Photography
© Ely Abrums and Laura Walker

R. Brownell McGrew (1916 -1994)

R. Brownell McGrew once said of his painting technique, “I am an Impressionist in the classical sense. Reality comes from the suggested rather than from the detailed or the finished. My paintings are not exact copies of any of the scenes I see.” Ironically, it is Brownell’s very attention to detail and to the “finished” composition – he mixed linseed oil and turpentine with his paints to achieve a “fresh-off-the-easel” wet look – that characterizes his exquisite Native American portraits and desert landscapes.

Aspiring artists used to ask R. Brownell McGrew to show them his tricks. There aren’t any tricks, he would tell them. For McGrew, painting grew out of passion, and patience. McGrew rarely talked about painting; but his stated goal was “to paint as well as I can, in order to communicate the infinite thrill and rapture of God’s creation.”

McGrew was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1916, and his family moved to California during his middle school years. From 1936 to 1940 he attended the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. McGrew acknowledged that, although he had many fine teachers, Ralph Holmes had a “profound and decisive influence” on him. “He taught entirely by principle; by creating a sort of ambient aesthetic,” McGrew wrote. “Never once in my years with him did he demonstrate or teach technique. It’s a slow way to learn, but if one’s patience and money hold out; probably the best.”

He spent the war years designing and drafting material for Firestone. In 1946, he was the first recipient of the John F. and Ann Lee Stacey Fellowship; and he used the money for intensive study of the Western landscape. In the mid-1950’s, he traveled to Arizona with Jimmy Swinnerton, who was known as the Dean of Desert Painters. There, McGrew met Navajo and Hopi people, whose way of life inspired his admiration and whom he painted with sensitivity to both personal character and physical accuracy, emphasizing, for example, weather-wrinkled skin and tousled grey hair.

In the late 1960’s, McGrew was invited to become a member of the Cowboy Artists of America, “a singularly generous and broad-minded gesture on the part of the cowboys,” he wrote. In the mid-1970’s, however, he was forced to tender his resignation, because his careful and slow process made it difficult for him to present new work for each annual show. One of the honors of his career, he said, was “having the CAA fellows request me to reconsider my resignation.” McGrew continued as an emeritus member of the CAA, contributing to the shows as time permitted, until his death in 1994.

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