State of Grace: Brian Sweetland

"There are so few instances of revelatory moments, when you have these moments of unexpected and unsolicited grace that take you and let you go "

Anyone who observes Brian Sweetland's oil paintings would believe that he lives in a far more constant state of grace than he'll admit to. His signature pieces depicting the Mettowee River, pastured Holsteins, snow-cloaked Farmalls, and Vermont mountain vistas clearly captivated his admirers and collectors of his work--half the paintings on exhibition at the Dorset Library were badged with red dots by the end of his opening day.

A man who is modest and thoughtful is generous in sharing his process.

"It's a transitory thing-five minutes. You wake from your reverie, this interlude of automatic painting, and after that, you have to think hard about the choices you make. Then it involves deliberate thought, when you see something clearly that you've been trying to see, and you do something about it. Those little blessings of clear-sightedness suggest themselves, and just as easily withdraw from your sure-handedness until they're good and ready to be found again. You're there because something brought you there, and you stay because you're maddeningly close to finding it again."

Sweetland is a plein air artist in the Impressionist tradition, but he paints deliberately, meticulously, delicately. "I grant myself the conceit that I have all the time in the world Even when the light is changing, I say, "No, I'll come back again some other time if I need to," and I always need to. I'll make these mistakes, I'll stagger towards improvement in the general direction I think I should go, then I'll reaffirm my plan for the painting you trust the reason you started the painting in the first place, it's the motive for the undertaking."

Sweetland's tones are pinked and greyed and subtle. "I want to get to a more sedate and quiet color scheme, because that's the way I feel about the landscape here. The jagged edges in some of the storm clouds are elements of drama that I'll introduce, but that's as close as being expressive as I want to be. I just let people look at the paintings and let them decide for themselves." His clouds have strong diagonals. "There is an energetic geometry in a stormy sky, the aerial perspective, which involves the suppression of tones as they recede from the eye of the viewer, the quality of the clouds at different altitude strata You're playing with a vast depth of field, where there always seems to be transition and movement."

He grabs the principles of the sky and works quickly so he won't forget the building blocks that interested him in the first place. "The transparency of a sky-hole, the difference in tones and change of intensities All you have to do is get enough to remind yourself, take its more salient qualities I know instantly if it's worthy of continuation." He says he has to accept the possibility of failure when he's working at the speed of the fugitive nature of what he's compelled to paint. "Certain skies just announce themselves--they just happen. Sometimes I study it, and just suggest it. Your mind can absorb it if you're interested enough. The effect of the after-image can be pretty powerful." He's stood outside in frigid and sweaty temps nearly every day for nearly four decades, so he feels it in his bones.

There's no escaping the primacy of the sky in landscape painting, he says. "Even if you place the horizon line high on the plane of the picture, you're emphasizing what the light has done on the ground that takes up most of the picture. It's the source of contrast of dark and light, a product of the natural optic laws that we observe every day without necessarily breaking down which particular phenomenon is responsible-- diffusion, refraction, reflection, diffraction."

We look at a painting of a stream flowing through billows of snow, which is made up of crystals that include all the additive effects of rainbow light. Tiny dots of paint that represent part of the spectrum add an element of challenge to the viewer, who will want to translate them into a comprehensible picture. Close up, you'll see all the colors that contribute to the illusion of white snow.

Sweetland is a skilled draftsman (there's a pencil portrait of Gustav Mahler that impresses many visitors), whose still-lifes have a refined delicacy and light touch; where his landscapes are atmospheric and dappled, the sheen of polished wood, the fragility of a china cup, the scrap of old lace are more classically rendered. "Still-lifes are not prone to accidental effects--you'll be able to see the same thing time after time. They're moments of indulgence that reflect my affection for what I'm painting, a certain kind of flower, a certain shape. Van Gogh's paintings of his work boots are almost a self-portrait, showing how he could express himself in the most humble way possible." Where landscape is a response to a momentary demand, the arrangement and rendition of a still-life is more personal.

Sweetland's paintings of the Mettowee River shimmer with an opalescent quality. He is intimately acquainted with "its shallows, waterfalls, the glorified meander that wends its way northward." He likes old tractors, saying there's a work history behind these things, and their worn quality reminds him of his own seniority (he's 61). He paints cows "the way they used to be kept."

Brian Sweetland has borne witness to many disruptive changes over the decades. "Painting is the only thing that gives me hope. I'm trying to celebrate what can't be permanent, what must and will change, but is still part of our times and our culture."


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