The first painting Kib Bramhall ever made hangs high on the wall of his former studio space in his West Tisbury home, surrounded by other images yet unrecognizable as part of the artist’s overall oeuvre. With its dark, churning colors and shadows, it doesn’t look like the quietly lush scenic paintings Mr. Bramhall has dedicated himself to over his decades-long career. But then again, he made it in high school. He had the choice between taking a music course and an art course, and although he had no strong preference toward either subject, he didn’t like the music teacher much. So he took art.
Not many people can point to a single pivotal point when their life made an about-face, but Mr. Bramhall has no doubt that the art class changed his life. Painting was wholly captivating, a way to capture and give life to moments often glanced over. Sixty-five years later, he is still painting. His newest show opens at the Granary Gallery this Sunday and runs until August 16.
He had planned not to exhibit any more work after his last show in 2009 at the Carol Craven Gallery. But he found himself still busy in his studio.
“Not with the intensity that I had before, but turning out enough work that I needed to do something with it,” he said. He began showing pieces one at a time at the Granary. Over the winter, gallery owner Chris Morse asked if he’d be interested in a full show. Mr. Bramhall agreed, but felt he still didn’t have enough new work. As a result, this show will be a mix of old and new work.
“It’s almost like a little retrospective, because I have paintings in it that go right back to the 1980s,” he said, adding with a wry smile, “And there’s enough work in it to show that I’m still alive.”
Mr. Bramhall turned 81 last month, but looks much younger and shows few signs of slowing down. An avid fisherman, he still pursues that other passion as well, chasing the bass and blues from his boat or from the shore.
Nor does age show in his paintings, which when taken as a whole, display a remarkable consistency in style that Mr. Bramhall is justifiably pleased with. His work has earned many plaudits through the years.
“Mr. Bramhall’s brush technique is excellent and he has become a master in handling eel grass and interesting details in vegetation,” a Gazette review of a July 1969 show noted. “None of the viewers had anything but praise for the young artist, a fact that should encourage him to produce another crop for next year’s opening.”
In 2003 another review observed: “These works are relaxed. While there is enough detail to make each scene realistic, this is painting, not photo realism.”
After high school, Mr. Bramhall wanted to attend art school. His parents told him he could go to any school he wanted, but they would pay for tuition at Princeton. So he went to Princeton. The school didn’t offer studio art at the time; he studied art history instead.
His technique has changed little since he began painting. “If anything, it’s gotten looser simply because my eyes aren’t what they used to be, so I can’t do the tiny details,” he said. A glance at a work in progress on his studio easel where he was working to blend the oranges of wildflowers and the greens of grass as effortlessly as nature does, indicates that the attention to detail hasn’t fallen off all that much. He still works in oils; though he’s tried other media over the years, he always returns to the standby.
Oils allow him to shape and reshape a work until he is completely satisfied with it. He works on most paintings for two to six weeks. But one painting in his studio, of large dunes with tall stalks of goldenrod in the foreground and a distant shoreline behind, took him five months to finish, working on and off.
“I kept changing it,” he said. “It wasn’t quite working.” Finally, he decided to add the goldenrod, which completed the composition.
“I work from photos, from repeated visits to the site, my imagination,” Mr. Bramhall said. The paintings aren’t literal interpretations of a scene; rather, he said, they “try to capture the spirit of what has turned me on to begin with.” When he was a younger man working to eke out a career, he deliberately set out to find scenes and paint them. Now, he has the luxury of being able to paint what strikes him.
“I think I like being able to express aspects of nature that really make me catch my breath,” he said. “I know when I look at a painting of mine that it’s really what I wanted it to be, or not. And if it’s really what I wanted it to be, then great.
“You set standards for yourself and you either reach them or you don’t,” he added.
His standards for his own work are high, and they have been that way since he began painting. The only exception, he said, was when he dabbled in abstract works. Because the style was so different from what he was accustomed to, he wasn’t sure of what his standards should be.
During that time, he said, “I even did paintings of fried eggs.” Did he fry the eggs himself?
“I did. Fried the eggs, ate them and painted them,” Mr. Bramhall said. “I did show some of these and sold a couple, but people were pretty horrified.” He was happy with the way the eggs turned out, though.
Eggs aside, the center of Mr. Bramhall’s work over his decades of painting has always been Martha’s Vineyard.
“I think the Vineyard was largely responsible for my career,” he said. “I just fell in love with it head over heels — I came when I was 12, it became part of my soul and I couldn’t imagine not being here.”
After college he went to work on Wall Street. He quit after three weeks “because I had to get to the Vineyard.” He sold his first painting here in 1957. There were three galleries here then, including that of renowned Island painter the late Stan Murphy. Mr. Murphy was a mentor to Mr. Bramhall.
“It was his example that I wanted to follow,” Mr. Bramhall said. “It showed that you could live on the Vineyard and make a living, and go fishing [or duck hunting, in the case of Mr. Murphy].”
He paints throughout the year, capturing the direct light of winter against snowy backdrops, the russet tones of autumn leaves and the lively yellow of summer blooms. The lighting on the Vineyard is deeply affected by the surrounding ocean, which “is like a mirror, and it reflects the light,” Mr. Bramhall said. “I think it’s what makes the light here so special.” The same is true of many places on the water, he said.
Over his career, Mr. Bramhall has painted around the world, from Iceland to Mexico.
“But everything always comes back to here,” he said.
There will be an opening reception at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury on Sunday, Aug. 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. Artists Scott Terry and Mary Sipp Green will also be featured.