everyday life. It is similar to soaking in a beautiful garden or coastline: it rejuvenates the spirit.


Baca Family Portrait, Nitram Charcoal on Paper


 NC: What drew you to working in charcoal? What advantages do you think it has over other media?

BL: I think Salvador Dali said it best: “Drawing is the honesty of art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.” I think that mastering charcoal medium is essential for any artist. It is challenging to control and teaches you so much skill before you attempt painting. I often work in charcoal because I find that the medium has a certain quietness about it and it sits easily in a room. A drawing isn't loud and shouting for attention, yet it pulls you in. There is a certain grace about a well-crafted drawing.

NC: The artist has to choose when a work is “done”. How do you know when a work is complete? How do you know when to stop “editing”?

BL: I think it is important to be objective about your own work, to try and see it through others eyes. I try to look at each of my painting as I would one of my students’ works. I ask myself, “If this was my students painting, what would I tell them?” I think most artists experience dissatisfaction with their work in the end. This is why it is so difficult to finish a piece and let it go. I read once that William Bouguereau approached every fresh canvas thinking it would be his masterpiece. In the end, he always felt he missed the mark and lost enthusiasm, wishing to abandon the painting and start over. And he finished a lot of fantastic work! Sometimes, I force myself to move on because you can’t solve all the world’s problems in one painting, and I figure if Bouguereau felt this way, it’s okay if I do too!

Brianna Lee

 NC: What’s the best advice you’ve received about becoming an artist?

BL: My late grandpa always told me I could do anything I set my mind to and that I should always live in the “now” and be present everyday. I can still hear his voice in my head saying those words. Being an artist is a multi-tasking career. . . .Goals are good to have but there is no point in focusing solely on your destination. Part of the joy is the journey. This is why I cherish these words. It is my reminder to not fret about tomorrow and just enjoy today - be mindful and present.

Brianna Lee

 NC: How do you set up your studio? What are three items you need in your studio to get started?  

BL: My studio (above) is part of a live-work loft in downtown Santa Ana, California, that also operates as my teaching atelier (South Coast Art Center). So, often my studio is full of easels and tables from classes and tons of paintings and demos laying around. That being said, there are three items I must have. The first is a simple wood taboret/palette with a monitor stand attached (for photo references). I often work from a monitor when I don't have the option of working from life. The second is great lighting, as balanced light is crucial for painting. I also have great big windows in my studio that I will use for natural light in the late afternoons. Third are my essential tools: painting supplies, Rosemary brushes, and of course Nitram Charcoals!

Brianna Lee

 NC: Can you tell us more about one of your favorite creations? Where did you create it? Does it have a story attached?  

BL: My favorite piece is Metamorphose because it represents three major related events in my life. Metamorphose (above) was initially inspired by my first ever trip to Europe. I went to Germany and Prague on a study abroad trip that summer. We saw so many inspiring works of art, like Alphonse Mucha’s Slavic Epic and many massive multi-figure paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. I was blown away and couldn't wait to get back to the easel to begin on the multi-figure composition I was envisioning. As it was the first I had ever attempted, and also as I was working under a tight deadline of 2 months even while studying full time at Laguna College of Art and Design and teaching, it turned out to be a huge learning curve. I wasn't sure I could pull it off, but with lots of late nights and coffee I managed to finish in time for the Germany and Prague Exhibition in Laguna Beach. The good news: the painting sold! It was the largest painting I had attempted and it now sits in a collector’s lovely home there. A very happy ending!

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