Lewes painter Nils Jean’s abstract works inspired by language and memory

Language and memory are recurrent themes in Nils Jean’s paintings. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London (PhD in Visual Communication), his work combines visual diaries and analytical explorations of art movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and Conceptual Art. We chat to him about his accomplished creative career and his latest abstract prints.

Q: Have you always been creative since childhood, or did you discover your talent later?

A: Make believe and escapism was at the heart of my childhood, I spent all my time drawing, creating costumes, putting on plays.

Q: Where did you grow up and has this had a bearing on your work?

A: I grew up in a small village on the Normandy peninsula, right opposite Jersey and Guernsey. A placed haunted by medieval history, the supernatural writings of Barbey d’Aurevilly. My sense of colour was probably shaped there.

Q: Did you go to art college?

A: I first studied at Studio Bercot in Paris, which was originally a fashion illustration school and retains a focus on drawing as a key skill for students (computers were banned for the first year of study!) Marie Rucki, the head of the school, was a huge inspiration to me, she opened my eyes to my own creativity, and helped me turn it into a conscious process.

Later, during my studies at the Royal College of Art in London, my tutor, the late Al Rees, gave me the confidence to have a voice. Their teaching still influences me today.

Q: Have you had any other jobs before becoming an artist?

A: I’ve always worked in creative roles, either in the fashion industry or in the museum and art world. That said, I did spend a short time in the corporate world, enough to convince me that it was not for me.

Q: ‘If I wasn’t an artist I’d be…’

A: It is almost impossible to imagine not having a creative outlet.

Abstract painter Nils Jean
Fine art prints by Nils Jean

Q: Describe a working day, do you have any daily rituals?

A: I don’t have any rituals; I like to let serendipity be part of the process. Many of my pieces are inspired by memories, music and literature and the idea for a work can either evolve slowly or very quickly.

Q: When is your most productive time of day?

A: Generally at night for sketching and creating compositions, but when it comes to work with colours, the early afternoon is when I get the best light.

Q: Where do you work, do you have a room with a view?

A: I work at home with a view of the town. That said, a large part of the creative process and some of the decisions are made when I am out and about walking somewhere or on the train. For me, half of the work happens in my head, one never really switches off.

Nils Jean’s working studio

Q: Do you listen to music or the radio whilst working, or prefer silence?

A: I always work with my headphones on, shutting the world away.

Q: What materials do you use?

A: I use acrylic paints mostly on canvas or paper. Because of its quick drying time, acrylic sets a different rhythm to the creative process. It pushes me to be decisive. Besides, the film it creates on the surface of the canvas suits the colour blocks I design. I also like its playful connotations; I am not into fetishizing the medium.

Q: What piece of equipment or other can’t you do without?

A: Good natural light! Some days I find myself moving all my equipment from room to room around the house to get the best light.

Q: What are the main themes to your work?

A: Language, artifice and memories are recurrent themes.

Q: Do you draw on personal experiences?

A: Very much so. That said, I always try to present the personal through the lens of a larger cultural reference, be it a piece of literature, music or cinema. I try to open up the work to other points of view.

Q: Do you have a current or past favourite piece of work of yours?

A: I see my paintings partly as visual diaries, each piece encapsulates a particular moment in time and in that respect I cannot compare one with another.

Each piece follows the last, and the latest piece I am working on always feels to be a step closer to whatever I am working towards.

At the moment, I am engaging with paint differently, letting the brushwork show through so that the gesture of making the work is more apparent on the surface of the canvas.

I was reading an interview of Maggie Hambling the other day where she was praising the quality of painting as something inherently alive regardless of the time it was painted.

That really strikes a chord with me as I remember as a child going to the Louvre and seeing those massive Rubens in the Catherine de Medecis gallery. Up close, they are very expressive almost abstract works. Still very much alive 400 years later.

Q: What other artists inspire you and who are your art heroes?

A: I admire artists who take risks, have the confidence to carve a path for themselves. Artists who, surely but quietly, build a strong body of work over time, regardless of what is popular or praised in the art world.

I am thinking of Robyn Denny, Howard Hodgkin, Sol Lewitt, Birger Carlstedt, Fernand Leger, David Larcher among others. And of course Dali, who might not be the most in vogue at the moment, and yet, looking back, already in the 1930s his work anticipated so many aspects that were then reused in Pop Art.

Q: Are there any contemporary artists whose work you follow?

A: I was listening to an interview of Tracey Emin lately in which she talked about the influence that Munch had on her, that was quite poignant. We are in an age where emotion is often faked in lieu of ideas, and when Emin talks there is nothing fake about it, the idea and feelings are completely inseparable.

I also keep an eye on Cory Arcangel’s practice. His hacked self-generated video pieces had a strong impact on me.

Nils Jean’s working studio

Q: What art do you hang on your walls at home?

A: A whole mix of things, I moved into my current house two years ago and am already running out of wall space! I collect original contemporary paintings, but also 18th and 19th century paintings, prints, and exhibition posters.

With artworks, it is love at first sight for me. I don’t think twice, I just know that the piece resonates with me intellectually and emotionally right away. I don’t always know why at first and there is often an alluring mystery to it.

With time though, the reasons multiply. I like the juxtapositions of art from different eras and different media next to each other on a wall. Collecting art is a passion, and something deeply personal.

Q: What have been the career highlights or achievements that you are proud of?

A: Being published by King & McGaw.

Q: What are the challenges in being an artist now?

A: I am a strong advocate of art schools, but I worry about the rising costs of art education, which puts an incredible amount of pressure on art students to be successful right from the start.

The benefit of art school is that it gives you an opportunity to experiment and take risks that won’t be able to take once you start working. It also provides you with a group of like-minded people with who you can have invaluable crits.

Fine art prints by Nils Jean

Q: How would you describe the life of an artist in less than 5 words.

A: It’s more than 5 but I’ll borrow these from Jean Cocteau: ‘I am a lie that always tell the truth’.

Q: Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given and by whom?

A: Marie Rucki would often quote Nietsche and say ‘Become who you are’, it’s not that easy…

Q: Social Media - your thoughts?

A: It’s a tool. With the right eye and the right mind, it has to potential to be a remarkable medium. I was impressed by the work of Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections a couple of years ago.

In that piece she completely turned the platform on its head and foresaw what Instagram would become.

It is a source of inspiration to see artists who are able to make use of the platform in surprising and innovative ways.  

Au Theatre

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