John Brown is a painter. His process includes applying oil paint to a panel and then scraping it off. His paintings are collected by individuals, corporations and public institutions across Canada. He’s exhibited in Toronto, Montreal, Berlin, Shanghai and New York.
I start paintings from photographs but I use them in a loose diagrammatic way. I’ll loosely draw something and then build up the surface. I build it up pretty randomly sometimes. It used to be really random but now it’s a bit more focused. I’m always trying to just paint the image and not scrape it but I always end up having to remove stuff.
When I first got out of school, I was painting with dry pigment mixed into egg and oil. I ran out of dry pigment and didn’t have much money, but I had some oil paint. I had to make a painting to send off to a show and didn’t like what I was doing so I scraped the paint off to start over. I liked the scraping and from there it developed a lot. Now, scraping is a form of drawing. That’s how I draw the image on the surface, by scraping it.
My favourite time to work is between two p.m. and nine p.m. I like it when all of a sudden the building clears out and it’s really quiet in here. I’m not the kind of painter that can apply paint for 13 or 14 hours. That’s a waste of time for me. I’m productive for six hours and after that I start wrecking everything. I start overdoing it and I need to get away from it. When I come back, I can exercise some restraint.
My friend upstairs, Howard Podeswa–it’s very different how he works. He’ll work on something and wipe it off when he’s not satisfied. He works on the same image, changing it all the time so it makes sense for him to work for a long time. Howard loves pushing paint around but I don’t. I don’t get a kick out of it. I like the finished thing. I always say, ‘I don’t like painting but I like paintings.’
I’m always trying to make the right thing in the first shot. Sometimes, I procrastinate and won’t remove something I know needs removal because there’s that fear of it completely falling apart. In 2005, I started using Photoshop to see how things would work and how the painting will end up. That’s a big part of my process. I can deduce changes on Photoshop which, I think, really sped things up for me. Sometimes what I want to remove is a big part of the painting and if it doesn’t work, I have to start from the beginning. When a deadline is getting close, Photoshop really helps.
I use one tool in two sizes. They’re paint scrapers but they have removable blades that are really sharp. Those yellow ones don’t work so I live in fear of this company going out of business. I’ve had these at least 20 years. They’re my main tool. They’re great.
I also use these soft hair brushes. I tend to like small brushes and I tend to like soft hair. I don’t put any medium in my paint at all. A little bit of turpentine once in a while, and paint thinner, but hardly ever. It’s mostly the same as when it comes out of the tube. I like it to be dry. I used to put it on cardboard to dry it out, so it’s paste-y.
I found out that I really like having people around while I work. I don’t like working alone. That started when the University of Guelph sent me an assistant as a credit course, James Gardner. My current assistant, Luke, is here three or four times a week for the last four years. It really helps me out when we talk about what’s going on. At a certain point, there’s not much you can do with the paint so Luke does a lot of the scraping but when it gets down to the end of the painting, I have to do all of that myself because it’s crucial.
It’s funny–I like having people here while I’m working but I don’t like the feeling of people seeing in through windows. Light doesn’t matter that much to me. I would hate to give up listening to music, though. The last few years I’ve been listening to a lot of trashy three chord rock music from Memphis.
I like louder or faster music when I’m painting because quieter music requires too much concentration and that pulls me away from my work. Three chord rock and roll, I can let it in one ear and out the other. I like vinyl and still have vinyl, but it’s done every 15 minutes and you have to go wash your hands to flip it over. On a lot of my old records, the first song on each side is ruined by paint.
–John Brown, as told to Studio Beat
Photos by Lauren Barless
Check out John Brown’s paintings here.