“The opportunities of man are limited only by his imagination. But so few have imagination that there are ten thousand fiddlers to one composer.”
Charles F. Kettering, 1876-1958
(1933 – 2014)
By Julie Keller – former Editor-in-Chief of “Art Business News” and a frequent contributor to art industry publications
If ever there was a composer of color, it was Howard Behrens, a brilliant painter who emerged among a sea of artists to become the preeminent modern master of the palette knife and an incomparable translator of color. “Using an analogy from music, I like to think of myself not as a piano player, but as a composer. There are a lot of piano players, but they are playing someone else’s music. I want to be remembered as a master ‘composer’ of art, not a ‘musician.’” Behrens passed away, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, in April 2014.
Indeed, Behrens will be remembered as the composer. He will also be remembered as a master colorist, a palette knife magician, and a kind and gentle soul. “One thing about the palette knife is that you get great color and you can play with the texture,” he once said. “So it’s color and texture and real genuine paint where you see the act of painting.”
The experts couldn’t agree more. “Howard was the best colorist among a large group of post-Impressionist painters in the United States today,” shared Harriet Rinehart, founder of Rinehart Fine Arts. “Although many people tried to imitate him, they always come up second best.” “There are many who have tried to imitate his style, but no one has come close,” added Josh Miller of Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor and Avalon, New Jersey. “There are different people trying to do what he does, but they just don’t pull it off,” agreed Rick Moore of Rick Moore Fine Art in Naples, Florida, and Rick Moore Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
At once an introspective and humble man and a skilled painter, Behrens created a world of beauty in his work that combines a love of paint, a passion for travel, and a mastery of style and color.
Behrens’ love of art started at an early age. Born in Chicago in 1933, he inherited creative talents from both of his parents. His mother, Marie, was an artistic soul with a flair for design, and his father, Walter, worked as a printer who was meticulous with his work. Behrens’ first introduction to the world of art began in the third grade when he received a watercolor set. “We didn’t have much money, so the painting set was like a toy,” he said. “I didn’t know any better, so I just kept playing with it. Finally, I just loved doing it.”
This love of art continued through grade school and high school when his family moved to Tacoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. He quickly became known as “the class artist” who created work for the yearbook and newspaper. Behrens’ love of art was cemented following a sledding accident his senior year of high school. He was sequestered to the hospital for several months, and he whittled away the hours by painting. “I just kept painting,” he said. “I was in there having a ball and painting away.”
Upon graduation from high school, Behrens took a job as a government clerk and continued his studies in art as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. He was accepted into the medical illustration program at Johns Hopkins University, but he opted to pursue a graduate degree in painting and illustration instead. “I decided that creative art is nothing like scientific illustration. In scientific illustration you create exactly what is there,” he explained. “You don’t create or change anything. You don’t do anything except follow what you see. I didn’t want to do that.”
It was this pivotal choice that began the exceptional artistic career of Howard Behrens. After receiving his masters degree, the artist worked for 17 years as a government graphic designer and took advantage of his experiences there and the generous government vacation schedule to work on his paintings and travel the world gaining inspiration from the lush, tropical locales he visited.
That is where the real story of the artist begins. In the late 1970s, Behrens began experimenting with paint and style and found inspiration in work he created with a palette knife, a tool most artists use to mix oil paints before applying them to canvas. “I kept changing my style,” he explained. “I feel like every painting is a prerequisite for the next painting. You come across something that really rings a bell and starts you thinking differently, and you continue on with that new technique, style or subject matter. That’s how I eventually got into palette knife painting. It was an evolutionary thing.”
The evolution to today’s rich, distinctive, texturized style came through experimentation. “I slowly started using the palette knife to paint on the canvas,” said Behrens. “It started out very fine and thin using very little paint. Then, it got thicker and thicker and heavier and heavier. Finally, the most amazing thing happened—the act of painting became the subject matter.”
Behrens also developed a method for creation that combined travel, sketching, fine art photography and painting. Creation of paintings that integrate what he calls “big, juicy chunks of paint” is no simple task. In 1976, Behrens took a trip to Jamaica and was blown away by the color and beauty of the lush tropical island. “Beach subject matter is beautiful for palette knife painting, and Jamaica was gorgeous,” he said. “There was so much color—sailboats, beach umbrellas, girls walking in colorful bathing suits, bright beach blankets, and the reflections in the water. It was stunning.”
Behrens painted several canvases and realized he couldn’t bring wet paintings back on the plane. So a new creation method was born. He traveled to Italy and let the beauty of the villages and harbors wash over him, making stops in such places as Venice, Portofino, Capri, and Lake Como. He realized that it wasn’t just beaches that held majestic beauty that was easily captured with a palette knife. “Architecture is a lot more difficult subject matter than the beach,” he said. “I was entranced by the boats, the architecture, the bougainvillea and all the old-world charm.”
Behrens soon became a master with the camera and sketch pad, and he brought these tools on all of his travels and used them to piece together his distinctive paintings. “I will photograph reference material—awnings, flower pots, cafés under the sycamore trees, boats in the harbor. I probably get 30 or 40 slides in one walk of 100 yards or so,” he explained. “I also stop every 100 yards and make a quick sketch. The sketches are the compositions, the heart of my paintings.”
It was when he returned home to his studio that he was able to work his magic. “I will go through my slides and look at my sketches then sketch the same thing on the canvas,” he said. “Finally, I will get it to the point where the pattern is just right, and I can see from the slides some of the colorful things I can put in there—a string of yellow umbrellas, a cluster of flowers. The subject matter just goes on and on.”
A Howard Behrens painting is a combination of artistic influences that culminates in a style he calls “controlled spontaneity.” In his work are reflections of such artists as Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pisarro, Alfred Sisely, and Italian palette knife painter Nicola Simbari. At his heart, Behrens considered himself an Expressionist who integrated the spontaneous nature of the Impressionist painters. “I’m an Expressionist. I like to use color and dramatic, long areas of light and dark. Sunlight makes things more intense than they are. I purposely exaggerate light because it brings out more emotion. With the palette knife, you can’t help but to be spontaneous,” he explained. “Oftentimes, I will splash a lot of areas with thick paint. Then I will go back and use the edge of the knife to put the edges on buildings and other things. You work back to the controlled part.”
This “controlled spontaneity” was truly honed when Behrens started painting full time in the early 1980s. The Penguin Gallery in Jacksonville, Florida, saw his work in a gallery near Washington, D.C., and was intrigued by the palette knife style. The gallery signed him up for a one-man show, and the rest is history. Behrens soon signed on with the Wally Findlay Galleries. Up next were a series of successful shows in such prestigious locales as Palm Beach, Florida; Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California; and along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Soon Behrens quit his job in the government and devoted himself to painting full time. “I hit the jackpot and was really lucky,” he said. “Nothing succeeds like a little success. I couldn’t believe what was happening. It was an incentive like no incentive I’ve ever had in my life.”
INNOVATIONS IN SERIGRAPHY
Behrens’ career soon exploded. He continued to travel and become inspired by tropical areas in the Caribbean, Hawaii and Mexico, as well as the beaches and villages throughout Europe and the United States. He also caught the eye of fine art print publisher Soho Editions. The two joined forces in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s and made waves in the industry by creating the world’s first collections of hand-embellished, limited-edition prints. “I was immediately impressed when I saw Howard’s work,” said Elliot Burns of Soho Editions. “His bold use of color and paint, his ability to bring you into the scene, the sense of harmony and economy of palette and his ability to capture the sun were among the things that caught my eye.”
Soho Editions soon published a series of serigraphs. These beautiful works captured Behrens’ magnificent originals and gave him an even more universal appeal. They also received his personal, palette knife enhancements that expressed the beauty of his paintings all over again to thousands of additional collectors. “Howard’s ability with the palette knife was truly amazing,” related Burns about Howard’s first hand-embellished serigraph. “He put that first print proof up on his easel, and in an hour, we had the world’s first enhanced serigraph-on-canvas. Behrens had created a whole new medium that would eventually take the art world by storm. Without Howard Behrens’ ability to work quickly with the palette knife, there never would have been an enhanced serigraph on canvas in the industry.”
The embellished serigraphs were a boon to the printing industry and helped make a name for Howard Behrens among collectors at all levels of the art-buying spectrum. “People really begin to know who you are when they procure an original work,” said Behrens. “But when you sell a single, brilliant original to a collector, no one except that collector knows it exists. A series of limited-edition works derived from that original, however, can showcase the work to the world.”
Behrens created many enduring images during his partnership with Soho Editions, but he truly made history with work created following a trip to the Italian Lakes Region in 1990. “Returning with innumerable photographs, he proceeded to paint some of his most famous images, including ‘Bellagio Promenade,’ ‘Il Lago di Como,’ and ‘Lugano.’ All were smash successes as limited editions, and ‘Bellagio Promenade,’ later published as a poster, proved to be one of the best selling images in the history of art printing.”
THE ARTIST’S HEART
Indeed, Italy was one of Howard Behrens’ most beloved muses. The artist credited this to the natural beauty of the land, the sunshine, the colorful buildings, the interesting vegetation, the sparkling lakes and the myriad ports and rolling hills. Other experts say the land is universally loved and a mecca for art-loving travelers and is a major reason Italian-themed Behrens works are so popular. “Naturally, one of the reasons people buy his work is because they’ve been to these places, and that is a natural attraction,” said Rick Moore of Rick Moore Fine Art.
“Ultimately, Howard’s appeal lies in his ability to take you there,” added Eliot Burns. “He always presents a very special place, an idealized version of the world’s most beautiful places, places where the water shimmers in azure shades, breezes are always blowing, the sun is always shining, and the flowers are always in bloom. Where else would you want to be?”
Another great inspiration in Howard’s life and in his work was his wife and publisher, Judi. She managed Howard’s career and his business relationships for 17 years. The couple spent more than 15 years traveling and working together, soaking up the sun in exotic locales around the world and celebrating their love. “I really lucked out when I found Judi. She’s a huge source of support for me. And like me, she adores the sun,” said Behrens. “She is truly my muse, and I have published the ‘My Beloved’ series to honor her. I’ve painted her walking in the surf on the beaches of the world, overlooking century-old castles and manors in Italy, and strolling in quaint villages in America. Our romance is as beautiful as the places we have visited together—and she inspires me constantly.”
Judi Behrens has managed Howard’s career and his business relationships for 16 years.
THE TRADITION CONTINUED
Nearly three decades after he started his second career as a painter and capturer of color and light, Howard Behrens remains a fixture in the world of art. He had nearly 200 shows throughout the United States and abroad, and his work hangs in some of the most auspicious collections in the world. His heavily-embellished limited-edition giclee prints are published by Behrens International Group, LLC. His images can also be found on posters, puzzles, tapestries and other art-related products.
Indeed, Behrens captured the sun, the sea and the light. He also focused on the beauty of gardens. In 2000, he created “A Tribute to Monet,” a stunning collection of works inspired by Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France. The show was exhibited at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. in October 2001, and a series of limited-edition prints were created from that collection.
During the last 10 years of his career, Behrens took his work to the high seas. He and Judi joined art lovers and collectors on art-themed cruises throughout the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera, the Baltic, and more on acclaimed Connoisseur Cruises on Princess, Cunard, and more than 30 other ships. Featured on the cruises were art auctions of originals and special-edition prints and a chance for Behrens’ fans to spend time with the artist and to watch him complete a painting.
A CONSUMMATE ARTIST
In spite of his incredible success as an artist, Howard Behrens remained true to his humble, yet artistically passionate soul. He often waxed poetic about the act of painting, his love of his work and his affinity for his collectors. “As well known, widely collected and widely recognized of an artist as he is, I am always surprised at how genuinely humble Howard was, and how much he treasured the people who collected his work,” said Josh Miller of Ocean Galleries. “You see artists who eventually see art as a way to pay bills, and it becomes just a job. With Howard, I don’t think that original excitement that a young artist achieves ever left him.”
((Editorial remarks: The above article was edited after Howard’s death to reflect his passing.))