Johnny O’Brady is a contemporary painter known for his dynamic large-scale portraits.
In the early 80s, he began working in his Venice Beach, California studio, alternating with his illegal art loft in Soho, New York City. The bold provocation of experimental and performance art, street art, and the explosive music scenes – on both coasts – was electrifying and revelatory to O’Brady. His early, abstract paintings reflected this potent energy with his use of found objects, spray paint, dirt, gasoline, and fire.
Over time, his interest shifted to nuances of human expression as seen in classic films.
My paintings are about memory and emotional intensity. I try to capture spirits flickering between the past and present, alive and gone.
I paint big because it’s liberating; you don’t have to worry about painting outside the lines. You can walk in and immerse yourself in the brushstrokes. You can use your whole body to fling the paint, extending your arm across an 8-foot canvas. I work with both hands and two large brushes to paint backgrounds, angling one horizontally and one vertically to get the lines and shapes I want.
For portraits, I use a broad angle brush. I can crunch up the bristles with the paint flying all over the place when I’m doing hair; I can use the side to be soft as a feather when doing skin. I also work with a mahl stick, using the stick and the brush as one tool. The stick lets you take a little pressure off the brush. You can lean into the canvas, straight into the wall, sideways. You can put your brush anywhere.
Mixing color can be like magic – flip in a glowy red, some electric orange, give a little stir, and it turns into a new strange and beautiful color. I use very high-quality paint then I throw my tea into the brush water to create a bit of murkiness.
– Johnny O’Brady