Canadian artist Brian Simons’ exuberant paintings use colour and humour to celebrate all aspects of what it means to be human. He works from imagination to allow his subconscious to determine the shapes and consequent subject matter than emerges on each canvas. In this interview Brian explains his belief that you can think too much about making art – what’s important is to just get on and make.
Lisa: When and how did you become and painter, and why do you paint?
Brian: I started painting about 35 years ago or so. In my heart, I always wanted to paint, but was trained as an engineer and discouraged from going to art school. I was greatly moved by the Baha’i writings that state: “the best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling…” and jumped into painting without any training. I found I was happiest when painting and have been doing so almost daily since that time. It’s quite an addiction, almost a disease … for me life is not worth living if I can’t paint and I get quite colicky when I don’t. It’s very much a love affair!
Lisa: Painting from imagination can be quite a scary idea for lots of people – not having the framework of a reference means you are unhinged. Why is painting this way so important to you?
Brian: It’s important to me because it is so much fun. One never knows ahead of time what is going to show up, and it’s always a surprise to me. One has to be open to the ideas that come to him and willing not to think too much. I’ve always thought that really great painters do NOT know what they are doing, but simply be quiet and do as they are told by inner promptings, inspiration, the muse. Takes a lot of courage and this is what I’m hoping to learn to do more consistently; to go to the canvas empty and just do as I’m told without questioning. The wisdom in all the actions can realised after the execution of the painting.
Lisa: You have a very exuberant colour sense. How do you decide which colours you are going to use for a particular painting, and is a palette for each painting pre-meditated or do you follow your nose?
Brian: I usually just follow my nose as you say and do as I’m told. Wish I had the innocence of a child who picks a colour for no reason … just because and it works beautifully. Sometimes the colour palette is limited and sometimes lots of bold colours. I just go with what I think will work. When I started painting, I read several books on colour and colour theory and totally confused myself. No two books agree on everything and after reading all those books, I convinced myself it will take several lifetimes to master colour. Somehow I realised all that knowledge about colour was a barrier, a stumbling block and the best thing I could do was to forget it all … so I did. I use what I use because I like it that’s all. So much knowledge is derived after the fact; the quarterback throws a remarkable pass that leads to a touchdown, and right after all the experts show up analysing the play to death. I don’t believe the quarterback knew any of that! He just rose up, forgot himself and put that ball where it should be. He just did it without knowing how.
Lisa: Can you tell us the typical life story of a painting – do you do a lot of preparatory sketching, does the composition often alter once you start adding paint to canvas?
Brian: I usually go to the canvas with nothing in mind … no preparation at all. Sometimes I will put some gesso or light paint on the canvas at random to create slight variations in the white. I then stare at the canvas to identify faint shapes or patterns. If I see something I right away jump in and start to develop it. If nothing comes to me, I often just start putting paint on canvas maybe in the shape of a figure and very quickly the ideas come. I like to pull the painting out of the canvas so to speak but firstly have to see it or imagine parts of it. Once I start putting paint down the ideas come very quickly and I try my best to be obedient to those ideas. In no time at all, the painting emerges, title and everything. 2-3 hours of work and it’s done.
Lisa: You’ve presented online a lot of Covid-19 related paintings, charting elements of everyday life that have emerged as new familiars for many people during lockdown (stockpiling, crammed living spaces, face masks to name but three). How important was it to you to make those paintings?
Brian: I felt the arts have a great role to play in current events and found people would smile or laugh or feel uplifted by the subtle humour in the work despite it being about a serious pandemic. People could sense the human-ness and everyday struggles we all face these days and felt grateful to see those feelings shared in paint. Somehow the paintings told a story for people and maybe helped them relate to the unusual circumstances humanity faces. The more positive feedback on social media I received about these paintings, the more I realised how helpful they were for many, I wanted to continue. Some expressed how they “made their day”, “made them smile”, “looked forward to seeing them daily”, “uplifted their spirits” etc.
Lisa: What is it about acrylic paints that you like so much?
Brian: I love acrylics, because you don’t need solvents, mineral spirits etc and they dry right away. I also find it easier to arrive at bold, bright colours than oils. I have done many oil paintings earlier in my painting career but found acrylics easiest to work with. I only use acrylic paint and water, no retarders or mediums. I usually apply a gloss varnish when done.
Lisa: I’m interested in how you tackle whimsical subjects (such as aliens) as well as more political ones (racial inequality). Can a good painting be made from any subject?
Brian: In all my work, my intent is to have fun … I just make stuff up and play. Even serious subject matter such as the current racial issues, I try to lighten it up in my work and make it uplifting or humorous if possible. I think anything can be painted, even mundane subjects. It’s the painter’s job to put emotion and life into the work and I’ve always thought the sign of a good painter is someone who can make the ordinary sublime and offer the viewer new ways of seeing.
Lisa: Do you have any tips for how to design a strong composition?
Brian: A couple of things, firstly the darks are like weights, they have to be balanced in the painting. Everything speaks to everything else in a painting … all elements are in a relationship. Simplicity is very important and its helpful for the painter to stick to the big idea, the big shapes and not say everything. If you map out or sketch a composition, do not proceed to paint until you’ve simplified it and the composition itself, should read exciting and full of potential. Balance is everything…..very much like mathematics or a distribution of weights or shapes. I think it’s important not to say too much in one painting, make one statement!
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Brian: Trying to flatten my work even more and keep things up front on the picture plain. After all, we are working on a 2 dimensional surface. There is no depth, and the truth is that it’s a flat surface, not a sculpture. I’m not a fan of the photo-realist work we see today. I think we should let the paint be paint and the viewer’s mind will make it 3D if need be.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Brian: You can see my work in the flesh here in Victoria, BC, Canada in my studio and a few places in town. I have some work in the Weiler House Gallery in Ft. Worth Texas, as well as Skrypnk Gallery here in Victoria. You can also visit my website and social media pages:
Header image: Covid Cowboy, 2020, by Brian Simons, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm