In early 2022 Smithson visited abstract painter Julian Brown at his Brighton home and studio. Over tea and cake, and in the company of a shy cat, we discussed how Julian imbues emotion into abstraction, plays on the threshold of ‘bad painting’, embraces mistakes, and taps into his subconscious

What would you say is the focus of your painting practice?

I think there are two dimensions to my practice, half of my work is about control, and half my work is about expression. My mother was quite an expressive painter, and my father was a designer so I think I’ve got these two elements at play, and in a subconscious way I think I’m still trying to please them.

I would say the focus of my painting practice centres on control, surface, and colour. But I’m also very interested in chaos, and how I can push the boundaries of failure. This means I have works that are quite clunky and maybe less resolved, but this is part of the artistic journey, and I learn from them.

"I like this idea that the best way into something is through mistakes"

You’ve previously mentioned an interest in ‘bad painting’, I guess it’s a fine line to tread between chaos and failure?

Yes, I am certainly interested in how far you can push things visually. A friend and I were thinking about doing a show on ‘knackered geometry’. I like that idea of things being tired. It’s almost like a fatigue with modern aesthetic, thinking about all the conventions we subscribe to and the long history of geometric painting. How are you going to make a painting that says something that’s contemporary? I like the idea of it all falling away, being more playful, or less resolved. Vulnerability also plays an important part - I definitely want to show some vulnerability, I think it’s an important part of both identity and creativity. You couldn’t just make a bad painting though … well actually you could, I could show you some! (laughing)

Failure is always an important part of the wider process, like you said, something we all learn from.

This is it, there are a lot of paintings that don’t resolve themselves, but I want to push myself. I don’t just want to rehash the same painting over and over again, I want each individual piece to say something, to stand on its own.

Tell us more about how you practice control in your paintings, what techniques do you use?

The control often begins with preparing the surface, I will often completely sand down the tooth of the canvas, so the paint glides on really easily, giving it this kind of transparent effect. Or I will choose a very heavy linen, prime it quite considerably and then use loads of heavily thick acrylic with loads of medium to get that tactile, malleable surface to work with. These surfaces then anchor the rest of the painting.

I also use grids, and have been making work with grids for ages, all through my MA. It’s almost like a setting up process for me, I will always draw a grid on a painting with pencil. It’s always quite interesting starting off with a formal predetermined structure, and then trying to break that down through the painting process. I like this idea that the best way into something is through mistakes, or just trying something out. For example, one day I got so frustrated with a piece of work, I ended up with this big black puddle in the middle of the painting. But actually, what that did was totally deal with a lot of the compositional problems that I was having.

So, I either need the surface to dictate what the painting does, or the grid system to give me the network, because otherwise I just find the work becomes too free, too open, and I need something to balance that chaos/failure relationship.

"each motif that expands into my paintings is like a fraction of experience"

The imperfections in artworks are often the elements that are the most captivating, or insightful.

When I was at the Royal Academy I had a tutor, who was very into hard edged geometric stuff, telling me that I needed to get rid of the pencil marks. Then the artist Gerard Hemsworth, who was head of Goldsmiths at the time, came in and told me that I needed to keep the pencil marks, otherwise people won’t see the history of the work, they won’t see how it’s made, and that’s the whole point. So, from then on I have embraced the mistakes that have happened in paintings - you will see marks, and layers of dribble. All of these expressive marks, the drips and splodges, they all happen through an investigation of wanting to break free of the very formal beginnings.

How else did your time at the RA shape you as an artist?

They really encouraged you to find your own path. In a sense it was like a finishing school, it was more important in telling me what not to do than what to do. Tutors’ voices still resonate every time I’m in the studio. 

There are certain motifs that arise throughout your practice, can you tell us a bit more about these repeated shapes?

Most of the motifs come from gestural marks – they started off with swoosh marks, then they ended up becoming these floating boats, or crescent moons that fall down the canvas. Often when I’m in the painting process, things start to emerge from memories or past experiences. For example, this is a painting my mother made a few years after the family fled Poland during the war. It’s a painting of Mamaroneck in the US but it’s always interested me how it retains a very Polish aesthetic despite being a picture of a completely different world. It made me realise how much of yourself and your background you bring to a place. I think my paintings are very much influenced by this, the things we grew up around as children, each motif that expands into my paintings is like a fraction of experience.

The circle is also a common motif in your works, can you tell us more about them?

The art critic Cherry Smith pointed out that my work is almost like a scene at the end of a party, you know where there’s the balloons and decorations strewn everywhere. At the time I was making these works (see image) my daughter was having parties and breaking down at them, so this piece is called ‘I’ll cry if I want to’, and the circles are like balloons. I subconsciously made these paintings about that excitement, and then everything beginning to fall apart.

"I’m always searching for a sense of luminosity in the paintings"

That’s such a fantastic comparison! So, it seems to me that your work often emerges from personal memories and emotions?

Yes, and I make a conscious effort to try and imbue that emotion into the paintings. I think I have been trying to get a lot of emotion back into abstraction really. I had years of being taught by tutors where there was no emotional dimension, people like Patrick Caulfield who preferred very dry hard-edged abstraction. But I was always interested in artists like Mary Heilmann, Monique Preito, and Beatrice Milhazes. What they were doing with abstraction was more about colour and emotion.

Interesting that they are all female artists…

Yes indeed! I remember the artist Vanessa Jackson (RA) said to me, ‘You’ve got a very light touch, even though the paint is quite heavy, the finishing touch is quite light’. And maybe that’s a more feminine thing, or at least less common with male artists. 

Tell us more about the materials you’re using?

I am allergic to oil paint, so I use acrylics on my canvases. One of the best comments I ever got was from the artist Matthew Krishanu, who looked at my paintings and said, ‘You can really tell the difference between acrylics and oils. You can tell yours are oils because they are so sumptuous’. So that was a real win for me!

I use different acrylics depending on the transparency, but the surface is key to the transparency, that lightness of touch, you can see these bits are sanded back – quite layered to begin with, and then pulled back. And some of these marks are literally wiped with a baby wipe or something just over the surface, there’s a lot of removal of paint in my work.

I use watercolour for my works on paper, I love about the transparency of watercolour. I consider my watercolours like drawings. I don’t do a lot of sketchbook work, I like all the spontaneity and everything to be on the piece.

As well as chaos and control, there also seems to be a play on quiet and noise. Some of your works are bright and loud, and others a lot calmer and quieter. Can you tell us a bit more about your colour palette choices, and how this also informs the compositions?

Much of this is a temperament thing, in the studio I feel the need for intensity and relief, sometimes I think I will make a whole series of one work but my I always keep fluctuating between the two. The calmer palette in some of my paintings actually came about from the colourful paintings where a layered over a thin vail of buff. colour to try and knock back the intensity. Almost like a mist over the paintings, so many of calm paintings have bright undertones of colour underneath. Whichever way I’m painting either colourful and intense or calm and expansive I’m always searching for a sense of luminosity in the paintings. It’s a reaction to how colour and transparency sits on the surface. What happens in one painting will inform another and it’s a slowly evolving process. When I have a show I also like this idea that the exhibition is a bit like a garden, you have different colours, intensity and feelings the cross the whole spectrum of emotions.

You have been involved in some fantastic shows, are there any that particularly stand out in your memory?

In 2017 I had a solo show in Yantai, a coastal city in China, which was fascinating. It’s a small city for China, but still has a population of about 7.5 million! The gallery was absolutely huge, outside I had posters for my show the size of this room, and the private view was absolutely packed. It was also so formal, there was a symposium arranged with over 30 lecturers from all around China, and I even went for lunch with the mayor! The whole thing was extraordinary in so many ways. I also had a show at The Mayor’s Parlour, a space in a listed 1920 Art Deco building in Bow run by some friends of Tracy Emin’s. It was a kinda artist hang out space for a lot of the older YBA group.

What are your artistic ambitions for the future?

For me essentially it’s all about making good paintings. I’ve started making some really big paintings which I’m excited by and I haven’t done for a long time - I’d love to exhibit these soon.