Now Featuring Nicolas Burrows

Nicolas Burrows is an artist, designer, musician and writer, so it’s fitting that his collages jangle with energy and exuberance.  They’re filled with the pure energy of making, of cutting, choosing color, rearranging, balanced with Burrows’s optimistic sense of harmony.

Print 1, Temple Gardens

Print 1, Temple Gardens

Print 2, Rorbu

Print 2, Rorbu

Print 3, Apothecary

Print 3, Apothecary



MH: What your process like, how do you get started?  I’m curious because it seems like collage is sometimes a tool for you, a way of working an image out on the way to being something else, and sometimes it’s an end in itself.

NB: I’ve only just recently worked out or decided that I do have a process. I usually hate anything systematic. If I’m working physically, I’ll prepare lots of different surfaces with different paints or crayons or printing inks or whatever, and then I’ll start to cut out some shapes. I cut, tear or paint things very deliberately, even though I want them to look quite incidental. I might start with something I’ve pulled out of my sketchbook, or a vague memory, or just a certain color combination. I never use off-cuts or found scraps.


If I’m working digitally, I’ll spend some time cutting out lots of different forms, and painting forms with ink. Then I’ll scan them all in so I have my palette of things to work from. It’s important to me to have that prepared element, that limited palette; then I can focus and get absorbed.

Usually it’s an end in itself, but sometimes I use collage as a tool to compose things like the prints or wall-pieces I make, largely because it’s quick. Eventually I hope I can turn the collages into paintings. If I can get to a point where I’m confident enough with what I’m doing I would like to start painting again.


I’m interested in using as many different processes/surfaces as I can, because I enjoy the interaction between things. So sometimes I’ll make small brush marks and blow them up and use them in my collages, as well as cutting out straight lines from paper. And I use enamel paint, printed papers, wood, gouache, acrylic, metal, cardboard, crayons. It’s all about harmony – how things relate to each other. That’s what I look for in work I like and that’s the main thing I’m aiming for in my own work – balance and harmony.

merijn spread

MH: Your colors remind me a lot of classic mid-20th-century color schemes — the Eameses spring to mind — what are your color inspirations and what guides your choices?

NB: I find color combinations everyday, everywhere. Although I don’t often photograph them or record them properly, I’ll notice things like the color of some orange vinyl flooring next to a grey chair leg and make a mental note, or someone’s t-shirt and trousers combo. So I’m always looking for those things. I find some surfaces and textures and mediums work better in certain colors, so I’ll often use a yellow lino printed surface because I like that and the ink/paper combination makes it rich and luminous. Then some enamel paints are just different colors altogether, and gloss paint looks different than matte.


Again, it’s about the relationship between the colors. Usually I’ll work from one main color combination and then add or change colors around it until it feels harmonious. The color is really important in my work because generally it’s very simple, so the color combinations can really make it work or not work. If I’m making physical work as opposed to digital I prefer to use colors straight out of the tin or tube. It’s nice to have parameters, and that way the colors are always the same.


The Eames and mid-20th century colors you mention is interesting and I do love the Eames’s constructions and furniture etc, also designers like Tom Eckersley, Olle Eksell, Tove Jansson’s. But I’m not directly looking at that as inspiration. What I’m doing in front of me comes from the things I see in the world, which of course includes other artwork, but I feel a bit “dirty” pinching colors off other artists.

MH: Since you do illustration and design work, I’m interested in how you think about images as information, as modes of accessible, rather than inscrutable, information.  I think my question is also prompted by your interest in (so called) outsider art, and our shaky grasp on what that is and means, contrasted with the idea of design/illustration, which, because it’s so negotiated between artist and client/audience, is in some ways the opposite of whatever an outsider is. In short, how “outsider” art is often brought to an audience as part of a later “discovery” and how illustration/design always have the audience in mind, a priori.

NB: When I’m working in a commercial or applied context, it’s usually important to communicate something, so that becomes a factor pushing against my natural desire to just have fun with the image. That tension makes for interesting visual communication though. Stuff that is too direct and obvious can feel a bit tired, lame or condescending. Also I don’t just want to repeat the message of whatever the illustration or design is accompanying – I want to strengthen it or add something.

What I like about “outsider” art is (I don’t really like that term so much either) that to me it seems like it is making things for the joy of making things. For no commercial or egotistical reason, though of course this isn’t always the case, and this type of making isn’t limited to so called “outsider art.” I love objects and images made by people for no other reason than they wanted to make it, or because they wanted to decorate something, or wanted to express something but not necessarily to show anyone. As soon as you have an audience in mind it changes the work.


That’s where everyone starts out, but going into contemporary art or applied art means you always have an audience or an end goal in mind. I struggle to put the audience out of my mind because I am quite self-conscious. That’s why I have a great admiration for people who just make things and don’t give a shit, even if I don’t necessarily like their output. That’s also why the people I look up to most are people who are classed as maybe ‘eccentric’ or idiosyncratic at least, because they just do whatever they want and don’t care if anyone likes it or not.


MH: Can you talk about your contribution to the book You Are the Friction, which paired writers and illustrators? How was it mixing words and images?  Do you write much or was this a new step for you?

NB: My friend (though no relation) Jez Burrows, and Lizzie Stewart, who publish under the name Sing Statistics, asked me to contribute a while back. I haven’t had much published although I do try to write as much as I can. It wasn’t a new step because I’ve been writing as long as I’ve been doing anything else, but it was a new thing to have someone publish it, so it’s really nice to be in the book with such great writers and artists. Maxwell Holyoke Hirsch illustrated my writing. I love his work and we met before when I was in San Francisco a long time ago. I think his skateboard had just been squashed under a truck and we went to a creperie somewhere.

It was nice to respond to an image and have to turn that into writing. It’s good to have an impetus or a little spark to kick things off. Recently I’ve been experimenting with some writing where I write down all the words after a game of Scrabble or any other word-based game, and then I try to make stories out of them using all of the words and as few other words as I can. There’s something relaxing and productive about not being entirely in control of what you’re doing…

So I consider writing as a peripheral thing that I’m in no hurry to push out there but I like doing it and it’s necessary for writing songs too so I need to keep my eye in.


MH: You’re a busy guy! Can you talk about how your collective, Nous Vous, fits with your individual practice, and how your musical work, as Glaciers, fits in, too?

NB: At the moment Nous Vous is my day job and my own work and my music fits in around that. That’s great as I like what I do with Nous Vous and it’s great working with Will and Jay, but if I could I’d be spending more time on my own personal stuff. It’s not all commercial work with Nous Vous, though. We do work on our collective practice and experiment on things together – we’ve got an exhibition this summer where we’ll all be exploring our individual practices alongside some collaborative work. I’m planning to make some field recordings and new songs in response to the exhibition space – so things sometimes all roll in together. I’ll sometimes prefer an audio response or written response to a project if I think it’s a nice opportunity.


Basically I feel like I approach everything in the same way, whether it’s making visual work, music or writing. I think the collage process is the same way I’ll make recordings – you have the basic structure in mind and then just try different takes of singing or instrumentation over the top until it feels right. I never really sit down and write a song, I try something out, then I’ll think about it for a while in my head. I do the same with the visual work. I’ve always liked doing lots of different things because there’s never any empty space. If I’m working on some visual work I’m probably also thinking about some songs I want to record in the gaps. If your mind is continually flicking about I think it’s healthy creatively, up to a point. You just have to accept that it might take you longer to do everything you want to do.


MH: I like how you have a collage-like process going on even in writing, when you collect words after Scrabble games.  What’s your relationship to play and games (not just Scrabble, though it’s awesome, more generative games, for example Surrealist games like Exquisite Corpse)?

NB: Exquisite corpse is something I liked to do when I was in school, also using the same game to produce a weird story where you write a sentence without seeing what came before/after. When I started writing my own things as well I used to do David Bowie/Dada cut-ups, as I’m sure most people have done at some point. With Nous Vous we often have games or processes that force us to create images in a certain way, or we play stupid word games with adjective/noun combinations that just make silly phrases. I feel like my process is all about play – there’s really no point to it, but I value that more than a lot of things. People are often looking for meanings or narratives, and I like pure play and aesthetic pleasure. I get a lot of childish pleasure out of silly games and imaginings, absurdist comedy etc.

Collage helps me out by forcing me to work with a limited palette or toolkit. If I don’t have that I find it harder to just create something from scratch – I find it harder to make decisions. That’s probably why I do it.

Nicolas_Burrows_Collage_BlockMH: Since you do so much, I’m curious about what’s difficult or challenging for you, what you’re wrestling with in the studio or at your desk.

NB: The biggest challenge is time, or lack of. That comes with not being satisfied to just focus on one thing. So I’m busy working on stuff with Nous Vous, which is great, but then I’ve got less time to work on my music or printmaking or whatever. It’s difficult to justify putting time aside to the things I really want to do at the moment. Sometimes I get frustrated if things are moving too slowly, but if you try and do a lot at once then those individual things just take longer and you have to accept that.

Otherwise I’m constantly just trying to develop my collage and printmaking to make it its own thing. I only really feel like in the last year and a half I’ve realized what work I like and what I want to do with my own work, so I feel like I’m at the beginning of something here, and I just want to keep developing it.

I wrestle with feeling almost guilty about using collage, because it seems like it’s somehow cheating – I can’t explain why. Sometimes I think, I could just plan this out and take time to paint it or draw it. I know why I don’t – because I can change collage quickly and without waiting for paint to dry or whatever. I’m very impatient. I feel somehow that collage is a process on the way to something else, that’s why I’m working on transferring the process to printmaking and eventually painting. I’m also wary of making bad abstract art, which is very easy to do…


MH: You mentioned so artists you like (Tove Jansson is so great!), who are some artists, designers, writers you’re excited about right now?

From the past and the present…Tal R, David Batchelor, Bob Law, William Scott, Alexander Girard, Alexander Calder, Alan Fletcher, Carol Summers, Victor Pasmore, Jockum Nordstrom, Patrick Heron, Blexbolex, Josef Albers, Bruno Munari, Nathaniel Russell, Richard Sennet, Abner Graboff, Paul Rand, Ellsworth Kelly, Yokoland, Sarah DeBondt, Peter Nencini, Tom Eckersley, David Hockney, Geoff McFetridge,Ted Hughes, Ivor Cutler, Louis Jenkins…just a small selection…



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