Joe Simpson – An interview with an artist

Back in our latest issue of the magazine we featured an artist called Joe Simpson. We did an interview and showed a couple of his amazing pieces but the mag space was restricted so alas not enough of his work made it in for my liking. So here is some more and a proper post (I’ve included my original interview too so you don’t have to find it in the mag). Enjoy!


Joe Simpson is a London-based figurative painter whose work has been shown around the world. In the UK he’s exhibited at The Royal Albert Hall, Manchester City Art Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery and The House of Commons. Joe’s intricate oil paintings are more than photorealistic, they have an additional energy to them that makes the mind race for an explanation of the stories behind each scene or face. His most recent creative project is a crowdfunded trip ‘Across America’, during which he will create hundreds of small pieces of work for each person who backs the trip (and a few big pieces for high-rollers).

The idea of selling work before you’ve done it is a novel way to save cash for a trip, but 78 paintings in a month Joe?! What was the inspiration behind your Across America project?

A lot of my work is about journeys and travel. I’m interested in the romantic notion of the ‘in-between’ places like train stations, airports, cafes and departure lounges. There’s a nice quote from Alain de Botton that says ‘journeys are the mid-wives of thought.’ In the past I’ve created series of paintings inspired by the ‘road movie’, I thought it would be great to actually do a trip myself and make work inspired by my trip. It will also force me out of the studio and to work on quicker, more experimental pieces on the move. I’ve always been pretty fascinated by America, so much of the films, music, art and books that I consume come from the States – I’ve always thought of it as a cool, cinematic place that I’m watching from afar. A lot of my work has a slightly American feel to it, so it seemed like the natural choice of the place to go.

Have you always made use of online services during your career? 

I’m a big fan of social media and I’ve always relied heavily on the Internet to promote my work. Ever since university I’ve had my own website and that’s been a great tool to show my art – especially when lot’s of people end on the site by accident after googling the mountaineer Joe Simpson or Jessica Simpson’s creepy dad. I’ll be tweeting (@joesimpsonart) and blogging the whole time I’m away, uploading pictures of the art I’m creating.

Can you expand on the role of crowd funding in the project?

After I came up with the idea I had to figure out how to fund it. I have friends in bands who had used crowd funding to pre-sell their album and ‘rewards’ before it was made, as a way to raise the money to produce it, it had gone really well for them and made the new album possible to happen. I decided to have a go myself and offer people the chance to buy the original art that I would be creating whilst I’m traveling. It was a bit of a risk because I would be selling work that hadn’t been made yet and I wasn’t sure whether people would get involved, but I tried to keep the bids quite cheap to reflect this – such as a small painting on a beer mat, or 8”x5” sketches for £15. There are also bigger pieces on offer such as large canvases that will be completed when I return to my studio in London.

What have been the pros and cons of this approach?

It actually went really well and raised much more than my initial target. I think it’s a novel way to promote a project as it will make a pre-made audience who will have an invested interested in following my trip. The only down-side is that I’ll now have a lot of work to do when I’m away, but I’m hoping that will be a great motivation to be very productive.

Who inspires you artistically?

I’m a big fan of Sufjan Stevens and the way he approaches music. He often works on projects that have an unusual concept or starting point, he’s written whole albums about specific American states, researching the history and idiosyncratic stories that define a place. He’s also written albums about a schizophrenic artist, a strip of road and a series of Christmas records. I’m trying to take this approach with my art work, and to create ‘projects’ where each painting is connected to the others in the series.

What about from a business perspective?

I’m really interested in the way Damien Hirst has created an art empire. From the start he was super entrepreneurial that I think came from being really ballsy and confident. I’ve read an interview where he was discussing his shark in formaldehyde piece and he described how he wanted to get the most audacious thing delivered to him in London by just talking on the phone, I really admire that intent. I’ve tried to use the Internet to reach out to people who appear out of reach, for example for my musician portraits project I got in touch with some really famous people (like Brandon Flowers, Mark Ronson, Jamie Cullum etc.) who agreed to let me paint their portrait.

Most entrepreneurial item of stationary?

Does an iPhone count? Having your portfolio on your phone is so useful to me now, my paintings look quite good on a small screen so it’s an easy way to show your work and explain it’s my actual job –people used to just smile apologetically when you tell them you’re an ‘artist’, now I can explain it better. But if an iPhone doesn’t count as stationary – which I suspect it doesn’t – I’ll say a set square. Don’t ask me why.

5 words of advice for the go-getters of the future?

Do what you believe in.

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