The intensely color-saturated portraits and figure studies by artist Jason O’Brien underscore his ongoing exploration between hope and anguish, struggle and joy.
O’Brien’s dynamic work — even when featuring surrealists touches such as a woman’s torso emerging from a hair pick, as in “Soul Comb” — always has its roots in realism.
“The vastness of the human spirit has always been a source of inspiration to me. Its depths and avenues are limitless, and by nature its appeal is universal,” the Canadian painter explains.
O’Brien has shown in a number of group and individual shows, and his work is also available online. Along with original canvases, O’Brien makes his pieces available as giclee prints, which are exceptionally high-quality pieces achieved through high-resolution digital scans and archival-ink, printed onto carefully-selected surfaces.
He credits such exuberant painters as Gustav Klimt and Jackson Pollack as early influences, while also praising the inspiration of contemporary African American artists Paul Goondnight and Kadir Nelson.
O’Brien, a Toronto-born artist, also cites the Caribbean background of his parents, both from Trinidad and Tobago, as influences in his work. Along with books, cartoons and movies, the artistic endeavors of his father, a formally-trained artist, and older cousin, a comic book illustrator, both made a strong impression.
“Any time they’d be working on something, I’d always be hanging around, hoping they’d give me some kind of small task to work on with them, just so I could be involved and close to what they were doing,” O’Brien recalls.
With the encouragement of his high school art teacher, O’Brien applied for and was accepted into the Ontario School of College and Design.He credits the institution with giving him the strong grasp of composition, coloring and drawing skills that allowed him the solid footing to develop a range of techniques, including experimental ones. “Formal training is always very important — to understand the rules and the fundamentals — before you try to break those rules,” he notes.
Not long after graduation, O’Brien landed his first art show, which was focused on Afro-Caribbean art — and even had his work featured on the show’s program cover.
He sold his first piece for $500 at the same show, and has since gone on to steadily build a base of clients, many of them serious collectors of black artists specifically and fine art in general, for the last 15 years.
His fans, whether they buy his original work or one of his limited-edition prints, cite the mixture of whimsy and gravity, of Caribbean-hued vibrancy and soulful contemplation, that permeates O’Brien’s work.
One of O’Brien’s most popular pieces, “Rainbow,” features a luxuriantly-maned woman, hands clasped and leaning against a vividly colored cushion. The entire painting is richly hued, but the central focus is on the woman’s vivid hair, alive with intense colors, ribbons and wild curls.
These days, the painting, available in a limited-edition print, is celebrated for its depiction of this life-tested, but still-hopeful, woman of spirit. But its creator experienced his own share of tribulations during its making.
“ ‘Rainbow’ was an extremely challenging piece for me,’ “ O’Brien shares. “It almost got to the point where it broke me, because I really whit a brick wall with that piece.”
Ultimately, a near-disaster — in which one of the several paintbrushes he was holding dropped onto the canvas and indented the section of the painting in which he was creating the woman’s hair — helped him achieve a breakthrough in the way the lines and shapes were presented. “That was an accident, but it created on line that inspired me to add three others. And that became the focal point to give attention to the way her face kind of bled into the Afro itself.”
These days, O’Brien embraces the freedom to experiment and to trust in where the work is taking him, finding inspiration all around him, including written and spoken language. He notes that the detailed descriptions accompanying many of his pieces is not coincidence.
“Words are very important to me. They are as much a part of my artwork as the brush strokes and the paint that I choose” O’Brien explains. “Part of my process is that I have the title of the piece before I actually begin the painting. I’m always open to hearing beautiful words, whether that’s through conversation, books, movies or poetry. I literally almost see what the painting is supposed to be, just based on the title” that emerges from that language inspiration.
Armed with the title, O’Brien often begins collecting or taking photographs as reference points, then sketching, all as part of the pre-painting process that’s typically part of “building” his completed work.
He further likens the work of each painting within a series, to songs in an album, with the titles of the piece helping his viewers understand the context of each individual piece.
“The words provide context to the viewer as to what exactly the piece means to me,” O’Brien explains. “It doesn’t mean that’s what the painting has to say to them — but it explains what it means, for me.”
Visit our: Jason O’Brien Art Gallery