Painting with Robot Grease: Interview w/Brian Despain

despain-self-portraitI went to meet artist Brian Despain with great intentions and high hopes. I read all the content of his website, went to a gallery show and took adequate notes, and did a good study on his bio.  All my ducks in a row with my dictaphone set and ready but, as I dipped out to meet him at a landmark Starbucks in an upscale suburbs of Seattle, I quickly got lost.  As I rolled past the well kept streets, the impeccably groomed parks, and the happy families taking the ol’ afternoon stroll with their kids, I got … well… comfortable.

Living in a “largish city does keep you on your guard, and you don’t realize it until you see the “American dream” lifestyle played out before your eyes.  The wholesomeness of it all almost slaughtered my mental preparedness for the interview.  Why? Because, up until then, I was fully immersed in the art movement known as pop surrealism, lowbrow art influenced and perpetrated by illustrators, punks, and street culture in general.  The sunny, preppy burb that I was now lost in, was such a far cry, or so I thought, from the dark and sometimes dirty world of art (or was that my car) that I had just come from.  I eventually ended up finding the coffee shop, 10 minutes late, and met with fine artist Brian Despain.


You have currently have work at in a gallery down in L.A. can you tell me a little about that?

Yeah it’s a really big show at the POVevolving Gallery. I have one piece in that show.

Do you have any other shows coming up?

There is going to be a group show at Roq La Rue called “Lush Life in May and I’ll have a piece in there.  And there will be another group show at the Copro Gallery down in L.A. in June.

Do you do a lot of shows in LA. , or have you been working with more local galleries ?

Yeah, mostly I do stuff through Kirsten (Anderson of Roq La Rue).  Currently I work full time as a concept illustrator for a video game company so it’s tough to do a lot of shows, because I’m painting just on nights and weekends.

Do you plan to start painting full time?

Right now, with my schedule, I can do about one show a year and maybe a couple a group shows.  In June my fiancé is set to graduate from medical school; we’re going to move down to Florida so she can start her residency.  At that point I will quit and start painting full time. Right now I am doing about ten hours of painting a week.

Oh then you’ll be able to do shows everywhere then, yeah?

L.A. is great for that; there are a few galleries in SanFrancisco, and New York and of course Roq La Rue here in Seattle.

Are you painting a lot now getting ready for Lush Life?

Well right now it’s taking me about a month to do a painting, and that’s with taking care of the house, pets and working full time. It would be nice to have that full time work and put that all towards painting. With That eight and nine hours a day just dedicated to painting, I could get a lot done

Sounds like it’s really satisfying for you?

It is, it’s a lot of fun.  I love to do that more than anything.  The illustration is also great, it’s fun to do.  Making video games is awesome.

So you’re a concept illustrator?


When you are given a concept or idea, even though it’s for a video game, do you find that your painting style influences your illustrations or vice versa?

Well everybody has a style; you can’t help it.  As far as that goes, I’ve always said that a person’s style is the physical manifestation of all their influences and all of their experiences up to that point.  So yeah, there is going to be a style there, but with illustration there are a number of considerations, a number of other things that don’t come into play with fine art.  With what I do, I a have to think about in terms (of) how the game is going to be used, whether it’s possible to create that kind of thing… more things are applied to game play.  But with fine art you can just paint whatever you want.  In many ways, painting is a much purer mind to canvas connection, rather than this filtered down version of your work.  With illustration it’s like you’re making art using your skills to create someone else’s vision, not you’re own.  This makes it more watered down, a more “soulless” kind of art.


So seeing your art on the wall of the gallery and seeing your work in a game, does that then feel different for you?

It goes right back to the idea that the work I do for hire, the illustration work- and Ive been doing it for nineteen years now; I have been working as a professional illustrator for since I was eighteen- it doesn’t have that same impact or charge (as)  making that fine art and seeing on the wall of the gallery.  The artwork that I do, they’re more my children.  That is why none of my illustration work is on my website.  It’s all fine art, because I feel a stronger kinship with that work.

It says on your bio that you were more into art as a kid.  At what point did you decide to go professional?

I always knew I was going to be an artist in some way. I wanted to be an architect at one point . I also wanted to be a cartoon illustrator. So when I went to college, I went for a fine art degree.

In college though I never thought I would be a fine artist.  Especially, because I didn’t really like the art that was being produced at that time and I didn’t really understand how that world worked.  I was always very much the illustrator. Growing up, I was always doing really tight rendering in pencil and so I concentrated on getting a lot of drawing classes in.  After college, I ended up doing a lot graphic design and production art instead of fine art.  It wasn’t until I saw what the pop surrealists were doing that I realized that I could do fine art.  A lot of pop surrealists are also illustrators so it was an easy jump.

When did you start painting?

For a long time I painted digitally.  It wasn’t until four years ago that I started painting with oils.

Wow, only four years ago?

Yeah, I started out by using programs like Photoshop and Painter on a digital artist tablet.  I learned all the techniques of painting digitally.  Once I picked up oils, it was just a matter of figuring out how the medium worked.

Was that a difficult transition?

No, It was pretty easy.  All of the issues in color theory and composition I had worked out digitally before I started painting so…

Who were your early artistic influences?

Classic illustrators like Norman Rockwell and Wyeth were amazing.  Even if you look at the early Italian renaissance painters and American painters like John Waterhouse and John Singer Sergeant, who were painters, but I really consider them illustrators.  I like the impressionists and I could even argue that those guys were actually illustrators.  They had a specific idea, a concept of what they wanted to do, and it wasn’t to create art, it was to capture a moment in time, and that is exactly what illustrators do.

Who are your contemporary favorites?

Well the king of Pop Surealism Mark Ryden, who has set the bar.  Lori Earley is also an amazing painter, Scott Musgrove is great, and he’s a local artist.  All amazing painters.  I could go on for days.

What’s next for your work, what direction do you see it taking?

I would like to do more figurative work.  Doing more with models and people.  Recently, I’ve been looking at the work of a Norwegian artist who is capturing this more emotionally charged stuff that is really engaging.  I would like to start pushing more in that direction.  I do a bit of that right now, but I would like to hit more of those notes moving forward.

Thank You Brian, it was nice meeting you.

Yeah it was nice meeting you too.  Thanks.


I left Starbucks and proceeded to my insanely gross car.  The clean bright streets of the burbs inspired me to take a few minutes to clean it out my Lincoln at the gas station next to the on ramp before heading back to Seattle.  I parked next to the dumpsters behind the station and proceeded to clean house, until I noticed a guy with sunken eyes and disturbing grin crouched down next to the station toking a glass pipe.  This would not have phased me had I been in town, but I was kind of shocked to see this crack head in such a “nice” area.  It was… “surreal”.  I smiled at this and drove back towards town.

Pop surrealism and it’s supporters have gained a tremendous amount of notice in more recent years.  It has spawned the likes of artists such as Mark Ryden, Robert Williams , and even has it’s own home in galleries such as Roq La Rue, who’s owner literally wrote the book on the art form.  It has been a major movement for more than a decade and continues to grow and expose us to artists like Despain.  It has made way for such artists to expose the distopia that sits just beneath the surface of all that is considered wholesome, pure, and well… comfortable.


Please check out:
Brian Despain’s site
Despain on Facebook
On Gelaskins (get cheap prints, laptop/ iPhone skins etc)

(click photos to enlarge)

Leilani Lewis

Leilani Lewis lives in Seattle where she is a regular fixture in the local art community, curating shows for a number of venues, handling duties at the NW African American Art Museum, and serving as a member of various art committees. More of her work can be found on her own site,

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