Katy Brown has exhibited in London, Bath, Cornwall and her native home, Jersey. For the last twenty years she has painted the ethereal landscapes of both Jersey and Cornwall, where she now lives as artist in residence on the Earl of Edgcumbe’s Estate. Inspiration from nature and its transient elements have always been integral to her work.
In this Q&A Katy talks about Inspiration and what first inspired her to paint, how inspiration informs her work now and offers advice on how artists can make the most of inspiration.
Hi Katy, what first inspired you to paint?
I grew up in a creative household. My Grandfather used to lecture in The Arts within a library in London. My Mother painted wonderful, delicate watercolour classical studies and my Father made beautiful pottery influenced by the St Ives Movement, especially the Bernard Leach Pottery
Gradually, I realised that art was the subject I wished to immerse myself in and at 16, I purely focused upon Art subjects at school, where our art tutors were highly supportive and the art block was very inspiring.
I was very fortunate to grow up on the North Coast of the Island of Jersey, where the landscape is both beautiful and wild, with a light pure and luminescent. The bay nearest to my family home is submerged when the tide is up, however, when it goes out, a breathtaking beach with red granite cliffs and a series of caves are revealed. One cave in particular has beautiful fiery red walls with a freezing cold waterfall that pelts down over smooth boulders that are covered in emerald seaweed and turquoise pools in the dips and gullies. This beach and the colours of the Island were the subject of my first solo show in the Jersey Arts Centre after I graduated from Winchester School of Art. The exhibition was called ‘Plemont Bay, The Dreaming Grounds’. The show was made in Brighton, where I had secured a little garret studio before leaving college.
The success of this show meant that I was able to consider making a simple living from making paintings. The Island colours still have a strong presence in my pieces today, even though I’m currently living in Cornwall.
Is there a particular artist or movement that inspired you the most?
As a teenager I visited Spain, Italy and Prague with my school. With each visit, we saw many Old Masters Paintings and it was whilst in Venice that I deeply resonated with the Venetian Style of painting, which typically used the process of layering and blending colours to achieve a glowing richness
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Romantic paintings of Venice capture the exquisite essence of this floating city, and his have always been works that I return to for inspiration. The Romantic notion of The Sublime is where one is overcome by awe, reverence and at times terror, by the beauty in nature. This emotional understanding transcends rational thought patterns, words or language. I have always been drawn in by paintings that express this state of all-encompassing reverence for our world.
As a student, I was encouraged to view the paintings of Avis Newman in Camden Arts Centre. The series of abstract paintings and objects by Newman appeared to be floating within space and time, suspended in a deep, delicate network of marks and webs. These simple yet complex monochromatic pieces were beautifully accomplished and polished, their scale perfect for the sublime essence exuded.
For my thesis, I chose to explore The Sublime because the challenge of presenting and defining the illusive and indefinable, seemed a fitting path to follow for my own painting practise. I titled my study ‘Now The Sublime is like this’ and I followed the thread from the first recorded definition of the Sublime from the 4th Century by Saint Augustine, through Romantic Painters such as Caspar David Friedrich (The Sea of Ice), John Constable (The Hay Wain) and J.M.W. Turner (Snow Storm) right the way through to Edvard Munch (White Night), and the more contemporary installation artists; James Turrell (the Roden Crater, Painted Desert, Arizona, a gateway to the contemplation of light, time and landscape) as well as Anya Gallaccio’s transitionary sculpture, Intensities and surfaces (Wapping Pumping Station).
What are your thoughts on inspiration & how does it influence your work?
People can be inspired by anything, it just depends upon how you perceive it.
During the first year of my painting degree, our tutor asked us to spend several days depicting the corner of a room, in black and white, perhaps with a light Naples Yellow added in. Essentially the corner was just a blank space, however, the longer we looked, the more there was to observe…the play of light, or indeed absence of it, was what brought the void to life whilst providing a painterly focus of presence within the space.
The foremost inspirational trigger for my paintings is being consumed by landscape, to the point where the moment I find myself in, is completely absorbed by that experience, that moment, and in turn an evolutionary journey sparked by that experience. It is the motivation behind my work. Often, I find myself caught in between my heart and my head when trying to capture a moment. This is because I will urgently look for my mobile to photograph the scene that is grabbing my attention, yet, if I stay present and simply observe the event, then it is more likely to sink in as a lasting memory.
I have watched footage of India where Howard Hodgekin is sitting in one spot for hours at a time, purely to immerse himself and capture the moment because it is then that it is etched in his mind. He is then able to return, perhaps years later, to a canvas with the ability to know what he is expressing and thus therefore how he is going to paint it.
Is inspiration essential to start a painting?
When beginning a picture, I believe it is important to have a starting point for a painting, especially as an abstract artist. My tutor said ‘You can’t make an abstract painting out of nothing.’.. there has to be a subject upon which you are basing your work. For me, as an abstract painter of landscape, there are themes that return time and time again.
I read recently that Picasso once said ‘Inspiration has to find you at work’, which I believe is true. You cannot always predict when you will feel inspired. As a practicing painter for well over 20 years, I would say it is important to turn up if you want to make the work. Some days it is hard. Some days you are unsure of what it is that you are trying to say, or how to say it, but perseverance pays off and when it does, and you are in the zone, there is nothing like it.
What advice would you give other artists on finding inspiration?
Inspiration seems to be a delicate, illusive entity. One can’t hold it too tightly, as it is more of an intelligent feeling than a process. In order to capture the initial spark of inspiration, it can be useful to put it down in the form of a few descriptive words or a quick sketch in a notebook kept to hand. These ideas can then be collected and considered later if one does not have the chance to act upon it immediately. If you can respond in the moment by producing a painting, then the essence of the experience will be fresh. If there is a gap between the moment of intuitive observation and the act of committing the moment to canvas or another surface, then the painting may convey a more dream-like quality.
My partner and I, and many other artists experience the process of making art rather like a meditation. The more one gently focuses and places oneself within the realm or zone of what one wishes to say (in this case using the language of paint), then all the more magic can be brought to a piece, as an expression of the self’s unique truth.
Simultaneously, it is as if one is a conduit for unconscious universal truth.
I try to remain open where the painting may lead and find the idea that you can travel to, and explore infinite places within the dimensions of a 2D plane, frankly, mind blowing.
Lastly I would say in the long term, choose a subject that captures and holds your attention. One that you find yourself returning to often. Be open to play and experiment with materials, make your own implements, research paint, brushes and surfaces. Find a language of marks, of colours, of processes that excite you, and essentially, that is your own language within.