Creator Stories with Kimberly Brooks
by Isa Adney
A story of becoming an artist, embracing the digital, and seeing every technological shift as an opportunity to communicate the things that never change. Photography by Isadora Kosofsky.
Kimberly Brooks says she likes my outfit – dark high-waisted jeans, a Taylor Swift-Stella McCartney T-shirt with a kitten on the front, black wedge sneakers, and a red-striped blazer. On any day, from anyone, a compliment like this would make me smile – but when Kimberly Brooks compliments my style, I glow.
Kimberly knows a little more about fashion, color, and style than most. One of her early painting projects, The Stylist Project, was featured in Vanity Fair, Vogue and internationally recognized around the world – a portrait series where she asked stylists to come out from the background, style themselves, and pose for a painting.
I feel silly that I can’t remember what Kimberly was wearing that day. I was too distracted by her face – open, giving, framed by shoulder-length wavy-blonde hair – and, of course, her paintings.
Standing in her artist studio I find it hard to look away from the “Jerusalem” canvas, a piece from her latest body of work which is more architectural. It takes up the entire back wall and I almost walk right through it as if I’m in some elevated version of Blue’s Clue’s.
But instead of gushing about her art or herself, Kimberly is excited to show me the artist she just live-streamed an interview with today for her online course. She believes deeply in what she calls “giving artists oxygen” – sharing space so all artists can thrive, something she did on a grand scale with her “First Person Artist” weekly column, then going on to found the Huffington Post Arts section which she grew to 20 million views per month.
Kimberly has been making a living as an artist for a long time, embracing every digital transformation, seeing every technological shift as just another way to communicate the things that never change. But looking at Kimberly you would never guess she’s been blazing art and technology trails for decades. Her face radiates with an open-heartedness rarely seen in people over 25, coupled with a pulsing Yoda-like-energy of someone who can tell you things that will change your life.
I sit across from Kimberly in the garden just outside her Southern California studio. The wind is strong, rustling the pages of my notebook filled with questions that I barely glance at for the next hour. I can feel the space expanding, the oxygen growing.
Kimberly’s eyes have a kind of directive about them, as if they’re quietly willing you to be the artist you never thought you could be, giving you permission to be more than you ever thought possible.
And maybe that’s because Kimberly knows what it feels like to hide your art, to run away from what you really want to be doing, and what it takes to finally become what you never thought you could be.
“You can be anything you want, just as long as you’re a doctor first.” That’s what Kimberly’s parents would often say. She came from a family of doctors and “the thought of being an artist for a living was not an option. That was against the law. That was like going to Mars. It was not even remotely a possibility.”
As a kid, Kimberly was always drawing and always insisted on redesigning the yearbooks at school. She loved color, and painted with acrylic and watercolor, but for some reason painting with oil felt sacred to her: “I felt like it was something you needed permission to do.”
Her college dorm at UC Berkeley happened to be right next to a tiny art store, and after classes she would go inside and stare at the colors. She was drawn to this one tube of oil paint – “Cadmium Red.” She asked the store clerk about it, who explained, “This is the best red money can buy. It’s brighter than a fire truck, redder than blood; it’s the perfect red.”
Kimberly knows what it feels like to hide your art, to run away from what you really want to be doing.
Kimberly bought it and kept the tube of oil paint in her book bag. But it remained unopened. “It took me years to muster up the courage to just paint in oil.” But by the end of her senior year, she couldn’t ignore it anymore.
She drew a pencil sketch on canvas and dipped her brush right into the tube (she laughs as she remembers how she had no idea what she was doing).
As she moved the brush through the air, dripping with that pure red, something began to change. The moment the red touched the canvas, she knew: “Oh. This is what I’m going to be doing the rest of my life.”
She said that it felt like someone had taken a razor blade to the parachute she’d been living under her entire life. It was scary, but she was drawn to that sliver of sky, determined to become an artist. “It’s one thing to be considered ‘talented’ and another to doggedly pursue being an artist. You need both.”
Kimberly graduated Valedictorian in English Literature and got a job as a speech writer. But it didn’t take long until the ache to paint started to grow. “The job looked great on the outside, but I had to follow my calling. I think if you have an artist inside you, you know it.”
After a giant earthquake hit San Francisco, Kimberly knew it was time. “It was like two hands in the sky shook me and I thought, I have to figure out how to paint for the rest of my life.”
She moved to Paris to paint, and made money playing piano in bars at night.
Paris was as romantic and inspiring as promised, but for her, being surrounded by all that older European art was strangely less inspiring to her than the world she left behind. “Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, I felt their weight. I couldn’t wait to get back to California.”
Kimberly moved back to California, but Paris had its effect. She came back to the US resolved to find an answer to one question: “How will I design my life so I can devote it to painting and being an artist?”
Show up and show your work.
It took her years to figure it out, and it wasn’t easy. But what she learned turned into her “ecosystem of creation” – the system she teaches in her online course, Oil Painting Fluency & Flow (which lives on a site Kimberly aptly named PaintingisMagic.com). One of her favorite things to teach is creativity as a lifecycle. “Too many artists make work and don’t show it or take themselves seriously enough to produce a body of work.”
In those early years she dedicated herself to the system she would one day teach:
- Make a body of work
- Take it (and yourself) seriously
- Share it with the world
All three steps are essential for a professional artist. And all are easier said than done.
To make her body of work, she painted constantly, continuing even after her two kids were born, painting every night after she put them to bed, deliberate about making time to make art: “I definitely had to protect my space to create. Art is compressed time. So artists are always trying to maximize the amount of time they have to create.”
She took creative day jobs in the early days that allowed her to both pay the bills and give her time to paint.
She grew her artistic knowledge during this time as well, taking courses at an art school she’d one day teach at, and learning all she could about her craft and the artists and painters that came before.
The internet didn’t exist when it first came time for Kimberly to share her body of work, but she did the things that always work, in any decade, with any technology – show up and show your work.
“Studying craft inside and out, gaining fluency, is the key to finding your voice.”
She showed up to galleries with her paintings, and got her first show that way. And because she remained dedicated to her ecosystem – always creating, showing up, showing her work, learning – her paintings kept selling.
She got a gallery, and then another, and it wasn’t long before the momentum and critical acclaim led her to becoming the contemporary artist and leader in her community that she is known for – having exhibitions, teaching workshops and speaking at prestigious institutions around the country.
She started an email list because she wanted to have direct communication with the people who were interested in her work. When she first discovered sequences – that you could schedule emails ahead of time to go out in a series – she impulsively created “The Narrative Painting Project” to share the stories behind her paintings.
Her list became another place to show up, share, and give oxygen. People love getting her emails, myself included – it feels like a small gallery experience in my inbox, a chance to catch a breath and see the day with a painter’s eye.
She couldn’t get out of bed for three days.
Kimberly’s first foray into teaching started when painting made her sick.
After more than a decade of painting, she noticed that she started to feel funny from the smell of solvents – painters use solvents like turpentine to wipe off the oil paint in between strokes. “On a fundamental level I knew that solvent exposure couldn’t be good for anyone, but I didn’t realize how harmful it was. It is so liberally encouraged in art schools and art stores.”
But one day she felt so sick she couldn’t get out of bed for three days. “I knew something was terribly wrong, possibly unnatural, to the way I was painting and I wanted to learn more.”
She took some time off to dive deep into the subject. She researched how oil painting methods have changed in the last few centuries, and learned that solvents were not only unnecessary, but were not a foundational part of original oil paintings at all.
She found a way to paint more naturally, without harmful chemicals, without getting sick.
She reached out to her alma mater, The Otis College of Art and Design, immediately and started teaching painting classes so that she could spread the word. She also wrote a book: Oil Painting Safe Practices: The Essential Guide (Chronicle Books).
Once she learned about online courses, it was a natural transition, the perfect way to reach more people with this vital information. A few months ago she used her email list to launch her first course, an eight week comprehensive program that covers everything that she’s gathered from a lifetime of oil painting.
She put a lot of care and attention into building a course that would fill in the gaps she was seeing:
Painting instruction today is often quite idiosyncratic, involves harmful solvents and skips some of the more technical aspects involving basic craft and so much more. I developed this curriculum that not only integrates all the secrets and fundamentals of how to build a painting but also weaves in depth studio visits with other contemporary artists.
The course has been going so well that she’s launching her first masterclass soon: Build A Body of Work.
To date she’s had 58 students from at least four continents – artists, writers, art professors, a Disney animator, a doctor, and even a tech CEO – and we soon realize the time has flown and one of the weekly live streams she does for her students is starting in five minutes.
“Sometimes, my paintings are like my patients.”
Kimberly’s assistant Heather arrives to help her prep for the livestream, and as we wrap up our conversation in the garden Heather hands Kimberly a clipboard filled with thumbnails of paintings the way a nurse might hand one to a doctor. And as if Kimberly knows exactly what I’m thinking, she turns the clipboard toward me and says, “Sometimes, my paintings are my like patients.”
This clipboard is part of her ecosystem; it falls into the space between creating and taking your work seriously – it’s the editing phase. These printed pages clipped tightly feature rows of small thumbnails of the paintings she’s working on. At the top is a table of contents that reads:
Paintings in Progress ….p.1
Rescue Missions….p. 4
There are eight “Paintings in Progress.” Below each thumbnail image is a tiny typed caption that indicates where she left off, or what she wants to do next. She keeps track of her editing process, a part of taking the work seriously; I can literally feel more oxygen enter my lungs when I read it, the reminder I never tire of needing hitting me again, this time with a visual. Greatness is in the editing.
“How will I design my life so I can devote it to painting and being an artist?”
Below the painting titled “Los Angeles” is the directive, “Flatten some sky. Lighten some leaves.” Another, called “Green Room,” has a note written in pencil: “needs one side gilded.”
Kimberly believes that the key to creating art that resonates is to take the time – just like a doctor does – to study. “Studying craft inside and out, gaining fluency, is the key to finding your voice.” Craft is what arms you with the tools you need to share your unique voice clearly, unmuddled.
It’s this ecosystem – the editing, the boldness to create a body of work and show up and share it again and again – that gives every artist the real chance at the dream of being seen and making a difference.
(A few weeks after our interview, Kimberly mails me a new custom painted notebook as a gift. The grey and black hues swirling and jutting up from the surface, and a fiery orange-red hue emerges from it all, strong, upwards. I almost cry when I smell the fresh paint, see the red – it feels like a gift, indeed; the gift of permission to let your voice run wild.)
Today, Kimberly’s art is prolific; she’s been featured in numerous books internationally, published an essay that went viral called “The Creative Process in Eight Stages,” gave a TED Talk on the same subject (which also inspired an album), and started a blog interviewing artists in their studios. Her paintings are still exhibited around the world.
Her breadth of accomplishments, high energy, and artistic self-assuredness can almost make you think she’s fearless. But just before she clicks the red button to begin her live lesson she tells me that she’s far far from fearless: “I’ve been afraid plenty of times. But I think I kind of like it. I get bored when I’m not a little bit afraid.”