Watercolorist Ray Brown, who lives on Caldwell Mill Road, touches up his painting of a lighthouse. Photo by Rick Watson.
Ray Brown fell in love with water, brushes and paint when he was studying commercial art at the University of Alabama. That watercolor love affair has continued throughout his life, as graphic art director for The Birmingham News and after retirement in 2002 as an art teacher at his church.
His job at the News was, in a nutshell, making the paper look good. He was responsible for using pictures, maps, graphs, illustrations, charts and original artwork to make the paper appealing to readers. He also used watercolor to create original full-page art for the News. But the choice of medium wasn’t solely an aesthetic one.
“We had to use something that dried fast,” the artist said.
Brown started in the newspaper business in the early 1960s when there were “composing rooms” where pages were crafted using Linotype machines and hot metal. According to Brown, it took a great deal of skill in those days to make all the pieces come together and look good, particularly under deadline.
Then in the 80s, computers entered the picture.
“They put an Apple Macintosh on my desk and said, ‘Here, use this,’” he said with a laugh. “It went downhill from there.”
In the early days of computerization, the graphics could be somewhat mechanical looking, but Brown said they’ve come a long way since then.
Brown created more than just newspaper art in his 42-year career. The walls of the home he shares with his wife, Gail, are covered in framed watercolors he’s crafted over the decades.
Painting watercolor of a live scene can be challenging, Brown said, because the daylight is ever changing: “You have to be quick.”
Sometimes he takes a photograph to use as a starting point and then lets the artist within run free, changing the image, adding details or enhancing the color until he’s created something new and unique.
The process of recreating that scene in a different medium is exciting to Brown.
“A camera can do it,” he said, “but that’s not me. I’d rather do it myself.”
Besides, he added, when people see a photograph, they tend to give it a cursory glance, but when they see a piece of art, they reflexively take more time to study the work.
“Watercolor draws them in,” he said.
According to Brown, watercolor requires a lot of planning before you first put brush to paper. “With oil paint, you can cover up with more layers, but with watercolor you can’t do that,” he said, noting that occasionally there are some “happy mistakes.”
He starts out with the lightest color and then adds the progressively darker ones.
“You have to paint the dog before you paint the fleas,” he said. That goes against the grain for most beginners because it seems natural to paint the details first and work outward, but watercolor doesn’t work that way.
Brown no longer exhibits at art shows. He paints mostly for himself, though he does occasionally give a painting away to someone “deserving.”
He also shares his art through teaching at his church. Several years ago, Christ Church United Methodist on Caldwell Mill Road started a fine arts program offering music-related classes. When Brown suggested they add some art classes, they asked him when he could start.
He now teaches watercolor classes each Thursday morning at the church.
Most of his students have never had formal art training, but Brown said they have a lot of fun together learning the basics. At the end of the semester, the students display their art at the church.
In the 30 years that Ray and Gail have lived in their house on Caldwell Mill Road, he’s spent a lot of time in the backyard painting under the shade of a 100-year-old oak. But the tornado that slammed through his neighborhood on April 27, 2011 uprooted the tree and did extensive damage to their home.
The couple was not injured, but they lived in one room while the house is repaired. Many of Brown’s watercolors were crammed into their living room along with furniture and other miscellaneous stuff that had to be stored while repairs are made.
Throughout that time of transition, Brown simply looked forward to replanting the tree and painting under its branches.