"It takes an intense work ethic to develop any craft, or trade, or visual art"

A Conversation about Working as an Artist with Jason Brammer

Jason Brammer’s art can be found in private collections across the United States and Canada, but you might know him best from his work throughout Chicago.

After his band Old Pike disbanded, the touring musician started drawing and painting again. In recent years, Brammer has been commissioned to create large-scale public murals for the city of Chicago, a painting for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, permanent installations for LinkedIn and Dark Matter Coffee.

He lives in Logan Square now and works in a studio space in Humboldt, not far from the original Dark Matter Coffee location. Instruments and amps crowded the stage area at the front of his space, books dotted surfaces throughout his space, and his multimedia works lined the walls — featuring chains and even casts of old microphones.

Brammer spoke to CAR about how he got started, the ins-and-outs of working as a self-employed artist, and his advice to young artists on getting started.


CAR:You started working on murals with your mom when you were young. Is your mom is an artist as well, and did you grow up in an artistic environment?

Jason:Yes, I had a lot of support and I was encouraged. One thing my parents did was enroll me in figure drawing classes in high school, which shaped my understanding of form, color, light, contrast, and the basic art of drawing human form. To do what I do, it’s been hugely influential.

CAR:Were you always drawing or doing other form of art since your early childhood?

Jason:Indeed. I was really into music — so as a kid I remember making drawings of rock bands on paper place mats at the diner – [like of] the band Styx, which was popular at the time, so I wrote “Sticks”... I drew all the time, and then in high school I [was always drawing], which could be an issue in class [laughs].

CAR:It sounds like drawing and doing art was always part of your identity. When did it click for you that you could do art as a study or even as a career?

Jason:There’s a long side route that led me there. Out of high school I went to Savannah College of Art and Design and then I dropped out of school to move back to Bloomington, Indiana to study painting and drawing. I tried oil painting and then I dropped out of art school when my band started doing well. We got signed to Sony Records, so I left school to tour for three years.

CAR:Were you still painting or drawing during this time?

Jason:No, not all. I was so involved in music. I got back into painting when I did projects  — doing decorated painting for clients, like restaurants. I worked with interior designers who asked me to paint what they had in mind. So it forced you to learn new skills to deliver what they wanted.

CAR:What skills specifically did you gain?

Jason:I learned to bridge my abilities with the vision of a client. More specifically, I learned a lot of plaster, glazing, and other technical painting skills like using transparencies. Even wielding a trowel.

It’s just an application of a certain set of motions that you have to teach somebody a lot, which informed what I do now. It’s just like playing scales on a piano.

Once, I painted a giant melting ice-cream cone for a candy shop. I would never do that on my own! But when somebody paid me to do it, it was fun and you could take those techniques and apply it to something else. It broadens your toolkit.

CAR:And how did you find your first clients?

Jason:I started working in that realm through interior designers, doing model homes and show homes after I moved to Chicago [from Bloomington]. But any project was word-of-mouth. Even in this day and age, especially younger people, it’s easy to underestimate the power of face-to-face connection. Half of it is just showing up and being on time.

CAR:And to add on that, while the Internet and social media can show you new opportunities, you create a lasting impression by showing up.

Jason:Right, like when I see your name on CAR’s website, it means something else when I can put your face to it. So, in my early days, there was a lot of building going on. My landlord had this garden unit space — I was living on the top unit — and I had access to this basement space as a studio. I was there for about 10 years.

My advice to young artists is: have a very low overhead. I wouldn’t get into a situation where you’re paying a lot for rent. If your studio is small, whatever, I think that’s worth it, because that was key to my progression.

CAR:The less money you need to make, the less you need to work to do what you truly want to do.

Jason:Right. And I think that financial strain can hamper creativity. I started painting in that basement. I painted pictures that I would want to hang in my own place. I started doing painting in the vein of Japanese woodwork. I would do different techniques in my own closet for practice.

I would do all these paintings, and then I had a body of work, because that shows people, galleries, and collectors that you’re serious and you have a cohesive aesthetic. I took these paintings and showed them to coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. It was fun to sell paintings, and I would get the email address to anybody interested in a piece or bought a piece. That way I can create a group of people informed.

One thing I would recommend to young artists is to get professional photographs of your work. If you can’t do it, have somebody else do it, because you have to have the best representation of your work possible. If you’re submitting work to a show, you need professional shots.

CAR:How do you balance your personal life, your projects that you do just for fun, and then your work for clients?

Jason:What I do is get commercial projects and then use that to bankroll my own lunacy. I think that it’s really important — and I’m just speaking for myself here — having some element of art or of creation free of being monetized is helpful for me.

I look at it this way: if somebody is paying me to paint pictures, that’s a wonderful blessing.The commission and commercial work are really great. But it’s also, for me, important to explore what I want to do. If you carry out your own vision, wholeheartedly, I feel at some point it could yield financial security. But, I’ve never personally been successful at painting something for [myself with the intention of making] money. It doesn’t work. If the intent is financially driven, it doesn’t work.

CAR:What’s been one of the biggest challenges in working for clients?

Jason:The more projects I do, the easier it gets, and I’ve done hundreds of projects. But you have to make mistakes on your own and learn from that. When somebody wants a sketch, I [can’t] just whip something up [quickly], because what they’re paying for is your years of study and [your sense] of composition.

Going back and forth [with a client] is a dialogue. I’m designing tattoos right now, and I’m going into it and I always phrase things as “what do you think of this?”  I think it’s all about making a mood. My goal is to get to a point where a client says “I want you to do what you want to do,” and Dark Matter does that.

It’s about understanding what the client wants. And if you’re not comfortable, don’t do it.

CAR:What’s one of the most fun projects you’ve done for someone else?

Jason:All of Dark Matter’s projects are fun. Meddle, their newest location, was one of my favorites.I just did a piece for the Boiler Room in Logan Square, and that was one of my most exciting projects because I was outside on a lift.

CAR:How many projects do you juggle at any given time? Or how do you balance projects?

Jason:I think the main thing is prioritizing. If LinkedIn said they’re moving in on July 5th, they’re moving in on July 5th. But my friend asking for a tattoo might say to do it in the next half year. It’s all about deadlines. And I think deadlines are good for artists. There’s always something else to do.

The most important advice I have to artists is just do the work. Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art was very influential for me to further my work ethic. It takes an intense work ethic to develop any craft, or trade, or visual art. It’s doing repetition even when you don’t feel like it. I encourage people to put the time in. If you want to be a full-time artist, try painting 40 hours a week.

CAR:As you put a lot of time and effort in your pieces, what does it feel like to let go of it to a client?

Jason:It varies piece to piece, but I think that art is meant to be experienced, and viewed. I would prefer somebody to see it and enjoy it. I’m happier that they’re there rather than here {in my studio].


Inset image: 

Jason Brammer - "Writhing Waters XVIII"

India ink, watercolor, acrylic, and brass corners on panel


24" x 24" x 1.5”

"It takes an intense work ethic to develop any craft, or trade, or visual art" | Chicago Artists Resource


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