Figurative Painter Joe Simpson: Uncovering a Drama on Canvas

An Interview with the Artist

Almost There, Painting by Joe Simpson

We would never know if Joe Simpson, the gifted figurative painter from England, was thinking of the famous Rascal Flatts song Life is a Highway when he created Across America.

The series, often consisting fleeting images of a vast country, evokes a feeling of Life’s like a road that you travel on / When there’s one day here and the next day gone / Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand / Sometimes you turn your back to the wind.

If noticed closely the sketches, monochromatic and denuded from any distraction, feel even more intimate. As if you may find your own home or the corner of a street of your neighbourhood staring back at you from the frames!

Joe Simpson is one of those artists whose faith is firmly rooted in realism. He uses facets of everyday lives to weave his story on canvas. So common men and women with their hopes and aspirations, love and affections, despondencies and rejections become loci of his narratives.

In that respect, his work is a golden link between him and the masters of Dutch Golden Age who brought genre paintings into the centre of attention. Appropriate to the age the backdrop changes as much as the characters. The rustic folks busy in merrymaking or a lonely girl working at a corner of a room are replaced by men and women jostling with each other in an urban setting or a forlorn figure intently reading a letter with a smirk on the face. And at times objects like telegraph poles and pylons set up against the wide blue yonder are personified to communicate their own story.

Born in 1984, Lancaster, England, Joe Simpson acquired critical acclaim showcasing his work in a number of galleries in the United Kingdom and beyond. Not only did he manage to excel in a relatively short period of time but also exhibited his entrepreneurial and organisational skills.

His series Almost There and Musician Portraits required considerable efforts from his part to make the collaboration between him and some of the busiest musicians of this day as smooth as possible. To provide for Across America he depended on crowdfunding and returned the favours of the contributors by sending them his paintings.

His favourite artist Edward Hopper asserted, The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm. Let us then try to peep into the heart and mind of this young painter.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood and how you came to be in love with Art.

As a child, I always loved stories, pictures, and making things. I liked to escape into my imagination and invent characters, comics and drawings. It was during school that I started learning how to paint and develop my skills as an artist.

I’ve always been drawn to the power of the still image and began to discover artists that became very influential when I started to create my own serious works.

To what extent do you think your formal training helped in honing your skills? From or beyond the world of art who happened to influence you most?

Most of my formal practical training came before I studied Fine Art at university, where the teaching is more conceptual and involved a lot of self–directed studio studies. My evolution as a painter and the development of my skills has largely come from practice and many, many hours painting. I think it’s the best way to learn, by experimentation and practice, which leads to an increasing familiarity with the medium of paint.

The artist who is the biggest influence on my work is Edward Hopper, I love the mood and atmosphere he creates with his remarkable use of light.

How were you affected growing up in a country with a rich heritage to lean on in the fields of art and literature?

I consider myself lucky to have grown up in England, it has a rich history of culture and arts, as well as an abundance of exhibitions and museums to attend to provide inspiration.

I also feel lucky to grow up at a time and in a country where the concept of being an artist as a career isn’t such a ridiculous one, it’s still perceived as very hard, but there are opportunities and avenues to achieve it.

My generation has access to the internet and social media to promote and showcase their work to huge audiences, as well the ability to apply for funding from bodies such as Arts Council England to support their ideas. I’m aware that compared to many places in the world, it’s a privileged position.

You have utilised innovative means to develop your projects that require considerable collaborative approach, such as in Musician Portraits, Across America, Almost There etc. What were your learnings from being involved in such kind of projects? What is your opinion on artists requiring organisational abilities besides core artistic talent?

I’m very keen to collaborate with other people, as painting can be quite a solitary exercise. It’s often more interesting and dynamic to work with other creative individuals. It’s a different experience, and I think you have to learn to trust and compromise to truly collaborate.

I’m normally working with people from other disciplines such as musicians and actors, and I’m often in awe of their talent and happy for them to take the lead in these areas.

I think it’s important for artists to sometimes think like business people and learn to market and promote themselves and their work. Showing your work as far and wide as possible and thinking up ways to reach new audiences is crucial. I try to be proactive on Facebook and Twitter, submit my work to competitions and galleries and organise exhibitions.

The Letter, Painting by Joe Simpson
The Letter

Portraits are not solely about registering facial expressions but often looking deeper into the heart of the subject. As an artist how do you tackle that aspect of portrait / figurative painting?

I think the power of a representational painting can be the limited view it shows, as an artist you control every element — how the piece is composed, the subject, the colours and the lighting. I try and utilize these components to create a specific mood for my piece.

With portraiture, I try and let the subjects hold themselves how they naturally feel comfortable, as this often reveals so much of their personality. With narrative and staged pieces I take a more directorial role — arranging a person to hold themselves in a certain way, the clothes they wear and the way they are lit. The angle the subject is depicted from, how they are composed of the piece and the colours / style of the piece informs so much of how we read the painting.

How do you effectively utilise the interplay of light to create a successful visual narrative? What role does the medium play here?

The use of light is very important in my work, I borrow a lot from the style of cinematography and way films are lit. I like dramatic and theatrical lighting, with faces lit strongly from one side. I’m drawn to atmospheric times of day, like when the light is just going down or as the sun rises. I love dramatic skies during ‘magic hour’ that gives everything a poetic glow.

After the Rain, Painting by Joe Simpson
After the Rain

You have painted essays on two great cities — London and New York. As seen through your artist’s eyes, how did these two cities complement and contrast each other?

I’ve always had a strong interest in American artists and movies, and also several commissions that led me to set much of my work in the American landscape, particularly New York. It was only last year when I decided that I should turn my attention to the city I live in and love, London.

The American paintings were great to paint, as the light is so bright and reliable compared to an often grey and rainy London. I’ve adapted to process to work with multiple sources and composite photographs to add more dynamic lighting in London when I need it.

The city has such a rich tapestry of iconic landmarks, it’s more than made up for the dodgy weather. It’s been interesting to paint scenes from areas much more familiar to me, such as the London Underground, compared to more alien and foreign places like New York, where I very much feel a visitor.

The ideas and subjects of the paintings from both cities are very similar, although I’ve made an effort to create more optimistic and romantic themes in my newer works.

Emma Lee Moss, Painting by Joe Simpson
Musician Portraits — Emma–Lee Moss

Tell us about your appreciation of music.

I’ve always been an avid music fan from an early age, seeking out new bands and artists to listen to. Music can make my heart swell like no other medium, I sometimes worry that paintings rarely evoke the same intensity of a reaction; I’m a bit envious. But now that I’m a professional artist I have long days in the studio painting where I can listen to hours and hours of music.

I often associate my paintings to the music, and think of them as having a soundtrack — this took a very literal meaning in my project ‘Almost There’, where I exhibited the paintings with headphones beside them so that you could simultaneously listen to a song whilst viewing the painting.

Mark Twain said, ‘Nothing so liberalises a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.’ What perspective did you gain as you concluded your journey Across America?

I think it’s really enriching to travel, and especially to travel on your own for a while. The ‘Across America’ project certainly forced me to be outgoing and ready to meet people and be up for adventures. It was sometimes a bit lonely, but that quickly gets romanticised in memory.

America isn’t vastly different from the UK as some countries I could have visited, we both speak the same language and have the same reference points — but travelling there does feel very different and makes you aware of where you’re from. I’d like to continue to travel more, I think Mark Twain is on to something.

How do you see your artistic journey progress from here?

I’d like to be able to continue to do projects that interest and excite me and takes me as an artist on a journey through creating them. I’m really keen to get cracking on my new project ‘ACT’ where I will approach my favourite actors to be subjects for new paintings.

These won’t be straight portraits, but compositions that place them as characters in fictional scenes. The project will be very collaborative, with each actor asked, ‘what role have you always wanted to play but have never got the chance?’ I will then create a narrative painting depicting them playing that part.

These roles maybe from scripts that never got made, or characters from novels or plays that they would love to play, or any other interpretations of the question. It’s an ambitious project and taking a little while to get kickstarted — but I’m getting there.

It’s always a challenge to raise the funds to support your art, and to reach the right people — but things do feel like they’re growing for me and I hope to be able to create bigger and bolder projects in the future.

Portrait of Joe Simpson

What Joe Simpson Yearns For…

You now understand what Joe Simpson means when he says, ‘In the spirit of travelling, I’m going to say my favourite “dream holiday” destination — which at the moment is probably Mexico, I’d really like to go there.’ He considers Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical novel Slaughterhouse–Five to be one of the most influential works of literature he ever read. Annie Hall, co-written and directed by Woody Allen, is his choicest film to date. His palate is tickled every time he smells of sausage and mash with red onion gravy.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Joe Simpson & Peter Maxwell