Artist Profiles

Artist of the Month: Brian Smith: Figurative Abstracts

Artist of the Month: Brian Smith: Figurative Abstracts

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This Toronto artist has spent the last three years exploring abstraction of the human figure, blending his classical training with a new approach.

Red Boot
by Brian Smith, oil, 36 x 24.

by Bob Bahr

Brian Smith is classically trained and has been drawing and teaching in this style for more than 40 years. “Two friends of mine and I had a group show of paintings at a major gallery in Toronto,” recalls Smith, “and one of us said, ‘Why dont we go a little more abstract with this show? Having no idea how difficult abstraction actually is, I said, sure. Smith painted 11 pieces for that show, and more importantly, he was bitten by the abstraction bug. Last summer, roughly half of the paintings he completed were abstract–and roughly half of the paintings he sold were abstract, too.

Smith reports that he was challenged by abstraction not only because it was difficult for him to break away from observation and careful depiction, but also because he discovered that the familiar brushstrokes and mark-making tendencies that had become part of his painterly handwriting came off as clichéd. “Without knowing it, I developed specific personal iconic marks that I make,” says Smith. “I find that very appealing, but when you see them in every piece, you see how wrong it is for abstract pieces, and you have to move beyond that. A lot of it is letting go, trusting your gut once you get into a painting. In the middle of a piece, I must let the conversation between me and the painting take over. You have to listen to the painting and hear what it really needs.”

by Brian Smith, mixed
media on paper, 36 x 24.

In all of his paintings, Smith is working with a model in front of him. The artist has no intention of completely abstracting the form; his goal is to offer a different view of the model. “I am not drawing and painting to tell you what I see,” he says. “I am telling you what I want you to see.” He is also playing with time and with viewpoint. His Lyrica series of paintings was done by having the model rotate through three poses, holding each pose for just five minutes before breaking and moving on to the next pose. These pieces took all day and were executed on birch plywood that was prepared with a gouache ground to create a very active surface. Smiths goal was to find the few specific, organic lines in the figure he liked most, and present them in a somewhat abstract fashion while staying true to the beauty he saw. Smith layered gouache and oil as many times as necessary until he achieved the desired effect. “I am definitely inspired by the human form,” says the artist. I cannot work from photographs–I find it impossible to do. I am moved by a relationship with the model and some of the forms that are in the model.”

Categorizing Smiths pieces is a tricky business. His website has separate categories for Figurative Abstracts and for other paintings, but two similar works are categorized differently: Striped Reclining (Tanya) [NOT SHOWN] is in the general paintings section, and Laura is in Figurative Abstracts. The difference isnt in color use–Smith stresses to his students that value is what makes a painting read correctly. He asserts that the most obvious difference between his two categories is the degree of rendering in the form. But its also clear that as he subtracts information about the figure, he puts more thought into the design and composition of the piece. The difference may be more in the approach than in the result.

Smith is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, in Toronto, and he has served on the faculty of numerous art schools in Canada. He teaches master classes in his studio. For more information, visit his website at

Blue Floral (Michaela)
by Brian Smith, acrylic
and pastel on paper, 30 x 22.
Twenty After
by Brian Smith, mixed media on canvas, 36 x 36.
Lyrica, No. 14
by Brian Smith, mixed media on wood, 30 x 40.

by Brian Smith, mixed media on Mylar, 36 x 24.
Lyrica, No. 6
by Brian Smith, mixed media on Mylar, 24 x 36.

Watch the video: LectureCorinne Wasmuht: The Speed of Painting (August 2022).