Brent Sanders: The artist behind Chattanooga’s Southern Expressionism

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga artist Brent Sanders works in his studio/gallery on Main Street.

Chattanoogan Brent Sanders grew up frequenting the downtown skateboarding scene in the mid-'80s. Pre-aquarium, he said there was nothing going on in downtown Chattanooga on Saturdays, allowing a group of local skaters to kickflip to their heart's content. Little did Sanders know that a few decades later, he'd be making a living selling his vibrant paintings of the same area he'd admired from his skateboard.

Sanders is now known for his colorful scenes of Chattanooga. Sanders' family has deep roots in the Chattanooga region, as his great-grandfather was a coal miner at Durham Mines on Lookout Mountain. Whether he's painting the Choo Choo or a block on Market Street, he explores the city's nooks and crannies to portray the heart of his home.

Sanders studied graphic design at Chattanooga State and had his first job with a computer software company working on video game graphics. A few years later, he stepped out of his role to begin freelance design and illustration work. While in New Orleans, Sanders picked up a "loose, colorful style" that he would later incorporate into his art.


Southern Expressionism

By 2000, Sanders had taught himself technical painting skills and had founded his own studio and gallery with his wife, Renae, who operates the business side. He was influenced by Philip Burke's colorful illustrations of stars in Rolling Stone magazine, photorealistic street paintings by Ralph Goings from the mid-'60s, German Expressionism and more. He combined his design background with the technical elements of color theory and the fundamentals he picked up from other artists to establish the Southern Expressionist work that many Chattanoogan landmarks, such as the Edwin Hotel and the Walnut Street Bridge, now display in his paintings.

Sanders said that he sees Southern Expressionism as a blend of Southern folk art with pop art and skateboard culture.


Sanders uses acrylic paint because he can manipulate the drying time as he sees fit, as opposed to the long drying period associated with oil paint.

He prefers to draw inspiration from his own photography of local scenes or places he has traveled, unless a customer insists otherwise. Occasionally, he said that he paints a landscape on-site. When it comes to cityscapes, he prefers to paint from photographs to avoid the live hustle and bustle of the urban environment.

First, Sanders grids the photo to the canvas and crops his photo to the right proportions. Then, he starts the scene with a pencil drawing. Next comes a yellow-orange wash upon which he later builds his darker purples and blues, stacking from dark to light. Once the painting is done, he adds his signature ink detailing and varnishes the painting.

While his heart is in Chattanooga, Sanders travels and has expanded his subject matter to include the animals and cities he photographs along the way, such as New York, Chicago, Miami, etc. He also works from drone footage to get aerial views of the landscapes he paints.

Sanders works from photographs and takes most of his color inspiration from there, but he takes the artistic liberty to change the time of day in the painting and play with color as he sees fit. A photo he shot from a New York City hotel room on a rainy day was changed into a brighter day, and a scene from Hilton Head was transformed into a sunset scene.

"It's the beauty of being a painter versus photographer," Sanders said.

Community Presence

In addition to canvas work, Sanders has taken on local mural pieces in the past and found himself interested in abstract art after volunteering to paint the outside of Rivermont Elementary School. Someone else had started the job in an abstract style, so Sanders created bursts of blue swirls to complete the rest of the white panels.

After his abstract mural for the elementary school, Sanders was hooked. He has created 40 abstract paintings since and sees them as a way to hone his fundamentals in between his bigger landscapes. The reverse of his typical scenes, these abstract pieces allow Sanders to start by determining his background color and then work backward by punching geometric holes and using his color concept to develop the piece.

While abstract may seem far from Sanders' original pieces, he said that the windows and small details in his city pieces follow his abstract style.


Sanders has participated in the 4 Bridges Art Festival 22 times and has done regional outdoor shows in Atlanta, Memphis and Nashville, during which he was primarily focused on Chattanooga scenes. He has since broadened his horizons to include industrial scenes, horse landscapes and other subject matter but remains consistent in maintaining his style, he said.

"I am adamant about continuing my style and nurturing it and building it out more," he explained.

Sanders can be found most days at his studio and gallery on East Main Street, where he spends his time painting and petting his border collie, Ari.

To see more of Sanders' art, go to