Jo Brown: What Happens

Artist Feature / Contemporary Painting / KatherineCaddy
Jo Brown, 'Coast 3'.         Acrylic on canvas. Copyright the artist.

Jo Brown, ‘Coast 3’. Acrylic on canvas, 2010. Copyright the artist.

Jo Brown is a contemporary painter for whom colour is a lifeblood. Based in the South Pennines, Jo works from a studio at Dean Clough, Halifax, having been based there since 1995. Jo’s work is impacted by the environment, but she continually desires to become less conscious while painting: “my aim is to be slightly less in control”. She enjoys not knowing how individual pieces will turn out, making marks and gestures, forming layers of colour – much of which may be covered up or uncovered once more – developing a body of deeply exploratory work. 

Jo’s work is ever-shifting, with an exploration of vibrancy and subtlety as a staple, along with the fluidity of form that painting allows. Abstraction is increasingly central, allowing representation of a diverse range of concerns and ideas. Jo emphasises the importance of being responsive when taking on an abstract piece: “It gives me the freedom I need to engage with the nature of the world and with my own nature, and perhaps to evoke a sense of recognition. When I begin a painting I don’t know exactly what it might be, and this ‘not knowing’ is important to me because of the improvisatory , intuitive way in which I work, which depends on staying sensitive to what is happening as the work unfolds.” Within ‘Cutting Across’ we see Jo’s passion for abstraction – a multitude of waving, quiet colours lay across deeper, richer areas, forming shapes that hint at, but do not seek to fully represent, aspects of a natural outlook. Much is hidden, or is taken over by the new, leading to the existence of traces of layers formed over layers…

“I don’t usually do any preparatory sketches or drawings for paintings. My canvas is where the preparatory work takes place, with layers being covered with other layers. Recently I discovered the term “pentimento”: an alteration in a painting, evidenced by traces of previous work, showing that the artist has changed her mind as to the composition during the process of painting.”

The artist draws inspiration from a variety of sources. As a child she was fascinated by colour and light, and she started out by painting mostly landscapes, focusing on the beautiful fields and skies in Kent and Sussex, where she grew up. There, the light was clear and bright. In the South Pennines, where she now lives, the light appears ever-changing across the moorland and hill country, and is sometimes purple in tone. As light and its impact on the landscape has a significant impact on Jo’s work, so too does music: “certain attributes of music – structure, linearity, colour and tone, rhythm and repetition, the wordless conveying of emotion- are, I think, also deeply linked to painting.” This can be envisaged when looking at ‘Coast 3’ – the vibrancy and dominance of blue, yellow and white over khaki greens and the layering of tone can be likened to music’s careful composition, where a rhythm sits and a melody streams and spills over it. This vivid painting is inherently one in persistent motion, with sweeping brush-strokes visible in the ocean and a plethora of bright lines fearlessly overlapping forms across the canvas.

Jo Brown, 'Cutting Across'. Acrylic on canvas. Copyright the artist.

Jo Brown, ‘Cutting Across’. Acrylic on canvas, 2008. Copyright the artist.

“Colour is the lifeblood of my paintings.
Expression, mood, line, form, atmosphere: all come from colour in my paintings.”

Jo discovered work by Cezanne and Matisse in her teenage years, before becoming interested in the work of Abstract Expressionists as a young artist. She has been influenced by artists including Diebenkorn, Rothko and de Kooning. Jo also notes that words, particularly poetry, have the capacity to set off a train of visual ideas. Within ‘Bay’ and ‘Low Water’, one can imagine a narrative forming amidst a foreboding tide; a bright white light that causes the sands to glisten; footsteps across the fields, to the shore and beyond. These works are timeless – they are yearning and full of echoes of stories untold – of subtle marks made by the artist’s hand, gesturing towards movement, texture and depth. These canvases are alive, and brimming with possibility.

Jo Brown, 'Low Water'. Acrylic on canvas. Copyright the artist.

Jo Brown, ‘Low Water’. Acrylic on canvas, 2012. Copyright the artist.

“I feel more confident in the way I work, less concerned with what others might think of it. Handling of paint feels freer and more passionate. My practice has become, perhaps, more abstract and refers less to particular landscapes. Having said this, I think nature is always in there, somewhere.”

Ahead of a recent solo show at Crossley Gallery, Dean Clough, Jo focused on the idea of ‘Edgelands’. “For me, this is a multi-layered term which could include those landscapes which are neither rural nor urban but ‘in-between’. The term, coined by Marion Shoard and followed up by Richard Mabey’s 1973 study ‘The Unofficial Countryside‘, is the title of a 2012 book by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, with the sub-title ‘Journeys into England’s True Wilderness‘. The authors cover such subjects as canals, wasteland, business parks, ruins, landfill and many more. This was part of my reading list a couple of years ago and fed into my art ideas.” The artist has read many books and poems on the subject of ‘wilderness’, and believes the notion in some way relates to the unconscious mind.

Jo Brown, 'Bay'. Oil on canvas. Copyright the artist.

Jo Brown, ‘Bay’. Oil on canvas, 2003. Copyright the artist.

With ‘Edgelands’ in mind as a theme, Jo realised part of the way through the project that she was trying to be ‘too literal’ in her work: “‘Trying’ and ‘literal’ are not part of my working method; I swung enthusiastically in to a more abstract and highly coloured body of work with a less obvious connection to landscape, freer and more confident. So, as the great John Cage said, “There’s ideas, and then there’s what happens”.” In the end, Jo’s exhibition, entitled ‘Open Pathways‘, consisted of a combination of new work and some older pieces that fit the theme. She did not abandon the notion of ‘edgelands’, creating some small works on paper in mixed media that related to it.

The end of this exhibition may prove to mark a turning point in Jo’s work.  Since its closure, Jo has produced few new pieces, but has begun to consider the many ideas that exist within previous work, reflecting on these and searching for new avenues of exploration. “I want to make drawing a bigger part of my practice as I feel this is always beneficial, and in the past I haven’t done enough of it.”

Jo Brown, 'Bailerou'. Acrylic on canvas. Copyright the artist.

Jo Brown, ‘Bailerou’. Acrylic and pigment on canvas, 2014. Copyright the artist.

Jo cites several favourite contemporary art spaces, including The Hepworth Wakefield and Cupola Contemporary Art in Sheffield, marking the latter as a ‘lively and welcoming’ gallery. She also mentions Basement Arts Project and &model in Leeds, gesturing to the cutting-edge projects and exhibitions that grow within these organisations. And of course there is Dean Clough, her studio home, hosting a group of gallery spaces that offer several shows each year: “the main Crossley Gallery is a beautiful light space, and an excellent place to show paintings. I was fortunate to be offered a subsidised studio at Dean Clough as soon as I graduated in 1995. I have been there ever since, though not always in the same studio.”

In the past Jo has enjoyed working to themes for her painting, including ‘Walking the Coast‘ (see ‘Coast 3’), and a series based on lines from Emily Brontë’s poetry. More recently she has abandoned this method of working, opting to avoid working to references much beyond the painting itself. This allows for a greater degree of freedom and intuition while working. The artist increasingly works from her unconscious, something that fascinates her.

Further information can be found on Jo Brown’s website: and Facebook page:

Katherine April Caddy