Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interview with Lee Johnson

Who did you study with?

Betty Lou Totten in Florida, Leo Neufeld in New Mexico, and Charles Cecil in Florence.

Tell us about your training? What is the process in an atelier or teaching studio as opposed to a university art education?

The atelier training is pretty much nuts and bolts, just about how you build an image and develop craft. We worked 6 to 8 hours a day drawing from the cast and the model. This training typically takes 3 to 4 years of solid study. In atelier training there is no vaporing about complex theories, or anything that isn’t germane to the painting process. By contrast, university art education emphasizes that it’s more important how you talk about art than how you make it, trying to teach artists to think like art critics, instead of art makers.

What is the chief benefit of such training?
It keeps you very image-focused, establishing the primacy of the visual over the conceptual. It also lets you get really deep into your own work, to explore how far you can take a painting. And, if you’re lucky, you get to work with some really accomplished people.

Besides your teachers, what painters have influenced your work?

There’s the big names, Velazquez, Sargent, Tiepolo, Goya, Ribera, as well as illustrators like Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Kliban, Gorey, and John R. Neill.

What is your philosophy of painting?

I don’t know that I have one, not in so many words. I’m a really visual person, so I suppose that a strong visual sense combined with a good imagination and a sense of humor is what I rely on.

How many hours a week do you paint?

Probably no painter ever thinks he works enough. I paint as often as I can, but it really varies depending on what I’m working on. I can bang away at a canvas for hours and hours a day and not get much accomplished, and sometimes I can just work for thirty minutes and finish a painting.

Would you describe your working methods?

I start with small drawings from my imagination, fiddle with them a bit, then get models in to work out the poses and do more complete drawings from life. At this stage I also do tone and color studies for the final composition on wax paper. This gives me the materials to begin work on what will be the final painting. I rough in the composition, bring the models back, and start to build the painting. From there it can be fast or slow depending on the painting, but in general I’m a really slow painter. My ideas tend to start very fast, but take a long time to develop, and I will often scrape out large parts of paintings if they are not working, and start again, much to the frustration of my models. I also spend a lot of time just looking, and not painting, in order to understand the direction a painting needs develop.

What are your views on the application of paint?

Whatever works. I think a lot of painters indulge in a bit too much cork-sniffing about paint handling and painting mediums, etc. The solution to getting good paint quality is often to just to use enough paint.

Do you paint outdoors often?

Not as often as I’d like. I go through phases where I’m doing a lot of plein air stuff, and then periods when that is not at all what I’m into. Painting outdoors is really important, though; it’s like a vitamin for your color use.

What are your favorite subjects and materials?

Figures, figures, figures. I’m only really interested in images with figures in them, so I rely heavily on live models. As far as media, pencil and charcoal for drawing, and oil for painting.

What is the role of talent in painting?

Not really sure about that. I’ve known “talented” and “not-so-talented” people, and while raw ability can give you a boost in the beginning, it really comes down to a willingness to work, just like anything else. I’ve also seen plenty of “talented” painters who crank out boring, awful paintings.

What is the role of style in painting?

Style is really something you can’t help having, sort of like a voice. Sure, you can deliberately choose a style I suppose, but that may only be an affectation if it isn’t something that grows naturally out of what you love. Those types of labels can be really limiting too, and when people pigeon-hole an artist’s style, they tend not to look as much, since they’ve already got a term defining how they should think about that artist.

When is a painting finished?

I like to leave some things unresolved; it gives the viewer something to do. Betty Lou used to say, “Don’t tell the world everything you know.” If you “finish” every little thing, the painting can become a boring iteration of fussy details.

Do you have any other creative outlets?

I have an old guitar I like to mess around with, and will plug in and crank up the amp in my studio when I need a break from painting. This is also when I do a lot of staring at the paintings.

What are your favorite types of art?

Again, figurative work is my favorite, and I will gravitate to it no matter the medium.

What are the most important qualities for an aspiring painter?

I don’t know about qualities, but I tell people who want to learn to paint to find a painter who’s work they admire and try to study with him, or with the guy who taught him. And it’s an old adage, but drawing really is the cornerstone of painting, something you can’t do enough of. You can also learn an amazing amount by copying paintings, ideally from the real thing, or from reproductions.

Lee will have an exhibition at EMPAC Aprill 21, 2012