Alana Brown, City Drifts
'Leave the beaten track behind occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do, you will be certain to find something you have never seen before.' - Alexander Graham Bell.
There's a lot to be said for a good walk. There are many stories about famous writers and artists who relied on walking as a means of assisting them in their creative process. For example, Charles Dickens's diaries record how he would develop the plots for his novels during 20 mile walks and Mozart is said to have taken pencil and paper with him on his regular, after lunch constitutionals. Baudelaire called it flaneur, walking through urban spaces, being inspired by the people and the architecture around you, but also remaining a detached observer, alone in a busy environment, free to develop your thoughts.
The Situationalists of the 1950's believed that through exploring urban areas on our terms, we could unite the two different factors of hard physical surroundings with the human ideals and expression of the individual. The term psychogeograhy was defined by Situationalist, Guy Debord but, it's arguable that it's truest roots are sunk deep into our unconscious, in the primeval part of our brain. We need to wander and explore, it is part of what makes us human. Allowing yourself to drift through a city, choosing your route by how a space makes you feel, or the curiosity inspired by your surroundings can be creatively liberating.
One contemporary artist who is applying these principles of psychogeography to her paintings is photorealist, Alana Brown. Alana works in oil, on pieces of cardboard found from the areas she explores psychogeographically. The lighting and colours used in her paintings, helps to provide a strong sense of atmosphere. That they are painted on rough edged pieces of waste cardboard affirms to the viewer, that what you are looking at is a fragment of urban living, a piece of human experience torn out of a bigger story.
We talked to Alana about her work and the art of leaving the beaten track.
Tell us a bit about where you come from. Your dad is an airbrush artist, was he keen for you to become an artist too?
I was born in Scotland and grew up in Blairgowrie, a country town 16 miles north of Perth. It’s quiet and there is a sense of community, but I moved to Dundee during my 2nd year at Duncan of Jordanstone so that I was closer to the college. My parents still live in Blair, and after moving back I’m finding that I oddly missed the place! My dad has been custom painting motorbikes for over 20 years, and comes from a large family of artists and musicians. He always encouraged me to choose my own path, so was very proud that I wanted to follow in his footsteps and pursue art as a career.
Does he freely offer you advice on your work and have you experimented much with airbrushing?
Oh, all the time! Ever since I was small he always encouraged me to draw and paint, and was always there to offer constructive criticism on whatever I was working on. Although I did have very little confidence in myself, so he’d very rarely get to see anything I’d drawn or made. Even now he always suggests ways which I can improve my work and develop my ideas, but I still have that lack of faith in myself and my work. I have to admit I occasionally get grumpy at him but I know he’s just trying to help. Its clichéd but my dad is probably my biggest inspiration, especially in regards to my interest in art. We’re so similar that it sickens my mum a little bit!
Sadly I haven’t experimented properly with airbrushing yet, to my dad’s disapproval. He’s always tried to get me to start working with him but, with uni and work commitments, I’ve never had a lot of time to immerse myself in it properly. I first tried it when I was in my 2nd year of art school, but I wasn’t happy with the results so I was a little disheartened about trying again.
Your recent work was influenced by your studies of the Situationists and psychogeography in particular. Can you tell us a bit about your explorations in the cities of the UK?
Psychogeography is a term which emphasises the act of wandering through an urban environment without fully knowing where you are going. This act, known as the dérive, allows the drifter to be lured by aspects of their topography, which in turn leads the wanderer to adopt a new awareness of their surroundings. My most recent project has involved me carrying out my own psychogeographical drifts around not only the four major cities in Scotland but also on a solo excursion to London. I recorded my journeys primarily through taking photographs, however also used sketches and sound recordings to map my trips.
The paintings that came out of these drifts through the cities are primarily focused on the city at night and it’s interesting that you explored all of these cities in the UK at night, including London. Did you go alone on these journeys? Can you tell us about any unexpected discoveries you had?
All my ‘drifts’ were executed at night, as I like to explore the atmospheric nature of the city after dark. It is much quieter then, even in the city, so the lack of external distractions such as traffic and pedestrians really allowed me to immerse myself in my surroundings. It can be quite dangerous at night, especially since 90% of the time I was completely unfamiliar with where I was heading, so I had to be careful too. Maybe part of the attraction was the element of danger!
I was alone on all the journeys bar one, as I have a friend from Aberdeen who I was staying with who accompanied me on that particular walk. Although it was fun, I did get a different picture of the city purely because I wasn’t on my own. I felt I was only directing the walk to an extent, as she would suggest a way and she knew where we were most of the time, so fully losing myself proved difficult.
I wouldn’t say I had any unexpected discoveries as such, but in London I was approached by a guy who was interested in what I was taking photographs of. Turned out he was an economics student in one of the nearby universities, but had a secret passion for photography! To cut a long story short, he ended up taking me on a wee jaunt around the Barbican area, to show me all this amazing architecture and a place where he dreamed of exhibiting some of his own work. That 20 minutes with him was probably the most excitement I had on that whole trip! I gave him my email, but I haven't heard from him yet. I still have hope!
The Situationists were also interested in ideas of alienation, and the separation of our psyche from our physical place. Everyone’s relationship with place is different, whether we view a place as having personality, for example, or as having an influence on our internal state. Could you describe how you relate to place?
My experiences wandering the cities (mostly) alone at night really did allow me to adopt my own understanding and relationship with my surroundings. It was strange, but I found each city to emit a different atmosphere, or personality as you so rightly describe it, which proved very important for my art practice. As a painter I want a little bit of variety in my work, so I was able to portray the different relationships obtained from my walks through colour. Each group of paintings has its own sort of aura or hue, for example, I found Glasgow to be quite homely. In turn I used a lot of orange and red, so the paintings all became very warm.
Is there a place that is of particular importance to you and is one you can still explore?
As I lived in Dundee for a few years, I guess I have more of a connection to it. Even though I know a lot of the area now, so it is harder to become lost, so to speak, there are still areas I’ve never seen, never ventured to, or have never heard of. I hope in the future I can explore these places even though I have moved back home.
There are a number of photorealist painters among your creative influences. What is it about this form of painting that you find most compelling and the most satisfying to create?
A lot of my inspiration has come from film noir and various different street artists, but a large chunk of it has also derived from American hyper-realism. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and even though I enjoy painting realistically, I can vouch for it being a curse! I tend to try and exploit my representational skills a bit, and I thrive on the viewer’s reaction. It is that moment of perplexity that I strive for, when they abandon themselves to the painting. This in turn only further enhances what realistic painting can do that no other form of visual art can.
How long do you spend on a painting and when do you know to stop, to not overcook it?
I think it depends! Some of my paintings can be done really quickly, others can take days and days. It really depends on the size and the complexity of the paintings. I find brickwork takes a long time for me, but things like reflections or smooth surfaces don’t. Another thing to consider is with using oils, you tend to need to wait for layers to dry before adding the next, so sometimes you need to leave the work alone for a few days. I also have to watch with the ‘canvas’ being cardboard, the paint sometimes sinks into it while its wet, but the primer helps avoid that.
What are your favourite materials and brushes?
I only really started using oil paints just over two years ago, and as I feel I’m still getting to grips with the medium, haven't tried many of the brands available! At the moment I mostly use Daler-Rowney’s Georgian oil colours, which have served me well so far! Main reason being that they were probably the most easy to acquire at the time. For the brushes, the same goes really. I haven't got any particular favourites as such, but I love using tiny brushes and doing really intricate details, whether its to add highlights or alter minor technicalities in the paintings. As well as painting I like to do a lot of drawings, and I use a lot of different types and sizes of fine liner pens. I also love using spray paint, and have a soft spot for Copic marker pens.
How would you like to further develop your work, do you know what the next area you want to explore artistically is?
My paintings on cardboard have all been fairly small in size, so I plan to challenge myself by working on a larger scale. I want to continue my research into psychogeography, so I’m hoping to maybe go even further afield and travel abroad to do some walks. Paris played a huge role in the setup of the Situationists, so I want to go back to where it all began and create my own drifts around the city.
I also really want to experiment properly with the airbrush, and hope to work alongside my dad, whether it be helping him or concentrating on my own projects. He has an unusual talent and it is a less common medium to use, so I would love him to teach me so I can try grasp it myself.
Bonus Question: Would you rather discover a new civilisation, or a new wilderness and why?
I have always loved ancient Egyptian history and mythology, so before going to university I was torn between studying art or archaeology. So because of that I think I would love to find a new civilisation, or at least find one that has been under the ground for thousands and thousands of years!
To find out more about Alana's psychogeographical paintings, or to purchase one while you still have the chance, visit her website: http://www.alanajanebrown.com/