The Art of Painting
Jay J. Johnson in Labrador 2009 (photo by Rob Mullen)
To paint you must first be an observer. Over the past thirty five years as I’ve
traveled all over America, I’ve been privileged to witness an abundance and
diversity of living things. There’s no substitute for being there in the natural
environment. My approach toward painting has been from the perspective of
one who understands ecosystems and biology. At an early age I formed a bond
with Nature that has led me to study the intricacies of plants and animals. At
Cornell University I focused on both the scientific and aesthetic aspects. The
natural environment which surrounds all of us has evolved over millions of years.
Our species, Homo sapiens, evolved within this environment; in close touch with
its wild inhabitants. Some of the earliest paintings that Man ever produced are
the cave paintings depicting wild prey animals. Today there is a definite
separation between Man and Nature. Americans today view more wildlife on TV
than in person. As an artist who depicts these subjects I have made every effort
to bridge this gap in my own personal life. This is why I’ve made journeys that
traversed thousands of miles of wilderness, spending months at a time sleeping
out under the stars: to slow down long enough to be an observer. To read more
about this click Adventures in Nature
Everyday while I’m at work in my studio I think of more ideas for paintings
than I’ll ever have time paint. There is so much in Nature that I could convey.
And I have so much enthusiasm for it all. The task (or job) is to filter out what
I feel the most emotion for, and then concentrate on those aspects. Within
arms reach of my easel is a six foot high window that looks out over a wooded
wetland. On any given day there will be chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, juncos,
sparrows, and cardinals feeding just outside the glass. Further off are rambunctious
squirrels. Each season brings variations here in New England; in winter I can see
deer against white snow among bare branches; in summer a family of woodchucks
moves in. It’s the movement and the change that catches my attention. I’ve been
focusing on that. For me the natural world is always moving - whether it’s birds
flying or deer walking or leaves blowing in the wind. There’s always something
moving and changing. Clouds drifting across the sky block out the sun and instantly
alter the lighting of whole forests.
Deliberately my paintings seek to capture movement.
the changing seasons (details from my paintings)
Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Museum professionals have found that most of the damages of aging that so many
oil paintings have experienced over past centuries are due to the surface on which
they were painted. Oil paint is not flexible when it dries; it becomes a thin brittle
layer supported by whatever it was painted on. Science and technology have shown
us that linen canvas and its surface preparation (rabbit skin glue) absorb atmospheric
moisture, and consequently expand and contract with changing humidity. Also canvas
that is initially stretched tight between stretcher bars (as most paintings were) loses
its tautness over time. These contributing factors explain why most historic paintings
that we see in museums are etched with fine cracks.
Close-up of a historic painting showing network of cracks
Before I begin painting I create a solid surface by "mounting" the linen by hand with
archival adhesive on the highest quality hardwood panel that is moisture resistant.
The texture of the Belgian linen is still excellent, as it has been for centuries since the
early Europeans first learned how to make it by extracting the long fibers of the flax
plant. From this same plant is extracted the oil with which oil paints are primarily
composed. The fabric was named "linen" and the oil was named "linseed." Both from
the same plant crop. The irony is that linseed oil must never come in direct contact
with linen. A thin layer of gesso must always separate the two parts of the plant.
(Linseed oil causes linen to break down.)
"Painting should always be a challenge. With the goal of expanding your knowledge
and creativity, it becomes a lifelong journey of exploration." This pretty much sums
up my outlook, so that rather than painting the same subjects over and over again in
the same manner, I prefer to "evolve" and make new observations. It's similar to
how I've approached my travels outdoors in the wilderness.
To me there's nothing better than pushing ahead into unknown territory.
photo from the Boston Globe 1997
On this web site you’ll find two sections that show some of my earlier paintings from
as far back as 1990. You can see exactly where I’ve been and where I am presently
going. My artwork began with the realistic painting of Nature and continues to focus on
that. Along the way I moved from carefully executed paintings in oils to more
impressionistic acrylic paintings to today’s current paintings in looser, more energetic
My studio with 9 foot high ceiling and 6 foot high northlight window is first and
foremost a functional place to work. While the window provides a lot of light,
I also rely on a combination of overhead "daylight fluorescent lamps" and
"halogen lamps" to simulate the different lighting conditions under which my
painting might be seen (such as "natural" light, "gallery & museum" light, and
"home" light). The rolling painting table in the front center (decorated with
silk plants and flowers) contains all my paints, brushes and tools, and has a
built-in-pallette. It allows me to position all these working materials exactly
where I need them next to the easel which I built myself. I have a lot of silk
plants hanging around the studio which combined with the view out the window
give me the feeling of being outdoors while I paint. I often have sounds of nature
playing on the CD stereo system - sounds as diverse as insects of Borneo, frogs
of the Amazon, bird calls of New Zealand, as well as all the familiar sounds of
North America's natural environments. In the front right is a 24" LCD computer
monitor. On the shelves above are some of my art books, and paper supplies.
To the left are floor-to-ceiling cabinets the whole length of a 24 foot wall (only
part of which is shown in the photo). These contain everything I need to work
Wildlife action on the windowsill: My cat
"Scout" faces off with a squirrel on the
otherside of the glass
The "studio" is only one third of the entire space, the other areas contain storage
racks for paintings in progress (I have dozens in various stages of completion), all
sorts of frames, and shipping materials. Of course my cat (pictured on the floor)
has free range over everything. When he was younger he would carry paint brushes
in his mouth up the stairs at night and lay them at the foot of my bed.
Animals do not remain stationary for long, and it’s not possible to do a painting
entirely from memory. No one can sketch or paint fast enough to capture
accurately a moving animal in the wild. Early artists such as Audubon solved
this problem by shooting their subjects with a gun. They brought the animal
back to the studio to be propped up and posed for however long it took to paint
the motionless specimen.
My camera equipment (2009)
Photography has opened a lot of new possibilities. Today’s digital cameras
combined with precision telephoto lenses and image-stabilization can accurately
capture the natural movements of animals, their living colors, and surrounding
environments in ways that could only be imagined just decades ago. Since 1973
when my parents first gave me a 35mm single-lens-reflex camera in my early
teens, I have been photographing everything I see outdoors, from the tiniest
insects to the largest mountains. At a young age I became fluent in camera
jargon such as f-stops, shutter speeds, and depth-of-field. Over the years I have
accumulated tens of thousands of 35mm slides, all of which are precisely catalogued
and stored so that they are available for use in my paintings. Scanning these into
a computer has further enhanced this archive for painting possibilities. Today I
download images directly from my digital camera’s memory cards. Even more
valuable to me now is a Digital Camcorder which can capture whole sections of
time during which an animal may be running or flying. Back in my studio I can
view the entire episode on a computer monitor in ultra-slow motion to “capture”
whatever images I find most interesting using special software.
Carolina Wren taking off from my bird-feeding area outside my studio window
In traditional Art genres (such as still-life, landscape, and portraiture) the use of
photography has often been frowned upon. In these genres the artist typically
positions himself in front of a motionless subject and paints what he sees with his
eyes. This is fine if you intend to limit your interests to only that which can be easily
seen. But if you want to create paintings of such elusive subjects as wild animals,
then you need to utilize more sophisticated techniques. People unfamiliar with
photography in painting often assume that the artist positions himself in front of a
photograph as he would a still-life and simply copies what he sees in a single photograph.
This is hardly the case.
My approach is to first review what images I have on file, looking for that
indefinable something that sparks my interest enough to want to paint it. Let's say it
involves a particular species of bird in flight. Most often it is the position or posture of a
bird combined with the right illumination, like a ballet dancer on stage making a
beautiful shape or movement beneath the spotlights. From this I draw my initial concept.
The digital resolution is often low on Camcorder images, so I have to search my image
archive for other shots which can be used to “re-construct” parts of the bird. It may
require half a dozen photos to paint a single bird. If the head is blurred or fuzzy,
for example, I'll need to find an image that shows the bird's head from the same angle
in better detail, or if its wings are out of focus, then I'll need photos of wing feathers.
The background often takes form on the painting surface, but sometimes it may evolve
in a sketch as I explore what abstract colors and shapes work best with the shape of the
bird. I generally like to keep the background "loose" and "abstract" because that’s how
the human eye sees it when motion is fast. Visible strokes of a brush add energy and life.
With the background generally painted and the bird positioned, I start considering what
plants might likely be seen in this species' environment. Again this requires a search through
my visual files until some possible candidates found. I try them out, one by one. I make
adjustments. I may alter the background. I may re-arrange the plants. I may even move the
bird or alter the colors. The process of painting “from photographs” is very different from
painting what is in right in front of you. On the one hand you have a stationary and tangible
set of objects. On the other hand you have fragments of ideas that must be pieced together
to re-create something that was once glimpsed and felt.
Plein air painting in Labrador (2008). (A good example of the traditional approach
to painting a particular subject.)