Brian Keeler, American Artist Interview
By Hall Groat Sr., President, New York Art Collection
To learn more about the work of contemporary painter, Brian Keeler, please visit his web site at
Hall Groat Sr: Where did you study art when you were a kid and were your grade school teachers older and more conservative? Was drawing stressed with comments like: “You must learn how to draw before you can paint?” And were you at the top of your class from first grade throughout college?
Brian Keeler: I did not study anywhere when I was a youth, in terms of special art classes. However, I showed an early proclivity for drawing. And I absorbed art by osmosis from being around my father, who was a painter. Even in elementary school I was drawing many things and impressing my fellow students and teachers. The teachers at elementary school were all elderly but encouraging. It is hard to judge whether they were conservative or not, as these terms of modern politics or societal norms had little relevance or pertinence to me. I was certainly not at the top of my class in academic subjects but always felt inquisitive and eager to learn. In high school I found many subjects lacking in appeal and began to focus more on art. My first year at college, I was not able to get in a studio course. Finally after complaining, I got in drawing course with Karl Neuroth at Keystone College, which I loved. I think he found me to be a promising student and encouraged me. Then at art school, at the York Academy of Arts in York, PA (now closed) I was somewhat in awe and overwhelmed but the quality of students. But as I persevered, I did quickly rise as I was motivated, inspired and competitive somewhat.
HGSR: Your work seems based on solid drawing skills Brian. This is great for most but may inhibit others when they are learning how to paint. Do you agree or disagree?
BK: I always liked to draw and had good teachers at the York Academy. Fundamentals like strong perspective where part of the mix. I had an early and immediate affinity for color and once again- splendid teachers to serve as role models and inspirations. In regards to drawing being necessary or an impediment to painting, I believe that is really the underpinning to good painting. Draftsmanship and working knowledge of drawing concepts provides the foundation for good painting. I can understand how it could be present problems to those who may want to go straight to painting. Their lack of understanding will show up however in their painting.
HGSR: Your ability to create compelling designs is very strong. Do you like to sketch out your theme before painting—or do you prefer to find order in disorder? Do you consider yourself a pragmatist?
BK: Thanks for noticing my designs. I do begin with sketches often. Even on the occasions when I jump right into the painting, I consider the design. The key word with design for me is “intervals” and I should add the term “relationships” as well. I find the interactions of divisions of space one of the early decisions I make when doing sketches rather than to get a detailed rendering. I appreciate drawings that are taken to fine levels of completion with beautiful modeling and light. However in my thumbnail sketches, this is not the goal. I have developed this method of doing quick sketches, which I call using movable borders or the forgiving method of composing. I always put a border down on my sketch pad to correspond to the proportions of the canvas I intend to use. It is said that the four most important lines in any giving drawing are the border lines, because they determine the space and divisions within. The works develop and refine as they progress but the early spatial decisions are the foundation and they generally remain. I am speaking of things like, basic vertical and horizontal major divisions, placement of key objects, eye level placement on the page, and vanishing point position. Am I a pragmatist? –Hmm, not sure. I guess a pragmatist is one who considers the practical benefits of actions. So with art making, I suppose this plays out. I mean the decisions are all geared toward making the most effective relationships and a successful pairing. So in that sense I suppose I am pragmatically motivated.
HGSR: Your work has a look of your own which is very contemporary and futuristic. Do you feel there is a literary quality in most of your work? Agree or Disagree?
BK: My work is related to historical precedents, meaning other artists that I enjoy. For example observers and patrons see the influence of varied artists in my work, such as, Hopper, Parrish, N.C. Wyeth and others. But I do like to think that my work somehow updates the lineage and tradition of realistic painting. Another example is Corot, the French painter of the 19th century. I search out and find the same spots he’s painted at in Italy and do my own versions in oil in plein air. So I am connecting with the artists and even their subjects but still making the work my own. In other words I am following their example somewhat but not their style so much. There is a literary aspect to certain paintings that I do. I have a body of work which I call allegorical. Many of these pieces are related to or inspired by ancient Greco/Roman myth and history. Sometimes other literary sources inform my work. The classics in general, Lucretius, Dante and other authors and poets from antiquity and medieval times are used at times. This is part of my interest in Italy and the Renaissance. The appeal of this country and art history era is the emphasis on melding learning, observation, virtuosity of the ancients and applying this knowledge to everyday life. Scouring museums in Europe and especially Italy as well as little churches in the hills of Umbria and Tuscany for art is an endless font of inspiration.
HGSR: Realizing you are a very successful educator as well as a sought after painter, do you feel fulfilled in your art career? If not—what could bring you fulfillment as an artist?
BK: I do feel fulfilled and fortunate in many aspects of my career. It is a rare privilege to be able to pursue my vision and dreams through the making of art. I find the teaching an aspect that augments the making of art and vice/versa. My classes in Italy over the past 10 years have had a variety of levels of students. Usually it is often older students that come as participants. Their age or experience is not really the issue, but willingness to learn. I think any teacher will certainly relate to this. Some years I have had students with virtually no experience, but being a tabula rasa they have beginners mind in the Zen sense. On occasion students just come to do their own thing and are not particular receptive or interested in learning. So that aspect has a certain rub to it. I feel that I definitely have technique and aesthetic sensibilities to offer. It is somewhat frustrating at times that there are not more serious students and youthful pupils to take advantage to the offerings. Still I enjoy teaching and articulating and demonstrating the concepts and ideas that I use in my work. It is very rewarding to see students grow and implement the ideas and methods I suggest.
HGSR: Have you gone through the non-objective stage as many painters do? If so did you find it meaningless and devoid of your personal sensibilities?
BK: I did have a non-objective period or near abstract period. I find the work of Richard Diebenkorn and Franz Kline very compelling. Even in my current work, there is a fundamental abstract design quality that each work begins with. So in a sense, I think that I somehow combine the two genres. In regards to whether I found abstraction meaningless, I did not find to be void of significance. On the contrary, I found it challenging and rewarding. The level of sophistication that accomplished abstract painters like the two mentioned bring to their work is very rewarding and satisfying to look at and to attempt. The large slash-like brush work of Kline has an immediacy in the attack that us realist can relate to as well. We can see the corollaries between the work of Sorolla and Kline. I could even envision doing work as an entire new direction, perhaps under a pseudonym. At the end of the day, one has to do what seems genuine and authentic to one’s nature.
HGSR: Some of your work reminds me of early artists of the 1940`s… and some makes me wonder what life will be like in another fifty years. You are a true artist and if any other critics refer to your work as dated: to the contrary, you are at the top of your game and a trend setter with a lot to say in your art. Being Brian Keeler, your art spans a much greater time span than most of your contemporaries.
BK: Thanks for your kind comments. I certainly like the era of the 1940’s in American Art. My father was WWII Navy veteran and he painted during the war and subsequently attended Parson School of Design in NYC. But I love Thomas Hart Benton’s work of the heartland of America. I recently read his biography and found his struggle for his artistic vision and study in Paris a fascinating story. But the imagery of my hometown of Wyalusing, PA, and the surrounding Susquehanna region in general, as well as upstate NY and Maine all aspects of Americana that I love to portray. I find the imagery of our towns, the unique architecture and landscapes all worthy of serious portrayal. My interest has always been in the play of light, and there is something about the light of the Susquehanna area that is unique. And again the Finger Lakes of NY have been a source of many of my recent paintings. The light, usually the golden hour, of later afternoon and evening is the time I find most dramatic, evocative and poetic.
HGSR: Are you an avid reader or does your teaching career; family or home gallery take your full attention?
BK: I do read a lot. Art history of course is always part of my reading but novels and philosophy and religion too. I just finished a wonderful historical account of manuscript hunting in 15th century Italy, (for the second time), “Swerve.” A fascinating account that tells of the finding of a moldering manuscript by Lucretius in a monastery. I manage to find time to have a full time partner, Linda, who travels with me and shares my interest in art. I also play guitar in a swing combo here in Ithaca and dance as well has been part of my life for many years. My parents were both artistic, especially my father. He produced many local theatrical productions and had Broadway aspirations during his time at Parsons in NYC. He was also an accomplished musician. He was the lead singer and played accordion in the Navy 7th Fleet Band in the Pacific theatre during WWII. He continued his musical career throughout his life while he ran the family newspaper, The Rocket-Courier in Wyalusing, PA. My brother Dave continues that today.
HGSR: Does your family or friends ever tire of you talking about art too much? Any siblings or were your parents into art? Are you involved in any sports or hobbies? Do you enjoy dancing? Do you get to travel much or too busy? Are there any particular countries you would enjoy visiting?
BK:They have not seemed to tire of it. Mostly however we talk about their interest. I mentioned the other stuff above. I seem to be fine with Italy, as it is an endless source of fascination. However we do plan to go to Ireland, England and Scotland sometime. The rugged coastline of those countries looks beautiful and worthy of putting down on canvas.
HGSR: Name a few of your favorite artists in recent history — and do you think we will ever have a better portrait painter than Rembrandt in modern civilization?
BK: I have mentioned a few of my favorite artists above. But others at the top of my list would include, Sorrolla, Sargent, Zorn, Vermeer, Caravaggio and yes Rembrandt. Each year, during the Italian Art Sojourn, we focus on a new Italian Renaissance painter and this year it was Fra Fillipo Lippi, Botticelli’s teacher. So I took the group to several towns, Prato, Florence and Spoleto where his frescos are located. But in recent years I have become enamored with the work of Gerrardo Della Notte, also known by his Dutch name of Gerrit Honthorst. There was an amazing retrospective of his work this year at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It was such a compelling and wonderful show. He is considered and tenebrist or a Caravaggisti, meaning a follower of the Italian baroque painter, Caravaggio. Tenebrism means dark and broody, hence his name (Gerry of the Night.) His work, Honthorst’s, is like Caravaggio’s but more luminous, as if he is using a glowing raw sienna color in the shadows instead of black like Caravaggio. I also have been following the 19th century American artist, Haseltine and going to his motifs in Italy- like Capri and Taormina- used on my Facebook cover page. George Inness is another American Artist whose work I love. He also painted in Italy and did several landscapes from the Umbrian town of Perugia, which I have also spent time in. One of these large oils of Innes’ is in the NGA in Washington, DC and another large canvas of Italy in the American wing of the MET in NYC.
And lastly, I can never get enough of Rembrandt. I recently finished two wonderful biographies of him, Rembrandt’s Eyes, and the follow up Rembrandt’s Nose. One of the fascinating little snippets gleaned from Rembrandt’s Eyes was that Rembrandt believed his work (in the style of bravura painterly brushwork) to be the closest to the painter from ancient Greek, Apelles. But since there is no work of Apelles extant, Rembrandt had to infer the essential aspects of his painting from the writings of others, who were his contemporaries in ancient Greece. As I started my career as portrait artist, and continue to paint portraits and figures, the work of Rembrandt has always had special meaning to me. I have visited his home and studio in Amsterdam on several occasions, the first way back in 1968.
Oil Paintings by Brian Keeler
“Pleiades Dance” Oil on linen 36″ x 40″ $5,400
“Thick and Thin” oil on panel 30″ x 26″ $2,800
Keuka Autumn oil on linen on panel, 26″ x30″
Keuka Evening- Over Hammondsport Oil on linen 26″ x 30″