Geoffrey Breen is one of five local artists selected as finalists for the 2018 Kilgour Prize at Newcastle Art Gallery. He sits among other locals such as James Drinkwater, Rachel Milne, Peter Lankas and Clifford Hosking – but this may be the first time you’ve heard of him.
The elusive artist has no online presence. The only way to contact him is through local gallery Cstudios. Breen says this has been a deliberate choice to protect his privacy.
“I don’t really want to promote myself in any particular way other than through my paintings in competitions or local galleries,” he says.
Growing up in Sydney, Breen had the quintessential 1950s Australian upbringing: his dad a builder and his mum a housewife. Breen says he enjoyed school - but didn’t do very well during his early years due to a preoccupation with painting.
As a teenager, Breen worked as an apprentice draftsman for a firm of steel fabricators. It was in this job he learnt the conventions of 2D drawing. Later, as he developed his painting style, he would skilfully learn to break these rules to create images that would seamlessly distort upon the canvas.
Breen is now 76 years old and has been painting in earnest since his semi-retirement in 2006.
After his apprenticeship, Breen left to enrol in a Bachelor of Architecture at the University of NSW. His international career as an architect spanned 32 years. Breen painted continuously throughout his working life, squeezing it in during weekends.
“It was the application of aesthetics and form creation, all the same things that interest me when I’m painting, that attracted me to architecture,” he says.
Breen, now in his 70s, has been painting in earnest since his semi-retirement in 2006. He has been a finalist in the Muswellbrook Art Prize, but he is yet to make the shortlist of either the Wynn and Sulman art prizes.
“You have to roll with the punches, keep a level head, and don’t worry about egos,” he advises.
Breen is drawn to still life, interiors and urban exterior spaces. He draws on his skills as a draftsman and architect to create spaces from his imagination.
He paints from his “big rambling house” near Pokolbin. The house was initially just a weekender while he was working in Sydney, but has become his full-time residence. His nearest neighbour is half a kilometre away.
“You can see how that fits with not having a webpage or a Facebook account,” he laughs.
Breen paints while listening to classical music or jazz, often working on half a dozen paintings at a time.
“I tend to work on several at once,” he says. “I will leave a particular painting when it presents a problem I can’t solve at the time and put it aside for later, which is why ultimately they all take so long to do.”
Breen says a painting the size of his Kilgour entry would take him about a year to complete.
His Kilgour entry, Lunchtime in the park 2018, sits at a respectable size of 120 x 180 cm. While he doesn’t exclusively work at this size, Breen says he prefers producing large-scale paintings.
“The diptych format is best suited to my approach to image making,” he says. “It is also breaks up small enough to fit into my car.”
Although there is something of Brett Whiteley in Breen’s choice of colour palette, he says that he is more drawn to Whiteley’s ability to distort perspectives. Other influences include Geoffrey Smart, Stanley Spencer and Arthur Boyd.
Like many artists, Breen says he is far too critical of his own paintings and can’t seem to ever stop working on them. “A painting is never really complete. Usually it’s the deadline that causes you to stop,” he says.
Breen says that Cstudios gallery director Jo Chisholm-Ray has rescued several of his paintings from himself. “Jo is currently holding onto one of my large triptychs and won’t give it back because she knows if she does, I’ll probably paint over it! I do that often with my paintings,” he says.
This is Breen’s first time as a Kilgour finalist. He says the experience has been bolstering. “I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled,” he says. “So much so that I’ve already started work on next year’s entry!”