Artist of the Month: Brian Smith: Figurative Abstracts

1 Nov 2008

American Artist of the Month

0811aomsmith6_398x600 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. But about three years ago, a casual question tossed out among friends put him on a very different path. “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 don't 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. Smith's 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 Smith's 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 isn't 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 it's 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.

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on 1 Nov 2008 9:23 AM
Sharlena wrote
on 1 Nov 2008 6:30 PM
You really have been strong and open in all of your exploring B. Loving you, your work, and the style that you have created...I have always learned much from you, and (always will) find you incredibly inspirational. xo Sharlena
Tammy Seaman wrote
on 1 Nov 2008 7:01 PM
Very nice work Brian! Although I am in love with your previous styles, I can see so much pure feeling in your new abstract way of "seeing". Cheers, tammy
Bruce C. Meyer wrote
on 1 Nov 2008 7:15 PM
Brian, I like your work. My first love in (appreciating) painting was the 1940s-1960s modernist-abstract world. Lately, I've been learning figurative art and learning to draw realistic figures, and have started to get tired of the repetitive portrayals out there. Your approach is fresh to me. Thanks
Diane Gartlan wrote
on 1 Nov 2008 10:41 PM
Brian, I think your work is fresh, vibrant and exciting. I'm so happy for you to have achieved this recognition. Congratulations! Diane
Charmaine Driver wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 8:44 AM
Dear Brian, That was certainly an award well deserved. I absolutely love your new work. Charmaine
Cheryl wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 9:17 AM
Brian, I love your work and am pleased to see you have allowed your paintings to take over. You are very talented and it is evident in all of your work. Congratulations, Cheryl
Austin Behne wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 10:52 AM
Hi Brian, Lots of talent, lots of hard work and lots of inspired exploration just got more well deserved recognition. Congratulations! And I am still gratefully feeding on the workshop you taught in Haliburton. Austin
Catharine Clarke wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 11:07 AM
Hi Brian, Congratulations on getting the recognition you so greatly deserve. Can't wait for your workshop in Ottawa! See you soon. Congratulations, Catharine
marie finkelstein wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 1:16 PM
Congratulations,Brian! Great new work! Marie
Auke van Holst wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 3:14 PM
Hey Brian, Congrats. Good to see you running with the big dogs. Had a great time in your classes last summer. Hope to repeat it in 2009. Auke
Nancy Cuttle wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 5:15 PM
Hi Brian, How far you have come from those beautiful conte pencil drawings on Tuesday evenings! I think you've found your painterly stroke and pushed it beyond. I particularly love the Lyrica series. Congrats! Nancy
Rosanne Morris wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 5:18 PM
Hi Brian~~ How wonderful that you are recognized in this way. Your work is fresh and original~~ a delight! Keep up the great work. Congratulations. Rosanne
karen morgan wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 9:16 PM
congrats Brian. Wonderful work. Love the red boots! Karen
G. Green wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 9:45 PM
Brian, you are an incredible talent, whether you are drawing, painting or teaching! Best wishes always. Gail
Pam Bixel wrote
on 2 Nov 2008 11:54 PM
Congratulations! Beautiful paintings Brian. Very inspirational. I learned a lot in your Haliburton class last summer. I'd love to study this abstraction of the figure with you.
Robin Hollingdrake wrote
on 3 Nov 2008 8:24 AM
Brian, Admire your use of dark values and deliberate subtle color values. The brush hand still shows, but it's yours and I like it. Congratulations Mr. November Robin
Sandi Wong wrote
on 3 Nov 2008 9:47 AM
Congrats, Brian! So wonderful to see your talent in the spotlight, in an such an illustrious venue! You have been so inspirational and instructional to me and my growth as an artist. I am definitely blessed that our paths have crossed! Sandi
eileen mennzel wrote
on 3 Nov 2008 10:44 AM
Congratulations Brian on the honour, the profile and the excellent article. Its very informative piece and has a practical aspect which is definitely inspiring.
Carole Warfield wrote
on 3 Nov 2008 11:02 AM
Brian, Your work is as inspirational as you are! Your works are always fresh and vibrant. How lucky we are to have you teaching each week at Visual Arts Mississauga, you are a true "Master". To paint as you do is phenomenal, but to teach and give to your students as much as you do , you are a truly gifted artist. This award is well deserved! Carry on.... Carole
Renee Paul wrote
on 4 Nov 2008 10:33 AM
The red boots is a favourite of mine. I always learn so much from you. How about a Haliburtun course on abstraction of the face or figure?
Dayna Law wrote
on 4 Nov 2008 6:53 PM
B. Congratulations... I have always known of your incredible artistic talent... Abstraction is not easy... you have made a wonderful transition! D
Eric J. Martin wrote
on 5 Nov 2008 8:39 AM
Greetings from Ottawa Brian and kudos to American Artist for recognizing in their "artist of the month" choice for November what all of us that have attended your classes knew from the get go. You are a fine, creative artist and a superb teacher that just also happens to be great fun to be with. We disciples will bask in this deserved recognition of our Canadian original. Keep up the great work! Regards, Eric Martin
Marion Mathers wrote
on 5 Nov 2008 10:17 AM
Congratulations Brian on the recognition from American Artist. I especially love the Red Boots painting. I am really enjoying your class and am learning a lot.
Tony Vander Voet wrote
on 5 Nov 2008 6:46 PM
EX - CEL - LENT! I am a great admirer of your work. You continually surprise me. Congratulations on being artist of the month.
Choodsged wrote
on 11 Nov 2008 1:44 PM
Hi Guys, Long time lurker, thought i would say Hi :) Signature:
hoan attersley wrote
on 12 Nov 2008 3:08 PM
hi Brian I am such a huge fan of yours...always was, and will continue to be so excited by your wonderful talent... joan attersley
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on 17 Dec 2009 7:22 PM

Great work.  I'm moving in this direction myself.  Your figures have a great mix of being representtational and abstract at the same time.