What do Jim Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, rock and roll, impressionism, surrealism, naturalism, even a neo-Paleolithism, and a wild use of color, all have in common? Artist John Bramblitt.
In researching this article and in talking with Bramblitt I’ve run across an artist who uses diverse influences and styles to create some of the most scintillating paintings this side of Van Gogh. Bramblitt doesn’t stick to impressionism, he delves into surrealism with his butterfly series that is frankly amazing. His western paintings straddle naturalism and a neo-Paleolithic style. What makes this artist and his art even more extraordinary is that he’s blind. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Bramblitt, here’s our interview:
DE: I’ve been thinking of your art as post-impressionistic, how would you describe it?
John Bramblitt: That sounds pretty accurate; I love the way that the impressionists used color to express emotion and ideas instead of just being a passive reflection of light. You might start out with a red apple in a still life, for instance, but going beyond what is just merely seen you can use color to describe the actual nature and substance of the apple – is it crispy? or Mushy? Is it sweet or bitter? Through color you can describe what that particular apple is like. I’m also a big fan of Pop art as well; I love to look at iconic figures in new ways – at how figures and objects that we all take for granted shape and change the way we think, and the way we think about them over time.
DE: You have a really wild sense of color, how did that develop as part of your art?
John Bramblitt: I have the type of synesthesia where I see color when I hear music. Since losing the vision it no longer has to compete with the visual information coming in from my eyes so the color from sound has exploded in a big way for me. I’ve talked to a number of visually impaired musicians that have this form of synesthesia, and it is a big reason that they play music – when they perform it immerses them in color. In my studio I have the sound set up fit for a small club – something like 15,000 watts with speakers all around the room, and a 2000 watt subwoofer right under my main easel. The color for most of my paintings comes from music; I either hear a song that inspires a painting or as I’m working on a painting I pick music that matches the palette for the painting. People who are new to my work seldom realize that the sailboat, landscape or sunset that they are looking at is really music laid down in paint form.
DE: Touch seems to be an essential part of art. Do you think you use touch more than a sighted artist? Do you think sighted artists may over rely on vision instead of touch?
John Bramblitt: Touch is wired into our brains in fundamental ways – through brain scans you can see that even a light touch can fire up the mind in ways that the other senses have to work hard to do. The first thing that you want to do when something wonderful or terrible happens to someone you care about is touch them – give them a hug, hold their hand, slap them on the shoulder. At the Superbowl the winning team isn’t sitting on the sideline passively texting each other; they are running around lifting each other up, and stretching out trying to get a hand on the trophy. Touch is the main way that I adapt what a sighted artist would do to something that I can do; I use my hands in place of my eyes. I paint a lot; hours upon hours every day, and have done that for years, and accordingly my sense of touch has become incredibly sensitive. In the workshops that I teach in museums one of the things that I talk about is using all of your senses when experiencing art. I have taught workshops in a number of universities as well, and in all of the places I’ve taught there is usually a room of statues meant for the artists to practice sketching. Artist are supposed to by these out of the box thinkers, and dozens of students will file into these rooms class after class, year after year, but there hasn’t been one room that I’ve taught in where the statues didn’t have a coating of dust. All of the students come in and sit down, and then just use their eyes to understand the subject – no one ever gets up and crosses the room to actually touch the statue. Your sense of touch is made to understand contour, shape, angles, length, texture – things that the eye has a hard time with. Using all of your senses excites more of your brain, and makes the subject come alive that much more, and the art that is produced that much more interesting. The more that we put into our art the more we get out.
DE: You mention a lot of artists in your video which ones really influenced you?
John Bramblitt: I probably feel the strongest connection to Van Gogh; especially since he too had Epilepsy. Color for him was emotion, and that is something that I can relate to. At the time he was alive Epilepsy was not well understood, and everyone – including himself, just thought he had a type of madness. If he had been born in our era perhaps the depression that ended his life could have been avoided.
DE: You do a lot of rock stars is rock and roll a big influence on your art? Or do you think pop culture such as rock and roll has become the subject of modern mythology and iconography? Such as artists of the past may have painted saints and religious scenes and subjects?
John Bramblitt: Music means a lot to me, and I’m drawn to those that make it. I love to paint iconic musicians – taking the color from their music and filling their portraits with it. I also do a lot of Jazz and Blues artists; most of these though I meet, and are much lesser well known. I love live performances; where the air is colored not only by the music, but by the sounds and emotions of those enjoying and experiencing the performance. Musicians have become the heroes of our time; they are the ones that stand up against any powers that be whether it is the government, parents, societal concerns. I don’t necessarily agree that this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I do think it is interesting. I’ve had the fortune to meet some iconic people and paint them like Tony Hawk, Jeff Bridges, Lyle Lovett, Prime Minister of Holland, some senators and such as that, but most of the people I paint are just people I meet. It is interesting to see people’s reactions when they are looking at a painting of someone who is well known – it is hard to put into words, but when the subject is unknown to the person they see the person as more of an object – almost like an actor that is playing a part in the role of the painting. When the subject is known though all of the person’s thoughts and feelings of the subject come flooding to the surface, and while they are still looking at your painting you can tell that a lot of what they are experiencing are thoughts and feelings that they have built up about the person over time. It makes it hard to do a painting with a famous person in it where the painting isn’t just a portrait – other messages are often lost.
DE: Can you briefly describe your process?
John Bramblitt: I either start with an idea or music; If it is an idea I find the music to match it – if it is music I make a composition to match it. I work out the painting in my mind completely before I ever lift a brush. I sketch out the basic composition with paint that leaves enough of a tactile line so that I can feel it. The color of course comes from the music, but each tube is Brailled so I can tell the colors apart; then I mix different mediums in with the paint to give each color a different feel – that way I can tell them apart on my palette, and it helps in mixing them together. A white might be thick light toothpaste, whereas a black could be runny as oil. To get a grey half way between the two I just mix for a texture that is between the two.
DE: You wrote and made sketches before you went blind. When you were writing was that a function of the drawing, were you putting into words images that you had in your head?
John Bramblitt: The main way that I would work out a story was through drawing. I’ve always been a very visual person; so sketching a main character or a scene would help to make it more real in my mind. By the time I would get around to writing about what I had drawn it was easy; all of the details had already been worked out.
DE: Thank you for talking with me.
John Bramblitt’s art is available at his website and is quite affordable to the average aficionado as his prints start at $10 and limited edition prints $135. Every Friday at 7pm central time Bramblitt hosts a two hour live stream of him demonstrating painting. The video connected with this article is his March 18th session in which he painted Jim Morrison’s portrait. Last week he addressed the subject of music inspired paintings. Drop in on the live stream this Friday and see what he’ll be painting and his approach to the subject.
Originally published March 1, 2016