Jay Brooks: portrait of an artist

Posted 5/19/21

Jay Brooks is many things (husband, father, teacher and musician are among Brooks’ accomplishments), but first and foremost, Jay Brooks is an artist. Perhaps you’ve spotted Jay out and …

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Jay Brooks: portrait of an artist


Jay Brooks is many things (husband, father, teacher and musician are among Brooks’ accomplishments), but first and foremost, Jay Brooks is an artist. Perhaps you’ve spotted Jay out and about over the years, paintbrush in hand, sitting at his easel outdoors, doing what he loves: painting, painting, painting. Every time I see him at work, I want to stop and chat, but I refrain, understanding that it’s all about the light and capturing a moment in time on the canvas. I’ve seen many examples of Jay’s beautiful work over the years and am constantly mesmerized by his ability to create magical images culled from everyday life, so I gave him a call and asked if I could stop by his studio overlooking Callicoon, NY and chat about his work, his life and his paintings. Before heading out, I took a quick look at Jay’s website in order to be better prepared for our conversation.

The online bio was informative, and I took a few notes before sitting down with him, citing these words: “Growing up on 90 acres of farmland in Pavilion NY, Jay Brooks has always had the landscape as an integral part of his life and art. At the young age of 14, Brooks began painting under the classical apprenticeship of John Piesley and the plein air instruction of Charles Movalli. Brooks was also introduced to the pre-impressionist styles of Corot, George Inness and Asher B. Durand.

“After teaching art in New York City, Brooks moved back to upstate New York in 1993. Here, Brooks is surrounded by countless varieties of scenes from around the northeastern United States. His paintings include a variety of images from depictions of the New England shore to the countryside and small towns of upstate New York.”

I looked up the definition of “plein air” and learned this: “En plein air is a French expression meaning ‘in the open air’ and refers to the act of painting outdoors with the artist’s subject in full view. Artists of that period who painted outdoor landscapes included Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne and Van Gogh.”

Jonathan Charles Fox: First things first. How did you wind up in Sullivan county?

Jay Brooks: After getting my master’s degree at Columbia, I taught in Pittsburg for four years, then New York City for five, followed by a stint in Brooklyn for three, but I felt as if I needed to get back upstate. So, I sent out 250 resumes and one of my interviews was in Monticello. We met, they asked if I wanted the job and I said “yup.” I’ve been here ever since.

JCF: I looked up “plein air” painting, but I’m still not clear on what it really means. I’ve noticed that most of the canvasses are fairly small, and I think they’re all created rather quickly. Is that fair to say?

JB: Over the years, I’ve painted some large canvasses, sometimes over a couple of sessions, but yes. It’s a lot of work to lug all that stuff around, and it’s easy to get distracted because often people walk by and want to ask questions, of course. I find myself painting and explaining at the same time; you get used to it.

JCF: Has plein air always been your passion?

JB: I gave it up for almost 15 years, concentrating instead on studio painting. It’s hard to raise a family and be roaming the countryside at the same time. I wanted to slow down and experiment with different techniques.

 Around 2016, I began searching for my plein air mentor, Charles Movalli. We had lost touch and had not been in contact for years, but when I learned that he had passed away, I decided to get back into plein air painting in his memory. It was then that I learned about plein air competitions.

JCF: What’s that all about?

JB: There are scores of them and hundreds of artists interested in competing. Sometimes the prizes are substantial amounts of money, so it’s not easy to get in. Once you sign up, the submissions are juried and, out of those, maybe 30 are selected to compete.

JCF: The word “competition” makes it sound stressful, though. Is that the case?

JB: Yes, it can be grueling. Over the course of a few days, artists are required to produce up to fourteen paintings, regardless of the elements, rain or shine.

JCF: What is it about plein air that keeps you coming back to it? To me, you appear to be a man possessed, because it seems like you are always painting.

JB: Again, it was Charles Movalli. The first time we got together he whipped out this little nine-by-12 canvas, slapped a bunch of paint on it while cracking jokes... and in 20 minutes, he had created what amounts to a snapshot of reality. It’s almost like impressionism; you just give it a quick glance and the way those colors meld together... it’s better than a photograph, really.

JCF: A “quick glance”?

JB: Yes, in plein air, the artist is constantly looking quickly at the subject, then back at the canvas to paint in somewhat rapid succession. Scientifically, when one glances, rather than stares at something, the rods and cones of the eye are stimulated in such a way that you get heightened color and contrast, but if you keep looking at it, the image becomes less so. Therefore, when you quickly glance, the brain remembers the bright cadmium red, for instance, and you have an exaggerated view of the scene. It’s almost like when you take a photo on your smartphone and saturate the color. That’s the way your eye registers the image on first look, especially on a bright sunny day.

Jay showed me a few examples to illustrate his point, and I noted how the “quick glance” caused me to observe the paintings in a completely different light as opposed to the longer inspection. “See what I mean?” he asked, as I was aware of the brush strokes, or the blur of color that initially was sharper and brighter just as Brooks had explained. Before leaving, I spied my all-time favorite Jay Brooks painting: a slice-of-life glimpse from backstage at Monticello’s Nessin Theater, and a perfect example of what Brooks does so well. “It really is better than a photograph,” I said, “and evokes such strong memories of my own days backstage, transporting me to a specific time and place instantly. I don’t know how you do it,” I said, snapping a plain old photograph before taking off. “But I’m glad that you do.”

 Jay Brooks is currently showing at the River Gallery-The Art of Living in Narrowsburg, NY. For more information, visit

Jay Brooks, plein air, Sullivan County


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