Dolly Parton famously said: ‘It costs a lot of money to look this cheap’. Brett Humphries knows exactly where she is coming from. Obviously Brett is not trying to emulate Dolly’s colourful wardrobe. But he can apply her analysis to his paintings. How does he make them look so simple? Answer: it takes a huge amount of preparation.
“I can’t emphasise this enough,” he explains. “I’m always thinking about composition, and how to make every painting easy on the eye. I don’t want anyone to think: why did he put that there? There are numerous decisions to make to get to the point where the arrangement feels completely right. In a way, I see every new painting as a struggle. But I like that. I’m up for the fight.”
Evidently, Brett’s commitment to his work is total. Sometimes the preparation begins long before the arranging part. The new collection, for example, features three cupcake paintings. Did Brett buy these delicious-looking fancies? No, he didn’t. Did he know how to make cupcakes? Also, no. Instead, Brett taught himself, so he could reproduce exactly what he saw in his head. This was not easy. “Look at the sponge,” he says. “That had to rise just the right amount. It had to go above the paper, but not too much. That was hard. I tried and failed a lot.”
In fact, Brett estimates there were 125 cupcake fails before he got it right.
Yet even when he has a composition he is happy with, the artist engages in another struggle – against time. Brett uses only natural light to illuminate his work. Obviously, daylight changes constantly, so he doesn’t have long to find (and photograph) the perfect moment. Added to this is the perishable nature of his subject matter; food goes off. But, to repeat, Brett sees the struggle as part of the pleasure. In fact, he sometimes seeks out a bit of friction. For the Catto show, he switched medium. Over most of his career, Brett has worked in acrylic. This new collection is in oil, which presented fresh challenges. “Switching to oil had advantages and disadvantages,” he explains. “Oil is thicker so you can get deeper and more realistic textures. But more thickness means more visible brushstrokes. You don’t want that in a photorealistic painting.”
Brett’s peculiarly forensic take on art has been present since childhood. He says he was always interested in painting, but when it came to education, he balanced this interest with a passion for science. He took a degree in Scientific and Natural History Illustration at Lancaster University, and later mastered computer-aided art as a designer and 3D sculptor at a CGI studio. He says his studies taught him how to use composition, perspective, extreme detail and different techniques to communicate information through images. He also learnt many useful photography skills.
In 2006 Brett launched his career as a full time painter, but retained his interest in the hyper-realistic techniques he had acquired earlier. He says: “I often had to build a 3 dimensional scene. I would have to light, colour and texture it, and then deliver it in the form of an advertising image. I had learned how to go out of my comfort zone, to be truly creative.”
14 years later, Brett’s work is still evolving. Brett says his aim today is to create timeless paintings that provoke a physical – rather than intellectual – reaction in viewers. “I do everything I can to get a gut response,” he says. “I never use modern or antique elements. Everything is neutral and timeless. And I’m careful to make the work life size. I want people to feel they can reach in and touch.”
Well, it works. Viewers do respond viscerally. Brett reports that he regularly hears expletives of disbelief from people seeing his paintings for the first time. The profanities look set to continue with the new show, along with lip smacking and stomach rumbling.
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