“If there’s a goal to what I’m doing, I’m there,” explains thirty-eight-year-old Gulbrandson. Working out of his garage at home and largely self-taught, the artist currently employs a method that might be called sculptural painting. Gulbrandson begins with a wooden canvas, which he texturizes by distressing or inscribing using various tools. Next, layers of acrylic paint and various gels and additives are added to layers of wax and a torch is applied. The layers are left to dry, and the end result is an abstract, enigmatic visualscape that perhaps finds more resonance with the subconscious than words are apt to describe. For this artist, life’s philosophy merges amongst layers on canvas. “What I’m doing is not complicated; I’m a simple guy,” he explains demurely.
How did you get your start?
I was sitting out there on the patio watching the afternoon happen—that’s when I was living over on 17th and Lovejoy and First Thursdays were becoming a thing. There weren’t a lot of people at that point, and it wasn’t regulated. There were only a couple people down on a single stretch of sidewalk at the time because it was kind of a new event.
I just decided to throw everything in my canvas—you know, like Santa Claus—everything I’d been working on, and go down there because I was broke. I didn’t even prop everything up and in the first five minutes an older guy came up and thought two pieces would be cool in his kid’s room. He said, “I want those, how much?” and just caught me off guard. I said, “I don’t know, 75 bucks a piece?” “Sold. I’ll meet you for soup tomorrow,” he said. So you know, I went to the café the next day and he cut me a check for 150 bucks. And I sold more and that was it, that night. Every month, that’s how I made my living.
When was that?
It was probably ’99 when I started doing that, maybe ’98. Yeah, it was just a real surprise. It just kinda happened. People would just come back all the time to see what I had made new.
Was that the moment when everything changed for you—when you realized you could make a living out of painting?
A couple of years before that—I went down to Arizona. We just got in the car and drove, my girlfriend at the time and I. I worked up at Mt. Hood. I was painting up there. Actually, I sold a big batch of paintings to a friend of mine. He had a settlement, so he had a bunch of money all of a sudden. I was painting all these little trees and he loved all of them, and so he bought them all. He probably ended up paying $156 per painting, or something like that when we did the math. That was my first real sale. And I kept painting because that’s what I did. Left there, went down to Arizona and then back up to Wyoming and we stayed there. I supported us for the trip—paid for the gas, bought the place to stay, and she said, “You just stay here and paint, because I know you can make a living at it.” And I never really thought about it. Crazy, what are you talking about? I just goof around with this stuff. How could I make a living at it? But she just kept telling me that. She planted a seed in my head.
Is that primarily the way you sustain yourself now?
Yeah, ever since that guy bought those first two little paintings. That was it. Never went back. It’s always a roller coaster though, no matter what. It’s always an up and down. But the lows are lower now and the highs aren’t as high. Where’s art now? It’s way down on the list of needs, isn’t it? People want to make sure they’ve got gas in their car. My stuff’s pretty fairly priced. I think that’s the only reason I’ve survived.
Why painting? What can you express through painting that you can’t express using another medium?
I was really intent on Realism, you know. Like let’s say a glass of water—all the light refracting everywhere. If you stick a spoon in there, it bends, and I was just fascinated with that. And I’d draw, and I think my eyesight went bad you know because I ended up getting that laser surgery a couple years ago. I was nearsighted for forever because I think I was just so intent on making everything perfect.
But then I ended up—I painted with oils for a while, and that was cool, I suppose. But then I ran out of them and I didn’t have enough money to buy more. So I started with acrylics. I told everyone I’d never mess around with acrylics cause the colors weren’t there. They don’t pop. And as soon as I went to acrylics I realized that everything was really quick, and you could stick a fan on it and make it dry fast. It was awesome. Make a mark and you can keep truckin’. You don’t have to wait around. And then I all of a sudden just loved that. I have layers of latex, essentially, sheets of latex, and then you put it in between layers of wax, and then it just gives you this crazy texture that I love.
What benefit does the added texture provide to your paintings?
I don’t know where this actually comes from—it seems as though when my mom would drag me around every weekend all weekend to antique stores, I got an appreciation for things that are just beat up and worked-over. They have character. I mean people are kinda going down that road nowadays it seems with faux finishes and whatnot, so other people must appreciate things that are tarnished and worked over and antiqued in a sense, you know.
And you start with a wood canvas that you construct.
Yeah, I’ve got so many layers, and I attack each piece. So, I’m carving into it, beating it up and so yeah, I need wood. I need a wood surface that’s real firm.
How do you decide on the dimensions?
It doesn’t matter—I’ll go buy all the plywood in big sheets and just chop them up. I mean, a commissioned piece, of course you need certain dimensions, but other than that, it doesn’t matter. In fact for me, larger is easier because you have more room to mess around. If you make a mistake, you have other things to lean on. The painting will tell you what to do, and you can look at all these other wonderful parts of it and get rid of what you hate and rework it. But with a small piece, you make a mark and that’s it. If you don’t like that mark the whole piece is gone. So I like working on things that are at least three feet across probably.
And you add heat as a part of your process?
Oh yeah, I torch everything throughout the whole process. I mean there are multiple layers of gels and mediums—there are a lot of different things that I use, and [ones] you can’t use; I build it up and then break it down and beat the shit out of it.
And—know when to stop. I got this damn tattoo a couple of years ago, trying to remind myself that less is more. I used to do too much all of the time and I’d have to cut them up. But I’m learning now, when to stop. It’s almost like too much spice in the soup. Some pieces can take more ingredients and other ones just can’t. And usually more ingredients means there’s too much activity. You can’t live with it in the end; it’s too worked over. And so there’s a whole bag of tricks that I use—molding paste and gels… maybe I’ll use three [elements] in this piece, and maybe this piece will take four of these, maybe this piece will have just two elements. And so each piece is a little different.
How do you think your native roots in the Northwest and your travels over the last ten years reflect in your work, or does it? Does location matter?
I don’t suspect it matters. I like all different types of painting. I suppose—let’s say, I lived in the Southwest. I’d probably be moved to maybe paint the scenery because I really like the emptiness of the desert. I can’t see myself painting mountains and trees and lakes, but maybe the desert would get me going. I like going to Eastern Oregon where there’s just empty expanse and lots of sky. Maybe if there were any type of environment that would move me to do something else, maybe it would be that. So, maybe it does make a difference.
But other than that, I don’t venture to say because everything I’m doing is abstract. One piece just leads to the other. I don’t even know if I’m inspired from the inside or the outside. One piece tells me what to do with the next piece. Because I want something and I’m searching for that thing, I just keep darting out to create another one that gets closer and closer and closer to what I like.
So is your work more of a journey then? Go with it and see what happens?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, if I describe my encounters with my pieces and everything I do, what it involves—the discoveries, the letdowns, the struggles—it’s just like life. If I describe my painting process to other people, I find that I’m just talking about life. I mean, you go through the same experience doing anything. Hopefully you’re just doing what you love to do.
Does this make any sense? I mean, it’s a mystery to me too, it really is. I never know what I’m doing or where it’s going. It’s kind of—I say this to a lot of people because it’s the best way for me to describe it—you know what direction you’re going, but it’s kind of as if you’re following a wall, but that wall is curved just barely enough to where you can’t see around the corner until you take two more steps (or two more pieces), and then you can see around the corner but the corner keeps going. So you gotta do the next piece and then the next piece and then the next piece, and then you can see around the corner. But just standing there, unless you move forward and keep looking, you don’t know.
Explain your interest in contrasts. I see strong edges and oftentimes, at least two different contrasting colors—one really bold, and one lighter or negative.
The last couple of years I’ve been simply focusing on really honing in on the technique and just trying to rediscover it, I guess, and learn as much as I can about what I’m doing and where I can apply it and how you can blend things together. I dropped the collage. I might go back to it, I don’t know.
The contrast—I don’t know, you got me. It’s just so it’ll pop, I guess. There’s more drama in it I suppose. I’ve been doing a lot of black and white lately. That’s as contrasting as you’ll ever get.
So do you start in one area of the painting and then move outward, or do you work here and there, or is it more of an all-over kind of movement?
Let’s say you have a big piece, and then the left side you like a lot. So maybe I’ll try to recreate that in a larger piece. But in doing that, you learn a lot because every time you stab out and try something new—I’m always trying to turn the corner. So, I’m always learning, and you always have to edit. You’re trying something you can’t put a label on because you want something. So you end up going down the same paths. You’ll make the same mistakes. But then you’ll realize, well, you can’t do that anymore. That’s how you learn. I don’t know if you learn as much from making what you like as making what you don’t like. That’s where you really start to figure it out.
I know you started out when you were young with drawing and sketching, and then you started painting in high school. Do you begin a painting with drawings or sketches?
No, there’s no sketching. I mean, I’ll sketch out ideas, just little line drawings. But they don’t really help me when it comes to the painting itself. They just get my brain rolling to a certain direction. Maybe I’ve got an idea, but I’m not pre-drawing any kind of a painting. One thing leads to the next. I just throw down some color and it says yes or no all of the time. You make a decision; then it says yes or no. If it says no, you try a different color.
What kinds of tools do you use?
I use an ink brayer, mostly. It’s just a rubber roller, real smooth; it’s what they use for ink printing. It just rides the peaks in the painting. And I always rub in a lot of black or dark brown, or whatever. That will sit in the valleys—something that makes it look beat up.
So do you use anything else besides the ink brayer?
Oh it goes on and on. I use squeegees, all sorts of brushes, a lot of metal tools (carving)…Man made tools. Yeah. The hardware store is a great place. You’ll find just about everything you need at the hardware store, really. You just go in there with ideas and something will tell you what to do. Art stores are kinda spendy. I haven’t bought tools in a long time because I think I already have what I need.
How long does it take to do one of your paintings?
Well, it depends on what I was using. Because there’s more porous stuff, there’s less wax or more wax, or more sheets of paint in the center—it all depends. I’ll have layers drying; they’ll have to dry overnight, or maybe over a couple of days. Sometimes I’ll be working on 5 or 6 at the same time. And then just keep rotating. Some take weeks. Some I completely give up on, then I’ll pick them up three months later and start again. Some of them I can do in a day.
They don’t look like they were done in a day!
Usually, they take about three or four days. That’s pretty typical. There’s all this prep work—you gotta do this, this, this, this. And so if you’ve done that, and then you finish one up that day, then you prep another one before you’re done for the day. You know, kind of like Henry Ford and the printing press. Make sure you do that, then you’ve got this one over here, then you keep rotating. And then you crank one out about every two days. I used to do one every day, but God, that’s draining.
Do you have mentors?
There are just a couple people. Antoni Tàpies, from Spain—he’s a super popular guy from the ‘50s. His books are kind of hard to come by. There are a few big volumes that have passed through Powell’s, but they’re about 90 dollars apiece. I bought thinner books of his and there are only a couple of pieces in there that really get me. I would love to have them hanging on my walls. This guy would use sand and earth and mud. I think he would take windowpanes or something like that and make an imprint—just really raw. I think I’ve thought about his work more than anybody else’s. I used to think of [Robert] Rauschenberg with all his imagery, random imagery. But I don’t mess around with the images much anymore.
The classic, old guys from the ‘50s, you know.
No, American—Rauschenberg, he’s American. There’s a lot of things going on in the art world that I’m totally unaware of because I’m just in my own head. I don’t hang out with any other artists. I’m not out running around on First Thursdays and whatnot. I’d like to be in the middle of the woods. I prefer the peace and quiet of just hanging out and not being around a bunch of people, I suppose.
How do you see your artistic style evolving in the future?
I think eventually I’ll just get right on back to where I first took a stab at everything. I’ll probably reintroduce imagery at some point. I’ll probably have a lot more color than I’m working with now. I think it’ll just be bigger and more sophisticated. It will continue to evolve.
So you see yourself coming full circle?
Yeah. I look at paintings I did a long time ago, and I really like them. But the only reason I’m doing what I’m doing now is I’m constantly pushing. And then you keep pushing and you keep learning more and more and more, but then you want to go back and hook into what you always liked, even though you’re not doing that now. It’s all about the fit…
I recently bought a bunch of oils because I thought I wanted to go out and do some plein air paintings. You know, just something totally different. I want to go out to Sauvie Island or something and just sit there and listen to the birds. Just paint a field. I ride my motorcycle constantly. I’ll take my camera out and go take shots all over the place. And maybe I’ll paint a landscape one day. But maybe I’ll try to twist it into a surrealist landscape or whatever.
My mind is all over the place I suppose. It takes a long time to move—you’ve got to take action, and then you can’t really expect awesome results when you first start out. I mean there’s a huge learning curve. Just doing what I do has taken forever.
Chuck Close, he painted—Realism, you know. He had an injury or accident or something. He’s in a wheelchair. He’s just incredible. He’s got this contraption that’s attached to his arm and he paints in a grid. And so when you’re up close to these paintings, there’s just a color and another color and, like, a shape. And every one of them will be just a circle and it doesn’t make any sense. But then you back up and you go let’s say, across the street and you look at it—and I mean, he works huge, absolutely massive, and he’ll paint all kinds of famous people. And when you look at it from far away, it looks like a photograph. And I think he said a long time ago, “Inspiration is for amateurs; artists get to work,” or something like that.
If you sit around and wait for something to move you, you’ll just sit and sit and sit. You gotta get to work. That action, that 20 minutes you put in, will get the ball rolling, and all of a sudden you can’t get away. I’ve had other friends ask, “How do you get going?” You just gotta start. That’s what I mean, it’s just like life; it’s just like anything.