Stephen Johnston: In the Studio

"...next-level art is what you can expect from me, from this exhibition.”

Before Stephen Johnston’s preview event for his exclusive new collection, ‘Portraits of Metropolis’, we had the privilege of joining the artist in his studio to get the inside scoop on his process, thoughts and influences for his new collection. The show consists of original oil paintings, original pencil drawings and limited edition prints all featuring the artist’s iconic hyperrealist, surreal compositions.

Collectors and art enthusiasts alike are loving this inspired new approach, with original works sold on opening weekend and charitable auctions of Limited Edition prints pulling in thousands towards some amazing causes, it’s clear to see why Johnston’s work continues to gain momentum and recognition across the globe. 

What can we expect from this new body of work?

“A brand new body of work that I am super excited about. It’s a continuation of the work I’ve done to date called ‘Thrones’. But like any subject matter I choose to investigate through my art, it tends to evolve over time. That happened with the ‘Best Before’ series, the still life of the jars that I painted, as well as a couple of other series of work that usually takes me years to investigate and explore. And so ‘Thrones’ is no different, this is kind of the next stage of the evolution of the work. So, yeah, I am pumped for this. People normally say that whenever they’ve spent years creating a body of work but this is, this is really special. I have a wee gut feeling about it. So just excitement and next-level art is what you can expect from me, from this exhibition.”

Did you have a particular inspiration for this body of work?

“You know, I didn’t really have ‘inspiration’, so much. I guess it was more reaction with my work. I’ve felt for a while now that my work had become somewhat stale or formulaic. It was discontentment on my part that I think was the main driver in the approach to this work. So inspiration, I suppose, came from my discontentment and seeking to be excited by my work again rather than having it be predictable. 

Is there a particular message, theme or concept you’re hoping to communicate within the work?

I always find that a very difficult question, and here’s why, Chris. I see my job as the artist to maybe see something that is overlooked. See the same thing that everyone else does. But instead of overlooking it, I observe it, I present it and create art around this idea. Still life in general is all about life and death and mortality. I’ve been disciplined in that for the better part of a decade I would say. But in terms of hoping to communicate something, I think it’s more exploring ideas. It’s taking different subject matter, different random objects and fusing them with the foundation, the scaffolding of my work which is the chair. 

“The chair is a portrait, the chair is a representative of a person, an individual, an idea, a point in time, a place in history, an environment. I feel like chairs can represent those singularities. It’s a good visual metaphor for that. So whenever I juxtapose different subject matter with the chair and place it in a different context of more of an urban cityscape, it just forms different ideas, interesting new relationships. There’s something more of an unknown quantity about it, there’s something of a bit more, of the work that needs to be explored through conversation with the viewer and with my art. So if anything, I just want to communicate is just an ongoing dialogue that you, the viewer, has with the art.”

How do you feel about a return to physical exhibitions after the pandemic?

“Yeah lockdowns were a complete pain in the butt for all artists, and galleries as I’m sure you know. I suppose I was kind of in a good place actually, because I ended up having exhibitions just in the very short periods between lockdowns. So I had exhibitions and then I just started painting like mad. I found the lockdowns difficult because I didn’t have my routine. I normally work from a studio, which is by myself, it’s long hours, it’s a solitary lifestyle and I’ve been doing it for over ten years now. But I found it hard working by myself because I didn’t have my routine, I couldn’t go to the gym, I couldn’t go to my normal cafes that I go to for a coffee, for a break, for inspiration, for being around people, and I found that disruptive. So I think my work suffered a bit in that time because I wasn’t excited to explore anything new. So now, it’s fantastic, I’m so excited to be exploring something new. I’m excited about this new body of work to show, and I haven’t felt that in a long time. I’m just so looking forward to it.”

Can you describe your artistic process, what’s the lifecycle like? 

“I’m not a butterfly here Chris, what do you mean the life-cycle of my work? Ha, no I understand what you’re getting at, I’m just making a wee bit of fun with you. It’s a very boring process. One that requires spade-loads of patience and bucket-loads of consistency. It’s nothing flashy, if you took thirty seconds you could probably figure it out. On the most fundamental level of my art practice it’s very simple. It is finding objects to paint, sketching those objects, getting a feel for those objects, photographing those objects. Putting together a digital collage, if you like, on Photoshop, creating a final image to paint from. 

“But I think that doesn’t truly reflect the soul of the work, or the soul of the process. My artistic process begins potentially years before a painting actually comes into existence. I have sketchbooks all over the house. In the car, in the toilet, by my bed, downstairs, in my bedroom, in my son’s room, literally everywhere because I’ll be talking to somebody, I’ll be finding inspiration on a walk with my dog, Axel, or in a quote, in a movie, in a book, literally anywhere that I’ll find ideas. I just note any ideas down, and then sometimes over a coffee I’ll just flip through those notebooks and let those ideas percolate, let the visual language of life kind of form in my mind, and I see what I can pull together.” 

What does your art mean to you, what does it represent?

“That’s a good question. What does my art represent? I find that very difficult to answer. I feel like art, particularly painting, I find, is mark making at its most fundamental. I literally make marks on a canvas. It’s the most robust, primary instinct I think as human beings, or at least one instinct is to leave our mark; a signature, even as kids you get crayons and you draw on a wall, it’s instinctive. And so for me, on a base level I think my art represents an ability to understand the world around me. A way to express my thoughts and my feelings and my observations and contributing to the cultural language around us to the wider community. I think that is important and significant and instinctual. 

“Like if you sit in your house, right, your big mansion, and just imagine there’s no artwork on your walls, no logo or designs, there’s nothing. So you wouldn’t have Heinz tomato ketchup, you wouldn’t have labels on your butter or your bread. You’d have nothing. I think the communication of ideas and of information and of using a visual language, it excites me. The ideas of semiotics, a bit geeky, but people signing one thing to another, that relationship and how an artist kind of infers certain relationships of what things mean, and to create something new. Sorry I’m waffling, but this is what I’m all about - contributing my gifts and my talents to wider society and hopefully enrich it in some way.”

How has your process changed and developed over the span of your career?

“That’s a scary thought. Whenever someone asks a question where part of the question is ‘the span of your career’. It’s like, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve got a career now? Yeah, I mean I’ve been painting full-time professionally for eleven years. I think the easy way to answer that question is, the first ten thousand hours of any artist’s practice is learning the skill and becoming, hopefully, world-class or at least an extreme expert level is the hope. Any artist worth their salt will want to spend ten thousand hours of pursuing, of cultivating, of hustling to be the best that you possibly can be at whatever it is that you’ve chosen. So in that ten thousand hours you have to pay your dues, and so, I gladly just engulfed myself in the art at the beginning. 

“And then the second lot of ten thousand hours is where you become really efficient, or proficient - is that the word? That’s a better word. You just become quite refined in the process. You get to learn the shortcuts, you know the rules because the first lot of ten thousand hours means you learnt the rules. The second lot of ten thousand hours is where you can understand how to manipulate them, how to change them, tinker with them. You can add your own rules and take out some that you don’t like. And so I think over the course of my career I’ve become more efficient. Not only on the technical level or the process of painting and mark making. It’s been twenty thousand hours of training my gut. I don’t actually know how many hours I’ve spent. More than twenty thousand, considerably. 

“The point is, I’ve spent so much time training my eye and my gut to know what a good image looks like, what might work, what’s an interesting relationship. I’me definitely one of these guys that can visualise things ridiculously easily. You know like walking into a room, or a house and being like ‘Oh there’s so much work to be done, I don’t know where to start.’ I can literally close my eyes and imagine it, and I’m there. Or I can see a painting just from the spark of an idea, and I think that’s only grown stronger over time. I’m able to be more ruthless and the very start of an idea. The seed of an idea, I can choose to nurture that, or I can decide, ‘nope, that’s a terrible seed, that’s not going to yield any fruit.’ so I think I’m able to distinguish earlier on with the development of a particular piece of artwork whether it’s going to work or not. So I feel like that’s how my process has changed over the last eleven years.” 

Who are your influences?

“‘Influences’ is a tricky one. Who were my influences at the start of my career? Rembrandt, Caravaggio, all the old masters. It’s a bit shallow, but anybody that could paint realistically and that tended to be more the old masters. I was just so intrigued. I was like ‘How can you make those marks on a canvas look like the thing you’re trying to represent?’ I was in love with the skill. How somebody could communicate through literally just marks on a canvas to create something that feels so real. I just love the idea of how painting an item or an object, almost changes that object in a way, because now that it’s painted on a canvas it’s moved past being this object and changed and morphed into something else. So at the beginning, it was the old masters that I allowed myself to be influenced by. The surrealists were a big influence on me too. The upside down, inside out. The simplicity of surrealism.

“Now, however, it’s odd. I don’t really look to others for influence now. I needed it at the start. I needed to be inspired and influenced because I didn’t know what my own voice visually sounded like on canvas. I needed to spend some time hanging out with great artists and learning. But now, I find looking at different artists is distracting. I don’t want to be influenced now, I want to do my own thing, I kind of have blinders on now when it comes to other artists, which maybe is bad, I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff I can learn. Maybe there’ll be a season for that in the future. But for right now, I have things I want to create, ideas I want to communicate so I’m just looking at what that looks like for me rather than having any influence by what other people are doing.” 

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

“It’s never been easier to be an artist. Go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? Yeah, go for it! I mean, just those first ten thousand hours, your art is going to be crap. It’s just crap. But be okay with that. The next block of ten thousand hours will be better, and the block after that will be even better. Just make your next painting your best painting, your best work of art and you’ll be fine.”

Going back to your new collection, how long has it taken you to complete these works of art?

“Like I said, I had some of these ideas years ago and I’ve only sort of been able to connect the dots by experimenting and processing that. So the actual paintings themselves we’re probably talking like… the guts of a year? I mean, I’ll be working on something and then set it aside and come back to it. Some work doesn’t actually ever get finished. It’s a fight, a struggle sometimes. You have to take a step back and reassess your approach to this thing and then try it again and get it to succeed. So yeah, a difficult question to answer because I don’t really time myself, it just ebbs and flows. But, I mean, if you’re going from the conception of ideas, experimental phase, refining the work and so on, you’re looking at years. 

“This is a new body of work for me. Painting cityscapes, the graffiti, it’s really got my love of art back again for me. I was getting bored of my work, and now this is exciting me. I’ve already won, I’ve already got something new out of this, a new direction and I’m absolutely loving it. There’s so much I’m excited about for the future.”

What does a typical day look like for you?

“Well, it was get up at 5am into the studio, get a coffee on and have at it. I’m a morning person, I love the early hours. I love getting out of bed early, getting up early and just attacking the day. I would work from about 5am to about 1pm. I can’t really concentrate or work intently after that otherwise the work suffers. So then, I’ll grab a bite to eat, get to the gym for a bit, take Axle for a walk - my doggo - and then just hang out with the family. Then I might do some sketching in the evening for a couple of hours after we’ve got the baby down to sleep and then early night ready to do it all again the next day.” 

Does your art come from a personal place or is it a shared consciousness?

“I think probably both. I mean, it comes from me personally, and I can’t help but put part of my personal philosophy and ideology, my personality and how I approach things will obviously flow into the artwork. I have a particular way of making marks on a canvas. It’s quite a refined process, I like small brushes, I like to somewhat control the paint. It’s more of a precise controlled technique, and I think that comes from my personality really. I think the things I see around me, they influence what I paint too - yeah, I guess it’s both really.”

Is it strange to part with a work of art you’ve spent so long on? 

“No. Nope. Nah. I’m always ready to move on. Maybe at the start I did, I worked out ‘X, Y and Z’ from this painting, but how can I use that for the next painting? What can I do to develop my practice? Where is the work taking me? That kind of excites me really, get on with the work, get it out of the road, move on.”

How do you title your work?

“Titles are important in my work. I actually find titling my artwork the hardest thing. There’s such a fine line between leading the viewer too much and then not giving them enough direction. I always struggle with titles, there’s an idea and a thought but sometimes you need to see the work before that happens. You kind of want to be open ended, you don’t want to be too confined. I don’t know, it takes me a while, I do have to consider it for a long time to give the viewer the right balance.”

How do you deal with creative blocks?

“I don’t because I don’t have them. That’s not a brag. It kind of sounds like a brag, ha! I don’t really get them though because I’m constantly thinking of ideas. I think over the last ten years I’ve learned to switch on and switch off that kind of ‘Idea Factory Machine’ in my head, and that just works for me. That’s not to say I won’t ever have the problem in the future, but not right now. Maybe if I was creating hundreds of artworks in a year I could see how I’d get a block, but I don’t. My works take so long to complete I actually have more ideas than I have time to paint so it’s not an issue.”

How do you know when your work is finished?

“Oh, do you know, the worst thing I’ve done to artworks is go past ‘The Big Finish’, and you only know once you go past it. You only know once you go past it. It’s a gut thing, it's experience, practice, practice, practice, and you know yourself. So I tend to leave my artwork about ninety-five percent complete so that I don't go past that. I feel like the closer you get to that one hundred percent it gets really, like, some of the breadth, the likeness, unity, harmony kind of begins to dissipate a little bit once you go too far. So yeah, I’ll get it to ninety-five percent and I’ll leave it there. That probably links nicely with the question you asked earlier about aspiring artists too; that’s my big piece of advice!”

Stephen’s exhibition ‘Portraits of Metropolis’ is still showing in the gallery and available online.