It’s taken years for artist Bryan Koontz to hone his observational skills, but each time he sits by a mountain stream or focuses on a beautiful mountain view, he sees much more than the average onlooker. His eyes are trained to look for the nuances in light at a particular time of day and recognize the way shadows bring out different aspects of the water, rocks and trees surrounding him.
Lately, he’s been spending some afternoons sitting by the Laurel River in Madison County watching the movement of the water and then duplicating what his eyes observe on canvas.
“I go out in the field and paint on site when I can,” he said, “I get a good sense of the area around me. Cameras can’t reproduce what you see in the actual world. My method for plein air is to go to a site and start two or three paintings. I work on the under painting and do the initial block-in with color. I then go back to the site on following days with several paintings going concurrently.”
Koontz also spends time in his home studio adding details and using photos to aid his memory.
He’s now working on river paintings to showcase at Of Time and the River IV, an annual art show and gala that benefits RiverLink. “I’ll have five to seven paintings on display,” said Koontz. “It has to be a painting of the French Broad River or one of its tributaries.”
This year’s event features 23 of Asheville’s premier landscape painters including one of Koontz’s mentors, John Mac Kah. The rest of the lineup includes Paul Blankiship, Cecil Bothwell, Caleb Clark, Rachel Clearfield, Tony Corbitt Jr., Theresa Darling, John Dempsey, Christine Enochs, Matthew Good, Mark Henry, Dana Irwin, Susan Kokora, Anselme Long, Alisa Lumbreras, Cathy Mandeville, Brennen McElhaney, Carol Parks, Jason Rafferty, Deborah Squier, Alison Webb, and Colleen Webster.
Koontz is an Asheville native who can date his ancestry in Western North Carolina back to the late 1700s. He describes growing up in Skyland in south Buncombe County as “a utopia.”
“It seemed to me that people loved one another and got along well,” he said. “It was a special place.”
He went to Valley Springs from first through eighth grade and then graduated from Roberson High School, where his father, Charles T. Koontz, served as a standout principal. Koontz Intermediate School was named in his honor. “I’m really grateful both of my folks are still living,” he said. “My dad is 85 and my mom is 84.”
Koontz first picked up a paintbrush when he was about 8, under the guidance of his grandmother, who was a primitive painter. He went on to feed his creative spirit at Appalachian State University, where he earned a degree in commercial design. He also met his wife, Carol, there. She’s a teacher at North Buncombe High School. His daughter, Meredith is working on a master’s degree in counseling. And his son and daughter-in-law, David and Jenna, live in Asheville, where David works as an architect at Arca Design.
He realizes that newcomers can’t understand what the area was like when he grew up here — to him it was almost like living in Mayberry on the "Andy Griffith Show." He would go to downtown Hendersonville with his grandfather, sit on a bench and listen to the stories told.
“I do miss that special close community that it used to be,” said Koontz. “I am happy about the region’s growth, but now there are people coming here from all over the world. They don’t have roots or a connection here. When something is bulldozed over, they don’t know the heritage or the people who built it.”
He hopes he can preserve a touch of the heritage he loves through his art. He wants people to have a visceral reaction to his paintings and get a sense of the importance of this place.
“I want my work to not just look real, but to pull someone into the scene,” he said. “I’ve seen that happen and it’s very rewarding. The greatest enjoyment for me is to see someone treasure the work. I’m trying to capture what I know of the mountains, what I think is special.”
Koontz realizes he could have made more money relocating to a big city when he was fresh out of college, but Asheville is home and a place he and his wife wanted to live and raise their family. He spent years working in graphic design for various printing establishments — 19 years alone at Blue Ridge Printing. He’s been working as a freelance graphic designer and painter since 2008.
His projects have included illustration projects for Mast General Store, including its annual Christmas cards, and book illustration for author Nadia Dean. His paintings are featured in three local galleries: Grovewood Gallery, Gallery of the Mountains and Crossnore Fine Art Gallery.
While he loves painting landscapes, he also accepts commissions for portraits of people and houses. He’s beginning to probe into wildlife painting.
“I have this desire and urge to be a great painter. I want to be as good as painters of the past,” said Koontz as he named some of his favorites: William Bougereau, Charles Curran, Ivan Shishkin, the Hudson River painters, and Pre-Raphaelite artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John William Waterhouse.
He also gives nod to Norman Rockwell, saying, “I love his ability to tell a story. Narrative paintings are some of the the highest forms of painting in history. He could do it better than just about anybody and usually with a humorous twist. I wouldn’t mind dong that some day.
"I want my art to make a difference,” he continued. “I want it to be something of value, be treasured, and have a purpose in years to come. That’s one reason I use good materials. They will last.”
A painting by Bryan Koontz titled "Grandfather's Quiet Hour." (Photo: Courtesy Bryan Koontz,)
To commission a painting, contact Koontz through his website, www.bryankoontzfineart.com.
What: "Of Time and the River IV," an art show and gala to benefit RiverLink, featuring local landscape painters.
When: Gala is 6-9 p.m. Oct. 27. Free public viewing and sale on Oct. 28-29
Where: Zealandia Castle on Beaucatcher Mountain.
Gala tickets: $75 admission at riverlink.org