There is currently a four-foot-high oil painting of a chicken on Braldt Bralds’ easel. It has gray-white feathers and a red crest and wattles. It looks askance at the viewer with a sober, slightly tense facial expression, as if the chicken would rather be somewhere else. It’s based on a real chicken owned by his nephew in Holland, but Bralds has given him the same sense of surrealism he has cultivated since he fell in love with René Magritte at the age of 12.
He says the chicken still has a long way to go, and up close you can see some feathers finely tufted while others still look like cotton fluff. From a distance, however, it looks perfect.
70-year-old Bralds has always painted with intolerable attention to detail and has honed his craft since the 1960s to become one of the most recognized illustrators in the world. But he’s been losing his eyesight for decades from an ironically named disease called Best Disease. Bralds’ central vision has all but disappeared. He can only see out of the corner of his eye. To paint, he wears his thick glasses and a jeweler’s magnifying glass and looks sideways at what lies in front of him. He is able to focus on about an inch of canvas at a time.
“Yes,” says the painter from Santa Fe, “I paint a chicken in my peripheral field of vision. Yes, it drives you crazy. But I’m painting again. “
Not only is he painting again, he is now also represented by the Nüart Gallery in Santa Fe and is winning prizes.
“It’s way deeper than you think”
Bralds grew up in Holland. In 1978 he moved to the United States at the age of 27. His first day in New York City is legendary. He landed on the cover of Time magazine within hours after accidentally calling a celebrity agent who, oddly enough, had already heard from him. He had tried to get in touch with an illustrator he admired, but got an important job instead. For this cover, Bralds painted author Mario Puzo at the height of his success with The Godfather. He then illustrated covers for Rolling Stone, Playboy, Newsweek and National Geographic. His clients include Gucci, Nike and Alfa Romeo. He painted postage stamps for the United Nations Postal Administration and won the Clio Award for Best Illustration of the Year in 1989.
He was eleven when he knew he had to become an artist when he realized that Norman Rockwell’s paintings were not photographs. Soon after, his teacher took his class to an art museum, where he showed them the Dutch masters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Then they stopped in front of the betrayal of the pictures, Magritte’s pipe painting made in 1929, under which there is a sentence in French: “This is not a pipe”.
Braldt Bralds, Woody (2020), oil on canvas
“The teacher said, ‘What do you think that means?’ I said, ‘It’s a pipe.’ He said, ‘No, it’s a painting of a pipe.’ That opened up a perspective for me. Because what is it about? It’s strange, but it’s way deeper than you think. I’ll give you the picture of a pipe, but it’s a painting. That spoke to me on a level I didn’t understand at the time, but it was rooted in the idea that I could paint and name anything I wanted. It set me free, even if I didn’t understand yet that it set me free. “
Bralds attended technical arts high school and began his professional illustration career at age 17. However, after about two years he was fired from his first agency for unsolicited submitting drawings to his boss. He quickly found that he was better suited to a freelance life. One of his first jobs was to illustrate the cover of a magazine for writer James Baldwin, who was working from a photograph.
“I changed the direction of his gaze, the way he looked, and that made all the difference. It gave the viewer access, ”he says.
“Moving forward as a person”
Bralds is tall and slender, with thin gray hair brushed back from his forehead. He wears a purple and blue checked shirt in khaki pants and a black and white checked scarf around his neck. His small studio is in the corner of a sun-drenched room in the house of artist colleague Carol Anthony, 78, also a former illustrator. Both turned to the visual arts when they moved to Santa Fe in the 1990s, though Bralds also continued his commercial work.
Anthony’s house is artistic and expansive, with paintings and small sculptures on every wall and surface. A row of cream-colored vintage delicacies for women – corsets, stockings, elbow-length gloves – hang on a clothesline over a seating area near the dining room. In Bralds’ corner are his easel and a couple of tables, one of which is swallowed by tiny brushes and tubes of paint. He’s been using the room for about two years since Anthony persuaded him to go back to work.
In the mid-1980s, he was diagnosed with the best illness after waking up one morning and unable to read the titles of the books on the shelves across from his bed. There is currently no treatment for the best disease, and Bralds was told that his eyesight would continue to deteriorate. According to the Mayo Clinic and other sources, the best disease is genetic, and Bralds’ father and sister both had eye problems. Bralds says he didn’t inherit it. He found a doctor who took vitamins and supplements to stabilize his eyesight for a number of years. She also told him that he got the disease from solar flares on the water while vacationing in the Caribbean a few months before he woke up with blurred vision.
“[She] said the water reflects so much that it hits the water and then hits you, and the bars hit the water and it doubles, ”says Bralds. “When it started, I was unemployed for seven weeks. She brought me all the vitamins, brought me with her [my vision] back to a certain place. But I couldn’t draw a straight line. I had to work with an assistant to correct my drawings. “
“Yes. I paint a chicken in my peripheral view. Yes, it drives you crazy. But I paint again.” – Braldt Bralds, artist
He could work with specialty glasses for decades, but at some point they stopped working. He stopped painting completely in 2014 when he decided he was “mistaken”, that he could still paint by his own high standards. After giving up his illustration assignments, Bralds and his wife Margaret moved from a large house in Eldorado to an 8,000-square-foot apartment in town. He didn’t have a job even if he wanted to. He tried to draw something, but he had lost confidence in his abilities. He told Anthony he wasn’t sure he could ever paint again. She invited him to set up his easel with her and moved her studio to her bedroom.
“I work small,” she says. “For me the value is not in the size, but Braldt appreciates the big.”
The friendship between the painters began more than 40 years ago in Connecticut. She knew he needed creative camaraderie and a challenge. After he collected his things, she handed him an artichoke and told him to get to work. He put on his jewelry headband and concentrated to the best of his ability. It took weeks, but it returned the prickly green glow he had hoped for.
Symphony (2014), oil on wood
“That way I knew I could paint again,” he said. “I started small. And then I knew that I could get bigger. “
Anthony says they work quietly most of the day. “And then we meet at least once a week at 4pm to have wine and talk about politics, art and philosophy – all the things that make us become better people and move forward as people.”
“He found his way back”
Not only did Bralds find a new gallery replacement in 2021, he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, which in his opinion normally only happens after death. It also won second place at the Art2Life International Juried Art Exhibition in 2021.
He has found a system that does justice to the limits of his vision. He makes a somewhat detailed pencil sketch of the main picture he wants to paint, and a friend enlarges it and prints it on canvas. Bralds builds up the piece in layers, first with pencil and then with oil paint, refining the details in the process. In his two years with Anthony, he completed seven paintings, including an almost photorealistic image of an old wooden door (Behind Closed Doors, 2021) and a river on the other side at sunset (Eventide, 2020). They range in size from 22 square inches to nearly 4 feet by 4 feet. Five of them appeared at the Figurative Invitational 2021 at the Nüart Gallery, curated by John O’Hern, Santa Fe editor for International Artist Publishing.
“I knew Braldt Bralds’ artwork long before I met him here in Santa Fe about 10 years ago,” says O’Hern. “I knew he had stopped painting because of his best illness, and I was amazed to see his large landscape painting Eventide online – dated 2020. He had started painting Eventide with large brushstrokes, and as he progressed, slowly returned to his smaller brushes and the finely detailed, luminous surfaces that have always been typical of his paintings. Despite his visual impairment, he has found his way back to express himself again and paints with a mastery that has never left him. ”