Bend artist excels at Santa

Tom Browning paints St. Nick, also has Western fine-art career

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

Published Dec 25, 2013 at 12:01AM

If you have a cookie tin, throw pillow or even a wastebasket depicting Santa Claus in all his rosy-cheeked glory, the odds are strong that Bend oil painter Tom Browning created the image.

Browning, of Bend, isn’t just renowned for his Santa Claus work — he’s been called the world’s premier Santa Claus artist.

His heartwarming oil paintings of ol’ St. Nick include the traditional — Santa sampling cookies fireside, dropping a gift in a stocking or gliding through the air in his sleigh — but also the nontraditional: Santa frolicking with elves at the beach during the offseason, skiing, fishing, playing golf or even painting.

Over the years he’s been painting Santa, Browning’s Christmas images have been published in books such as 1997’s “Santa’s Time Off” and a 2009 edition of “The Night Before Christmas.”

Browning, 64, was born in the Eastern Oregon town of Ontario. From early childhood, “I knew what I wanted to do,” he said over coffee in November. “(Art) is all I ever wanted to do, and so I always took classes … that leaned toward art.”

He majored in art at the University of Oregon, but dropped out just shy of graduation.

“Since I knew what direction I was going to go, I wanted to get started right away,” he said. If he needed a diploma later, he could always go back and finish, he thought. “I’m not saying it was the best decision, but it made sense at the time to a 20-year-old eager for a career in art,” he said.

A Western start

It would be a couple of years before his career got started, but the often remarked upon verisimilitude Browning brings to painting wildlife, including the musculature of horses in his Western paintings, can likely be traced back to a job he took after leaving school.

“I worked for a taxidermist to help learn the anatomy of various animals. I was very interested in painting wildlife, so I thought I’d learn it from the inside out, so to speak,” he said.

By 1972, he was working as a professional fine-art painter. “That’s where my interest was, and it’s just kind of stayed there,” he said. Browning’s wildlife and Western art first landed him in galleries, but “I’ve painted absolutely everything.”

Throughout his long career, he has painted landscapes, still life, portraits, wildlife and figurative pieces.

In the early 1980s, he started painting Santas for his own pleasure. By 1984, he and his wife, Joyce Browning, decided to turn it into a business, selling postcards and prints through The Spirit of Santa (www.thespiritofsanta.com). Joyce concentrated on the financial and business aspects, while Tom preferred to create and paint.

For those in the Santa business, the holidays are a little different.

“You don’t get to enjoy Christmas the way normal people do,” he said with a chuckle. “You have to have all your products and everything ready in January for the (trade) shows. That just kind of sucks up your whole Christmas season, getting ready for that.”

In 2006, he decided to channel much of his energy into Western themes. In 2009, he won the prestigious Prix de West Purchase Award at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, “which is a big deal in my circle,” he said.

“And then later that year, I was invited into the Cowboy Artists of America, which is a pretty elite group,” Browning explained. “They usually have no more than 30 members. It’s been around a long time, so it was a real honor to be invited into that.”

“I’ve (painted) all these years, but that’s what you work long and hard for … at some point in your career, to be recognized and reap the rewards of your hard work.”

In late 2009 — “the same year that all this great stuff happened,” he said, laughing — Browning was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. The two surgeries it required have affected his balance and his hearing in one ear, and cold weather didn’t help.

The Brownings moved to Arizona for two years but returned to Bend earlier this year and are building a home in Brasada Ranch.

“We went down there, and I found out that I didn’t do any better in really hot weather,” he said. “We enjoyed it while we were down there, but it was time to come back. We really like Central Oregon, so there wasn’t any question of where we would go next.”

Collectible work

Virginia deKat, of Bend, collects Browning’s work. Among the paintings by Browning that she owns are a large flamenco dancer and a commissioned oil of her granddaughter, Emma.

Still another, “The Gatherer,” depicts a woman with a basket. “She’s gathering wheat; she’s beautiful,” deKat said.

What she finds most appealing about his work is “the sensitivity,” deKat said. “The sensitivity to light, to the emotion of the person in the painting, the attention to detail with every brush stroke.”

“He’s a master painter,” she added, stressing that Browning is “not just a Santa painter.”

Kelly Meiners, of Salem, another collector of his work, believes the themes he explores in his work represent different aspects of the man himself.

“His fine art is his appreciation for beauty of life,” she said. “The Western … represents his qualities, his loyalty and his friendship.” And his Santa paintings “represent his sense of humor.”

Said Browning, “It’s funny that for a long time, the work that I did the least amount of — being Santas — made the biggest impact, and at one point was the biggest factor in our whole income and our life.

“You would think that … I would do a lot more of that, but it’s such a small industry that it’s easy to saturate the market and have designs start cannibalizing each other.”

Browning is in the unique position of being an artist who’s been highly successful and well known in two discrete worlds that have very little overlap.

“People who knew me for Santas didn’t know that I did anything else. And all the people in the fine art world who knew me for my fine art didn’t have any idea that I did the Santas,” he said. His Western work hangs in galleries in Texas, Wyoming and Arizona.

The wall he constructed between those worlds was his to tear down, however. “I always tried to keep them separate, until a few years ago, when I just realized it didn’t really matter. Nobody really cared one way or the other.”

If anything, “galleries, collectors and artists alike really like the Santas,” he said. “They think it’s a wonderful deal, too.”

Browning’s original oils sell for thousands of dollars on the National Cowboy Museum’s website, www.nationalcowboymuseum.org. “Lonesome in Paradise,” a 30-by-48-inch work, is listed for $30,000.

In 1994, he wrote an instructional book called “Timeless Techniques for Better Oil Paintings.” It was so well-received by students and educators that Browning would go on to spend the next 10 years traveling around the country to teach painting workshops and put on painting demonstrations.

A while back, they turned over the reins of the business to their adult son, Michael, who took over the card and print business. He lives in Eugene with their granddaughter, Jordan.

“Joyce was tired of (it). It’s hard work, and she’d done it for 20-some years. He expressed an interest in taking it over,” Browning explained.

Over the past decade, he’s pulled back from teaching, but he’s still plenty busy. At the moment, he’s preparing paintings for three of the largest Western shows in the country: the Masters of the American West show at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles in February, the Prix de West in June, followed by the Cowboy Artists of America’s annual show in the fall. He must complete paintings for each show two months in advance.

“I have the busiest schedule right now that I’ve ever had. I’m painting for the top three shows in the country, as well as a three-man show this coming spring. That will be at my Texas gallery, Insight Gallery in Fredericksburg,” he said.

Further, “Joyce and I have decided to put together another children’s book about Santa, so that should take up all the time I have next year,” he said.

Though he finds deadline pressures helpful, he’d never want anyone to think it’s not the best he can do, he said. “That’s still always at the forefront of my whole thought process when I paint. Every painting’s got to be better than the last one.”

As serious as his interest in his Western art, Browning still makes time for his Santa work.

“Santa’s been very good to Tom,” Browning said.

He’s optimistic that the next decade will be the most important and productive of his painting life.

“I figure the next 10 years are going to be the best 10 years of my career, as far as what I produce,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com