“IF I can’t be a musician, then I want to be an artist,” says Douglas native Brian Smyth, who lives in Florence and has carved out a successful career there.
His almost photo-realist paintings are currently on show at O’Mahonys of Watergrasshill until the end of January. The paintings depict scenes of both Cork and Florence.
Brian, 55, went to the Crawford College of Art and Design when he was 20. It dawned on him that he could focus on visual art, having dallied in bands as a bass player without much success.
But before taking the plunge, Brian studied civil engineering for a year in CIT, dropping out and working in poorly paid jobs.
He recalls his first year at the Crawford: “It was great. We did still life and life drawing. I really enjoyed it. Then, at a certain point, you’re cut loose and left on your own. You get some guidance.
“But I just really wanted to be taught how to draw and paint.”
Brian wasn’t keen on conceptual art, popular at the college. But bit by bit, he achieved good results.
“At the end of my third year, I was doing really well. I got the Student of the Year Award from the Cork Artists’ Society in 1994. They gave me an exhibition in the old Lavitt Gallery. That exhibition sold out.
“At the time, being a bit of an idealistic socialist, I was feeling a little nostalgic after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. So a lot of my imagery was based on Soviet imagery and the Cold War. It was something I really got my teeth into.”
Conscious that a career as an artist could be financially insecure, Brian started doing graphic design “as a back-up”.
“I did the two simultaneously for a while, saying I’d eventually go with the one that was doing better. As it happens, it was the beginning of the Celtic Tiger. Most of what I was doing was selling paintings.
“The graphic design wasn’t really going anywhere so I went with the art. I had exhibitions in galleries in Dublin, Cork and London. I was doing really well.”
Brian thought he was made for life. “But everything changed in 2008/9. A lot of people just weren’t buying art anymore.”
Looking for opportunities, Brian became aware of the work of artists that he saw online who could paint like the Old Masters.
“I wondered how the hell they learned that. I kept seeing references to schools in Florence so I decided to go over one summer to do a workshop. I felt that this was where I needed to be, where I could learn more about drawing and painting.”
In 2012, Brian moved full-time to Florence.
“The first few months were hard. I had left my support structures in Cork. But I decided to attend the Angel Academy and extract as much as possible out of it. I studied there for three years.”
What did he learn there?
“On the first day, we were shown how to sharpen a pencil. I had used pencils a lot but didn’t know how to sharpen them properly. Then they went through the basics, showing us how to use the tools to draw properly. They got us to copy the Bargue Plates which are a series of lithographs made in France in the 1870s. We were given one and I basically became a human photocopying machine. We used pencils, then charcoal and then painting in black and white, before painting with colour. I absolutely loved the course.”
He was delighted to be asked to stay on as a teacher at the academy.
In terms of his subject matter, Brian says he is “a bit of a magpie”.
“There’s a few things I like to do like head studies, or portraits, as well as landscapes and still lives. I also like to do nostalgic types of imagery.”
While Brian is painting in a traditional style, he depicts the world we live in today.
“If I’m painting a scene and there’s a car there, then the car will go in the painting. I like to paint contemporary road markings and street furniture.
“When I’m doing landscapes, I want them to be of today.”
Brian prefers the light in Cork to that of Florence.
“There’s something about the light in Cork. The shadows are deeper and darker. There’s a kind of clarity to the light here. The skies over Italy are blue, but they’re a dirty blue.
“The colours I use in Florence tend to be warm oranges and yellows and greens. If I’m painting en plein air there, I use warm ochre colours and some blues and greens. In Cork, I use more dark browns and slate grey colours.”
Married to an Italian woman who is a graphic designer, the couple have a young son, Leonardo, called after the great renaissance painter.
Brian likes living in Florence, although he says it gets too hot in the summer and attracts too many tourists.
“I like Italians – except when they’re driving and you’re trying to cross the road at a zebra crossing and they won’t stop. I think the Irish and the Italians have always got on. There’s good harmony there.”
Brian’s exhibition, organised by artist John Adams, includes paintings of Cork’s docklands.
“There’s great atmosphere in the docks. It’s Cork’s maritime connection to the world. I love the industrial landscapes too and the skyline.”
Ultimately, Brian would like to move back to Cork so that his son can get to know his cousins. Luckily, Brian’s wife loves Cork.