Colour-blindness and art may seem like an unlikely combination, but Brett Williams is chalking the colour in emotional rawness and vulnerability through art. The Cape Town-based artist is diversely talented with a penchant for acting and an ability to re-create and re-interpret the human form in his striking artworks. His subjects are people of all sizes and ages splayed in flesh-toned, translucent colours that signature his work as expressions of the human form and its delicate fragility. In part one of our interview, Williams chats to one small seed about how he sees colour, being called a misogynist, and creating a Human Landscape.

Image: Brett Williams

You describe your work as evoking emotional rawness through the human body. How do you evoke emotion through the structure of the body as opposed to facial expression?

The way that I work is I take photographs of my subjects. I’ll take around 200 shots and some people work well and some people don’t. From those 200 I’ll find a pose that resonates with me, and it’s usually to do with vulnerability or emotional rawness.

They’re showing something they wouldn’t usually show in public.

Do you focus on nudes because of the vulnerability aspect?

Yeah, and it’s easier to draw skin than clothing! (laughs)

Your subjects aren’t stereotypically beautiful. They’re not all young or skinny…

For me beauty is such a subjective thing. I don’t necessarily want to draw super-models. I see beauty in aspects of people rather than in the whole. So, it would be in the shine of your eyes, or the shape of your nose, or the turn of your lips. There’s beauty in the parts that make up someone’s physicality.

Image: The Human Landscape, ‘Kimby’

In your drawings the skin isn’t smooth and you can see the veins coming through. It’s very detailed.

Yes, I get sucked into the details sometimes. I don’t want to be a super-realist, for me it’s much more expressive, but I’m also colour-blind. The tones that I use and the way that chalk works certain colours tend to come through so they look translucent or transparent.

Is that why you use chalk?

Yeah, I mean I find it frustrating because

I can’t often determine what colours are which until it’s too late. I get really frustrated. I stand there for ages looking at the photograph I’ve taken on my laptop and I look at my paper and I look at my chalks and I just go blank for ages

That’s why it takes me so long to do artworks. It takes me anything from two weeks to a month to do something. There’s one I just started, and my friend Hayden looked at and said ‘it’s really good man, but why is her face green?’. It’s like shit I thought it was great. It’s mistakes that I make, and at school I always found painting quite difficult and I started working with oil pastels and that led me to chalks.

What I really love is that you get your fingers in it. So it’s almost like you’re sculpting, and you’re touching the paper so it’s a really personal experience for me. By the end of the picture my fingertips are usually worn through, and I have to wait for like a week or two before I do the next one.

On Tumblr you’ve posted incomplete art that you’re progressively working on. In all the images you finish the face and the upper body before you’ve added to the rest of the body…

I work down. I always work down for practical reasons. I used to work on the floor in my garage, and it’s depressing (laughs). You’re down there and you’re always looking over the picture and there’s shadow. Then I started putting it up, which was difficult for me to do. I was nervous, but it was a practical reason for me to work from the top down. I also have to remember skin shades, because they’re not always the same so I like to work on certain sections at a time otherwise I can’t get it out properly.

Image: The Human Landscape, ‘Lucinda’

If you have difficulty seeing the colour of the chalk then how do you know which chalk to use?

Not to make it sound in anyway supernatural, but I kind of have a feeling for light and dark. It’s something that I’ve worked on for a long time and I have to trust that what I’m doing will work out. Inevitably when I start I’m terrified.

I don’t enjoy art when I start, I hate it

I’m filled with anxiety when I start doing a piece because I have all this fear that I’m going to screw it up and I can’t erase it. So everything that I do gets sprayed and if you use dark chalk it leaves a stain that you can’t erase. Every time I work it has to be right the first time.

In terms of vulnerability, your art seems to experiment with different perspectives.

Yeah, there’s a dominance and submission I like to play with as well. So if you’re viewing it and the art piece is high on the wall then she’s looking down at you and you’re looking up at her. It’s a little bit confronting but I quite like it. So what if it’s confronting? I struggle with pseudo-intellectual art, I really do because it’s like ‘wow what a big idea’ when in fact for me it’s not often such a big idea, it’s just… like Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass case at MoMA. But then again, everyone’s projecting what they feel.

In every relationship whenever you look at somebody, whenever you have an interaction with somebody there’s someone who’s dominant and someone who’s submissive. And if they’re both dominant you have a fight (laughs).

Image: The Human Landscape, ‘Beyonce’

One of your portraits is called ‘Beyonce’ and another is titled ‘Candy’, but then you also use normal names like ‘Katie’. How do you decide what to name your work?

I wanted to be clever and have these amazing names and then I thought I’ll just call them after the people so it doesn’t detract from what’s going on in the picture.

For me, it’s about not detracting from the art, which is why I use either a plain background or no background, because everything is about the body. I don’t want to influence what people are thinking about the picture by giving them a title to go ‘oh it’s about that!’

I really think it’s so subjective and everyone projects their ideas onto art. I mean there’s one called the ‘Boy in the Bath’, which was of my son. He was in the bath in Australia and I took a photo of him because for me it was this very solitary piece. I actually called it ‘Isole’, which is ‘island’ because he feels like an island. That’s the only one I’ve done like that. I exhibited it at Art Sydney in 2008 and this woman went mental. She was like ‘oh you can just tell they’re all drug addicts, just look at him, look at the veins and the scars, and so I realised that it’s all about projection.

Tell us about your Human Landscape collection.

I needed a name for my new collection of work and I started thinking about the common theme between all of them. I thought that they’re all naked and their bodies are like a landscape. You’ve got the literal landscape and the metaphorical landscape, and I thought it worked very well. It’s the literal landscape — the folds, the wrinkles, the scars — and then it’s also the landscape we’ve created, the human landscape, what we see is beautiful, what we see is plain or not beautiful. It just encompasses all of that. That’s how I see it.

I’ve also tried to have a common theme with this because before it was just one-offs and I think that’s difficult to show people as a collection of work. You need things to tie together.

I know I only have white people in my pictures, but I want to do other cultures as well. I’m a little bit nervous because I’m colour blind and I really don’t want to screw it up (laughs).

Image: The Human Landscape, ‘Candy’

Is that why you focus on white people?

Also because they are so accessible. A lot of my art is of people I know, so I do feel uncomfortable sometimes asking strangers. But I’d like to explore that, definitely.

I’ve been called a misogynist as well. Years and years ago I did this piece of art and I put it up in this small gallery that’s no longer there and this woman had walked in and had said about my piece ‘oh my God, look at that piece, the guy is obviously a misogynist’

It was just a profile of a woman naked from the chest up and she looked like a Spanish opera singer. She had this beautiful face and she kind of projected straight onto my piece. There was nothing misogynistic about it. It was very weird.

You like to do art in winter. Why winter?

Less distraction. Less beaches, less people going out. People don’t go out so much — not that I go out — but you know, it’s not as alive so I get to sit in the studio and work, which is what I really like. If I could I’d work at night, but I’ve got a son and so I can’t do that. Working at night is great because there’s no sense of time. One of the reasons I don’t do clothing and I don’t do jewellery is that I don’t want it to have a time element. So I want it to be timeless in a way. With night, you also don’t have to put lines down so the sun doesn’t mess with what you’re doing. I love it and it’s very solitary. That’s a good thing and a bad thing.

Your work seems very driven by solitude.

Yeah, I’ve been thinking lately, trying to figure out what my work is about, because I don’t think I’m that insightful that I can write a PhD on my art. For me I’ve started thinking lately that maybe I’m projecting my own vulnerability… it has to be because I’m the artist so what I’m choosing are obviously going to be my filters, which for art is vulnerability in the sense of emotional honesty, and stuff like that. We’re not all perfect and that’s what I’m attracted to. I used to be attracted to bones and bone structure, but now I’m attracted to that sense of vulnerability.

Image: ‘Boy in the Bath’

Images: Brett Williams
Interview: Ra’eesa Pather