Interview with John Nobrega - "...its all just solving problems - visual problems."
SP: Tell us a bit about yourself.
JN: I'm a Toronto based artist. I've lived here my whole life and I've been painting pretty much since my late teens more or less professionally. My first job was working as a studio assistant for General Idea, that’s a very well known Canadian artist collective, when I was around 19. I was actually hired by Felix Parts, one of the members of General Idea, about two or three weeks before he died of Aids. So that was my introduction to the professional art world, as opposed to doing it as a hobby. I went back to finish four years of art college. Upon graduation I went directly into commercial art mural painting - and did that for many years, alongside doing my own fine art work and showing it in galleries.
SP: Do you find there are differences between commercial art and your own artwork?
JN: Yes and no, I mean on one level its all just solving problems - visual problems. Even when you’re doing your own work, you're dealing with the context of the gallery. You know it’s never totally a blank slate, you’re given parameters to work within. However, It is different when I do my own work; I don't answer to anyone but myself in terms of content or the themes I’m interested in.</p>
SP: How would you describe your work to someone that’s never seen it before?
JN: I would say that it's very much engaged with the history of painting, hopefully without being nostalgic. I’m very interested in the historical craft and the process of painting, but I’m trying to do something as personal and contemporary with it as I can.
SP: When did you decide to become a professional artist?
I kinda always felt like I was an artist, but the decision to become a professional [artist] was a long and difficult one because I didn't even think such a thing existed for a long time. As I said, once I got out of art college I was hired by a man who was involved in commercial art and doing murals for restaurants - casinos, clubs, things like that, so I started making money pretty much right out of school. If it wasn't for that, who knows what would have happened to me - I really don't know. I was able to make a living by painting from the start, so I associated painting with kind of a professional discipline. I learned how to work quickly and without anxiety, because I was working on deadlines.
SP: You went to OCAD. Do you find that education helped your career or your personal art?
JN: It helped my career - but I mean, I probably learned most from other students and from the friends who I met there. I didn't necessarily learn that much from teachers, unless it was off school hours and we could hang out and talk. What I actually learned in class seemed to be a small little piece of my whole education.
SP: Did you find it a challenge to finish your portrait for Star Portraits in two weeks?
JN: I’m used to working on deadline in a commercial idiom, so it wasn't actually that different than I thought it would be. It definitely was a challenge trying to come up with something that was fully formed. Usually I would work on something then put it away for a month, then come back and test it against my fresh eyes to see if it was as good as I initially thought it was. In this case, you pretty much had to say to yourself, “well, this is what you've got, its the best you can do in this time, just go for it”. When you have an unlimited amount of time, you can leave it and then come back to it, and I couldn't do that this time.
SP: You made your own paint for your Star Portraits painting. Tell about the paint you made?
JN: Without giving away any studio secrets, I just used actual gold powdered pigment, which was mixed in with very, very thick oil - it even had some chalk and some thickeners involved in it to get a very thick impasto. It’s something that I do quite often in terms of the work that was documented at the studio; a lot of those paintings have some version of a homemade paint in them.
SP: Are certain brands for the oils and other materials that you use?
JN: I use Old Holland and Williamsburg. They're both really high end paints that don't have any extenders or any fillers in them; they're about as close to the kinds of paints that professional artists would have used two or three hundred years ago - so I like that. I use those and extend them with my own little mix, but I want to start out with something that is high quality as possible.
SP: Where do you see yourself going with your artwork in the future?
JN: I'm also a video artist. I did a film, which has been screened in a couple of local film festivals. There's a link included on my website, it'll take you directly to the film I did. I want to keep doing more work of that kind, and also I wouldn't mind relocating to a different city, maybe New York or LA, something like that - just to get fresh inspiration…
John's portrait of Lauren Woolstencroft
John Nobrega is a Toronto-based figurative painter and video artist. Since graduating with honors from the Ontario College of Art and design in 1997, he has exhibited extensively, producing a body of work known as much for its challenging imagery, as it’s deep engagement with the craft and history of painting. An ironic take on traditional portraiture forms a large part of his practice.