an interview with Justin Cole

The start of cold nights, strong winds, and early sunsets always make November a hard month to adjust to. With summer days long past, and a new year on the horizon it makes the passage of time feel like a physical phenomena. Or it could just be the cold seeping into my bones.

Contemplation of the metaphysical and the human condition is right in the realm of this month’s artist interview Justin Cole. A painter in Brooklyn, NY, Justin’s paintings fuse classical figures with abstract techniques and leaves me wondering if what I saw was a reality or a dream? Like being shaken awake, only to remember what it felt like in the dreamscape. That’s the fun to be had with Justin’s work, is it a metaphor that you’ve seen or just figments from imagination?


Christian:  What paint tube or color are you really into right now?

Justin: I feel like there’s many ways you can approach this. I use Cadmium Yellow all the time. Any of the Cadmiums right now. But if I had to choose, I’m vibing with Cadmium Orange. Personally, I’ve been using that lately.

Christian: Any particular reason you go for Cadmium Orange?

Justin: There’s no meaning. It’s how I like to color my work. I do the under paintings with cadmium, and I like letting it seep through. It’s more vivid than say a more classic underpainting paint like Burnt Sienna.

Especially with my new color pieces, it’s a lot easier with orange to make something bright and as warm as possible. 

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Christian: So where do you get your inspirations from painting from? 

Justin: In terms of things I incorporate and approach, my base has been in classical realism. Coming from an Illustration program they really grind into you the “old masters” (Michaelangelo, Goya, Rembrandt, etc). So that process, and classical aesthetic is ingrained into me even though my work is shifting away from that.

I also really like the contemporary wave of art and the things that a lot of painters are doing today. I like taking things that I see as fresh ideas that are coming out and incorporating them into what I want to make.

Then there’s another part of me that really digs work by Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, Rothko. That abstract expressionist feeling mixed in with classical techniques and the figure is a combination of all the things I like.

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Christian: What do you think about when you’re painting? 

Justin: It kind of varies day to day. If the painting I’m working on isn’t being realized and I need to pull myself out of it I can be really in my head. If it’s more day-to-day and I’ve done the groundwork, I know more or less what I’ll be doing. Then I can just put on my music and it’s really therapeutic. 

I don’t rush myself anymore. If it takes forever, like, who cares? I have like 50 more years of painting. 

Christian: So I also noted that you’re also a musician, and have a lot of background in music. Do you find a correlation between the music you create and the art that you make?

Justin: There is some crossover. I started making music in middle school, and we really didn’t know what we were doing. We’d cover songs by Green Day, and over time started writing our own stuff.

From there that’s where we started learning to ideate and execute our own ideas. That’s kind of what I do with painting. You make the stuff you want to hear; you paint the stuff you want to see.

There was a period where I stopped making music and went to art school. I felt like I started from the ground up on ideating and making artwork. Then I came back to music after going through the art school process, and now I found that my art school education really influences how I approach music now.

Christian: Any specifics on what that means?

Justin: I think more big picture to small picture now. Like “what is a general feeling I want to achieve” and then working from there to a more specific point of view.


Christian: Can you talk me through your painting Return to Nature? The first thing I really noticed about this piece was the mark making in the foreground, and how you’ve built texture in a variety of ways. It makes the figure feel really enveloped by the foliage around them.

return to nature

Justin: I usually start with looking at reference images that I have compiled online or have at my own disposal. In my mind I have my own ideas and criteria of what I’m looking for as I’m browsing that will fit my aesthetic and my work.

From there I’ll add landscapes and various floral elements, and when I add those I have a starting point and continue to react to it to build up this scenery. I’m pretty straightforward with my approach to painting, and that’s what I’ve always loved about the practice is that there really aren’t any secrets.

To me symbolically, it represents a duality of life and death, and I have my own interpretations of the work but I’m more interested in what other people find from looking at it.

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Justin Cole’s work can be found on his website and his Instagram @justincole.