A Realistic Impressionist Knows How to Color All the Bases

Brennen McElhaney came to Asheville to raise a family … and stayed to paint the town red (really green and blue).
Portrait by Matt Rose

He was only nine when he saw the original Star Wars, back in 1977. But instead of being mesmerized by the aliens, creatures, and action going on in distant galaxies, Brennen McElhaney was fascinated by the artwork, in particular the concept sketches by Nilo Rodis-Jamero and the scenic production paintings by Ralph McQuarrie. 

He saw the movie 18 times. “It absolutely captured my imagination.”

When it came time for college, he made his own leap through space — from his home in Santa Barbara, California, to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. “I was ready for a big adventure — 3,000 miles across the country — and I knew that I wanted to study and pursue art.” At RISD, he majored in illustration, graduating in 1990.

Picnic Area Flat Rock Park

He got a steady, income-producing job as a graphic illustrator for Big Dog Sportswear, a job he held for 11 years. In his spare time, though, he was painting, and was soon showing in several California galleries as he became increasingly active in Santa Barbara’s art scene.

McElhaney says that by 2005, he and his wife Sheila “were looking for a less hectic, more sustainable life where we could have the breathing room to raise our family in a way that reflected our values.”

In Asheville, they found a thriving arts scene and natural beauty. “When we moved, our kids were five, eight, and nine. Asheville has been a wonderful place to raise our family.”

In 2011, McElhaney established Asheville Arts (avlarts.com), an online networking group for makers. He also organizes WNC Plein Air, a local painting club, and paints with the Asheville Urban Landscape Painters, another outdoor-painting group.

He describes his own landscapes as realist/impressionist. “I don’t think of these terms as a conflict in styles. Impressionists have always been interested in the fundamental visual elements that give a two-dimensional image the illusion of three-dimensional space and form. Or to put it more simply,” he continues, “when you look at my paintings up close, they look impressionistic, but at a distance they look realistic.”

Most of McElhaney’s works are landscapes and cityscapes, half of them painted en plein air. When working in his Arden studio, he paints from sketches and photos. His most common outdoor subject isn’t in any galaxy far away — it’s the stunning mountain views that surround him. 

He’s recently begun work on a series of larger canvases, 4’x4’ wide. The artist notes about painting in the colder months, “I love when the thinning foliage opens up to longer-range views.”

Top Left: Blue Harbor, Top Right: Charleston Street Corner, Bottom: Blue Ridge View

Brennen McElhaney, Arden. For studio visits by appointment, see bmc.me. WNC Plein Air Painters holds free, public “paint outs” year round and suggests scenic locations on its website. Call 828-684-3448 or see wncpap.com for more information.

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