Artist Spotlight: Bryan John
When did you first discover a passion for art?
It was only about five years ago. I was moving house and found a couple of art books I had bought for an essay I was writing for my history degree. I promised myself I would read them properly at the time and never did. They were part of a very accessible series on art, with each book focussing on a particular artist, and it surprised me how much I enjoyed them and, more importantly, that I ‘got it’.
I grew up thinking that I just didn’t get art and it wasn’t for the likes of me – like many working class kids did. In reality, I just didn’t have any exposure to it. I pretty much bought the whole series of books and I was hooked, so one day I bought some paints and tried to put the theory I had learnt into practice. My first painting wasn’t bad so I carried on!
As a London-born artist, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you arrived in Sheffield?
I grew up in South East London on a council estate between Dulwich and Tulse Hill. I worked as a Postman for many years to support my dream of being a musician – which eventually never materialised, although we had a great time trying! At 27, I decided to study for a history degree with the aim of working in museums.
I moved up to Sheffield in 2010. My wife is from Sheffield, so after we got married we thought it made more sense to move up here, as we always enjoyed coming up to visit.
After spending almost a decade here, what do you think to the city and how it might influence creatives?
I love Sheffield, it definitely feels like home. It is home to lots of creative people and I think the environment has a lot to do with that. Firstly, there’s the architecture: a great mix between old and new buildings, and I’ve never experienced such devotion to individual buildings before! The Henderson’s Relish factory for example – the love Sheffielders have for that building is amazing, and they recognise and support any Sheffield creatives who use Sheffield as inspiration.
But beyond the civic pride us Sheffielders have for the city, there is also a great artistic heritage we are proud of; from the art works of Joe Scarborough, Phlegm and Pete McKee, to bands like Pulp, the Arctic Monkeys and Reverend and the Makers. Sheffield is also a very diverse city and it’s that mix of people from very different backgrounds, as well as its past, which gives Sheffield an artistic edge.
The use of bold, striking colours are something that runs throughout your work. What influences you to do this?
When I was reading all the art books, it was the German Expressionists who really caught my eye with their bold use of colour. I was very conservative with colour in my initial paintings and it was only a chance sunset while walking over the River Ouse in York which encouraged me to be really bold with colour.
I particularly like using complimentary colours – these are the colours which sit opposite each other on the colour wheel. So, for example, purple and yellow, and blue and orange. But I have found if you take a step back on the colour wheel, it works better, so blue and yellow or orange and purple; these colours are often seen together in the landscape (albeit subtly). So if you look at a house and think of the bricks as orange and the slate roof as purple, I just exaggerate that and change it where I feel it is necessary for the overall composition.
Your work has covered a range of subjects – from detailed portraits to cityscapes. Do you have a preference?
I think I prefer painting landscapes! I enjoy the process of portrait painting – I find it more relaxing. But the built landscape always inspires me more. I am always walking down the street, or driving and I’ll see something and will have to stop and take a picture! The shapes created by buildings on top of buildings always fascinate me and how the slightest change of angle or light can change everything and you get a completely new picture.
My approach with portraits is to really zoom in close on the subject’s face, leaving nowhere to hide, which is the opposite of the way I approach a landscape painting. For portrait painting, I also keep to the complimentary colour scheme which I use for my landscapes.
You’ve been working towards an exhibition showcasing some of your portrait work, which will feature paintings of Magid Magid, Jon McClure and Louise Haigh MP. What is it that you wanted to capture about these people?
Like the landscapes in Sheffield, Sheffielders are extremely proud of their own! I wanted to give an overall impression of Sheffield in my exhibition, and that had to include the people too.
My first ‘Sheffield portrait’ was of Magid Magid, which I painted last year, and the reaction I got from social media was a surprise – as it got a similar level of interest as my paintings of the Leadmill or the Hendos factory. Encouraged by the positive comments, I then painted Paulette Edwards from BBC Radio Sheffield for the portrait of distinction competition at last year’s Art in the Gardens – which I won, and people were telling me that I needed to do more portraits. So I approached some more people who I admired such as Louise Haigh and Jon McClure, who were both really keen. I’ve got a few more people I’d like to paint for the exhibition, but I’ll have to see if they are as keen!
Obviously most of the people I have painted so far are left-wing or left-leaning, which reflects my own views. I wasn’t really prepared for the small number of negative comments that my painting of Magid received. I genuinely think a lot of that negativity is misguided, as Magid was very supportive of my portrait as he is with the arts and anything which promotes Sheffield – a position the majority of us Sheffielders share. Unfortunately Sheffield, like the rest of the country, has become more divided along those lines recently. I don’t aim to bring politics into my art at all, but I suppose art should reflect the artist, and these were the people I really wanted to capture.
Pssst. Fancy more of the same? The April issue of Exposed Magazine is now available to read online here.