Bill Brennen Captures Yakima’s Beauty
Yakima artist Bill Brennan paints in his backyard...
By Melissa S. Labberton
Photos By Gordon King
When people ask Yakima’s Bill Brennen how long it takes him to paint one of his Eastern Washington landscapes, he answers with enthusiasm, “40 years!” His reply might sound like a joke, but this master painter is quite serious. He says it’s taken him 40 years to hone his artistic talent that so perfectly captures the beauty of the Yakima Valley and surrounding area.
A 1967 graduate of Eisenhower High School, Brennen admits that grades and activities took a back seat to playing guitar and performing with the band Loving Kind. When he enrolled at Yakima Valley Community College, a friend advised him to register for a “little bit of everything,” in hopes it might help him find a direction.
Brennen found himself in an art class taught by R.K. Smith. “He was the best teacher I ever had,” Brennen said. “He was so upbeat and it was so fun and I was getting A’s.” He discovered he had an affinity for art, and with Smith’s encouragement, he transferred to Central Washington University to immerse himself in all aspects of the discipline, including silk screening, oil painting, design and figure painting.
A scene near Hwy. 12 in the Morton/Packwood area painted by Yakima artist Bill Brennan.
“When I graduated, I didn’t want to teach,” he explained, “I wanted to be a painter.” Fortunately, Brennen had supportive parents who allowed him to live in the basement and do just that. In fact, his father had a lot to do with his first big sale.
“My dad was checking out stuff at Leo Adams’ house. He told Adams that his son was a painter.” Adams agreed to look at Brennen’s work. Adams told the young artist that he could show with him at Gasperetti’s restaurant in Yakima. Brennan sold nine paintings at that show, and his career was off and running.
Brennen would be the first person to attribute this early success to equal parts talent and pure luck. Besides Smith and Adams, he also gives credit to John Gasperetti for encouraging his career. After that first show, Gasperetti took some of Brennen’s paintings to the Foster White Gallery in Seattle, where his artwork was shown for 10 years. He’s also shown his paintings at the Kimzey-Miller Gallery in Seattle, the Hager Collection Art Gallery on Maui, and he continues to hang his work at Gasperetti’s and Kana winery in Yakima.
Brushes and paints sit on an outdoor table.
Brennan evolved from oil to acrylic paints, because he likes the fast drying, water-based medium. “I’m not a patient guy and I like to layer the paint.” Early on, he was a big fan of Norman Rockwell and enjoyed painting figures. Then he discovered Andrew Wyeth and the impressionists. His landscape paintings reflect their influence. “I love the Valley and I want to paint it. Andrew Wyeth painted in two spots all his life,” he explained.
Smith was also an influence.
“He taught me to be loose and move fast. Use the happy accidents and don’t control your brush too much. Painting is weird because sometimes it flows, but sometimes it’s like pulling my hair out,” he said. If he doesn’t think a painting is working, Brennen feels no compunction about letting it go. “It never bothers me to fail at painting.”
“I used to start painting by starting in one corner and it would take days. Now I paint the whole painting and then go over it with a small brush.” Brennen likes to first rough in the sky. Then he adds the general light and dark of the hills and fields. He uses a sable brush for the grass, giving it an amazing detail; however, on closer inspection it appears like an impression.
“I’ve developed a technique to make it look like individual grass or leaves, but not have to paint each one.” Because of this skill, one fan dubbed him the “grass man.”
With more than 1,000 works under his belt, Brennen has an easy confidence about his art. Depending on size, his pieces can sell from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars each. His work is shown in many corporate collections, too, including that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sterling Savings Bank, the Rainier Collection and the Safeco Corp. in Seattle, as well as the MetLife Executive Collection in New York City.
Yakima artist Bill Brennan
He also does commissions. One of his favorites can be seen at the Yakima Armory and was made possible by the Seattle Arts Commission. The three large murals located in the Armory’s entry hall depict the history of the Yakima Militia and is an excellent example of his skill as a figurative artist, like his idols Wyeth and Rockwell.
Brennen, who enjoys playing tennis and working in his garden, also has a talent for music. For years he performed with his band, The Blue Tropics, playing Jimmy Buffett tropical-style music at local events and wineries. Two years ago, he set tropical party music aside and, with fellow band mate W.D. Frank, started a new band called Stimulus Package.
Brennen shows no concern for what the future holds because he knows he just wants to keep painting pictures, playing music and enjoying himself.