Anj Smith, artist: 'I get through a brush a day. By the end of the day they are knackered'

Karen Wright meets the artist in her studio in Finsbury Park

Finsbury Park is not usually associated with hip young artists, and the space that the painter Anj Smith has worked in for the past six months is surprisingly modest for a successful artist who exhibits with Hauser & Wirth, one of the most powerful galleries in the world.

Smith moved into the utilitarian building with its eclectic mix of businesses – architects, immigration lawyers and a tailor – expecting to move on quickly. Her last London studio buildings in Hackney and Dalston had been converted into luxury flats and studios, but she finds the warmth of this room seductive. "It is like being in a cocoon," she says.

Smith was born in 1978 in Blackham, a small village in Kent, one of five daughters in a household awash with books but free of television. "I had a great father who championed us and encouraged us to do what we can." She admits that she was completely detached from brands and popular culture as she grew up: she once admired another child's T-shirt and then asked, "What is Reebok?"

She moved to London, attending the Slade School of Fine Art and then Goldsmiths. I ask when she knew she was an artist. "I used to draw these underground mazes layer upon layer upon layer. I was drawing these intricate maps that were quite dark with flames." She admits that being an artist "is not a choice – I am not sure it is very healthy… I am not a great one for breaks or lunch."

Smith goes to the studio every day. She does not keep any of her work at home, where she lives with her husband and young son; her husband would like some of her paintings there but she says she could not live with them. She does not work at home, and instead leaves herself long voicemail messages that she listens to while walking to the studio.

The studio floor is covered with splayed-open books, drawn from a wide variety of sources, from art to fashion. She works sitting at a simple table drawn up to the window, with a view of the brick wall opposite. Her grandfather, also a painter, made the table and her father also used it. Two small panels of her palette scrapings are on the wall, and on the windowsill is a collection of all the paintbrushes she has used. "A brush a day. By the end of the day they are knackered."

Smith's small, intricately layered paintings, often mysterious, nameless portraits, lure the viewer into their dark secrets. "I was told people only look at paintings for three seconds so you have to use all the stuff in your arsenal", she says. As for the intimate scale: "It is a good way to seduce the viewer into looking at them and then bashing them over the head."

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