Nell Brookfield draws from the unsettling details around her to inspire hyper-stylised vignettes
Formless hairy creatures and long-nailed women with fur coats and red skin – the worlds within Nell’s paintings depict surreal yet strangely comforting figures and scenes which shouldn’t make sense, but somehow do.
- Dalia Al-Dujaili
- 30 July 2021
“Unheimlich” – it’s a word that means unhomely or uncanny. It’s also a word which could be used to describe Nell Brookfield’s spine-tingling paintings. The images, depicting minute details that hint to a larger, perhaps more bizarre scene, invoke what some might call an uncanny feeling which nevertheless feels warm and inviting. Nell’s technique and creative process take a variety of forms to achieve this effect.
Inspired by unsettling details from exhibitions, films and books, Nell paints with tactile sensation in mind and in exceptional detail. Sea creatures found in Eileen Agar’s Autobiography of an Embryo at the Whitechapel, a shadow coming alive in Michael Armitage’s The Chicken Thief, a hand reaching for some strange decor in a nineties thriller film, Monster Chetwyd’s costumes, or Bhupen Khakhar’s winding landscapes found in a old catalogue. These are just some of her recent consumptions which have led to paintings that flower from those moments of inspiration.
Immersing herself into her practice, Nell tells me that her studio walls are “often covered with drawings that I make from observation, memory and imagination. I fill this space with postcards from exhibitions, books, textiles, fabrics and other objects that I’d like to paint from.” To keep this cup-full of inspiration from emptying, Nell also carries a sketchbook by her side and draws from observation on her way to a gallery, or from the artwork in the exhibition itself.
A delicate brushstroke appears to distinguish her work from other painters in a consistent style. It's refreshing how noticeable her work is. But she doesn’t see herself as apart from other artists, instead claiming that “we are all in constant dialogue”. Her work starts from looking at a drawing but she gives the painting the liberty to stray from the original idea, letting the colour and brushstrokes build on the original image. Nell is fascinated by textures, a fascination that is glaringly clear in representations of woven cloths, fur coats and foods dripping in glassy liquid. The young painter aims to give her viewer the feeling of being able to “reach into the painting and feel the surface”.
“I also want the viewer to imagine what it might be like to exist within that canvas”, she tells me. Nell admits she has an “anxious mind” that often intensifies the world around her. This subconsciously leads, she believes, to the type of work she makes; “The obsessive marks and intimate details of strange moments filled with tactility. I am also fascinated by clothes and how they can act as both costumes and barriers.” The resulting effect is an image that is hyper-aware and hyper-visceral. Her paintings range from furry animals you’d want laying at your feet on a cold evening, to plush coats and scarves you’d like to run your hands over. And even not-so-appetising burgers and prawns, dripping with questionable juices.
A consistent colour palette is another one of her more noticeable features. Nell tells me that her colour palette is “instinctual”; she makes her own paint which gives her some understanding of each colour and control over viscosity, she explains to me. She simply picks out pigments that attract her and wait for combinations to surprise her, forgoing a more methodical approach to colour pairings. She was recently inspired by Jennifer Packer’s exhibition at the Serpentine, telling me that she was very intrigued by Packer’s colour pairings.
As a young artist herself, I wondered what advice Nell would give other aspiring or emerging artists. “When I’m stuck or uninspired, going to see an exhibition really helps. Even travelling to the show, getting out of the studio and to a new part of town, can be helpful. The best advice I was given”, she divulges, “is to just show up in the studio, work through the bad days and keep going.”
Nell Brookfield: Sink (Copyright © Nell Brookfield, 2021)
About the Author
Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.