This story was featured in the August 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine.
Robert Johnson is a traditionalist. The Virginia-born painter embarks on each of his meticulously rendered and colorfully expressive paintings with the technical ambition of his European and early American forebears, and with an innate passion that he has spent most of his life cultivating. Invoking the technique and spirit of the old masters, Johnson seeks to capture and impart the timelessness of well-crafted works of art.
The artist uses sumptuous pigments, energetic brushwork, and a combination of unrefined and polished elements to translate his subject matter into engaging two-dimensional compositions. Creating a painting that exhibits both physical and intangible beauty is his ultimate concern. He explained it this way in his 2001 book, On Becoming a Painter: “There is indeed a language of paint that is purely visual and emotional that can touch us deeply but can never be captured in the written or spoken word no matter how hard we try.”
Johnson began drawing and painting as a young child in Hopewell, VA. With a mother and brother who also painted, his artistic interests were actively supported and fostered. (His older brother and mentor, Ben, would eventually become a noted art conservator and principal founder of the Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) In addition to his
artistic talents, Johnson proved an accomplished athlete and attended Duke University in Durham, NC, on a football scholarship. He went on to earn a law degree from Duke as well. He never ceased to pursue art, however, and continued taking courses and painting and drawing in his spare time throughout school, and afterwards, as he practiced law full time.
Indeed, art remained a continuous thread among all the facets of Johnson’s life, and after several years as an attorney, his desire to create reached a boiling point. He sold his law practice and traveled across Europe for two years to experience the art of the old masters while further developing his skills and techniques. Upon his return to the United States, he enrolled in
various classes at the Art Students League of New York, commuting regularly from Virginia. It was there that he “found a real home” as he studied with such influential teachers as David Leffel, Robert Beverly Hale, and Michael Burban. “It was very inspirational,” Johnson says of his experiences at the League, which fostered both academic rigor and a rich camaraderie among students and teachers. He credits another mentor and friend, the late painter Lajos Markos, with giving him additional knowledge and insight into the painting life. After a few years of taking classes, Johnson began to exhibit his work, winning awards in juried competitions and cementing his place in the art world.
“My life has been nothing but art since 1987,” remarks Johnson, who lives today with his wife in Virginia. He maintains studios in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, and also in Taos, NM. Johnson loves to share his passion and knowledge with others, and to that end, tours the United States and Canada teaching workshops and giving demonstrations. In addition to publishing On Becoming a Painter, he has produced a series of instructional videos focusing on floral and
Johnson’s approach to art-making remains couched in a deep reverence for the masterworks of the past and the artists who created them. His training and creative execution have revolved around capturing the ideals and aesthetics of such painters—not in an effort to emulate their work, but to continue their tradition of high craft and respect for the fundamentals. “Learn to draw, and compare your work only to the masters,” Johnson’s late brother Ben advised. He took those words to heart, striving to achieve in his paintings the same power and beauty he found in the works of his heralded predecessors who constructed the classical/
traditional paradigm throughout western art. Johnson describes himself as being “enthralled by the work of the old masters,” admiring their “quicksilver handling of the paint, the rich paint quality, the sure-handed draftsmanship, and the ever-present human dimension. Moreover, their paintings spoke to me on a deeply emotional level.”
Painters who have had the most profound influence on Johnson’s work include Frans Hals, Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, and Anders Zorn, as well as Rembrandt Van Rijn and Diego Velázquez, whose paintings he had the opportunity to copy at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. “They loved the beauty of the paint itself,” he remarks. This attention to the medium comes through in Johnson’s work, which demonstrates an adept handling of the paint and a range of brushwork, from the smooth and natural to the painterly and slightly abstract. “When I began painting, I certainly did not see myself as a keeper of the flame for the classical tradition,” Johnson writes. “I was then (and remain) simply fascinated by those who create the illusion of reality with a brush, paint, and canvas.” His brother encouraged him as well. “I’ve been blessed by my brother’s guidance,” he says. “It was Ben—with his classical training in art history, and his sheer passion for painting—who gave me the core of my knowledge about painting and who urged me to take up my brush with seriousness and high purpose. The goal of permanence, he believed, should be integral to mastering painting.”
Perhaps best known for his floral and still-life compositions, Johnson enjoys painting a variety of subject matter that also includes landscapes, people, and animals. “I like to do it all,” he says. “It’s wonderful to switch genres. It keeps the excitement and energy levels up.” Painted exclusively en plein air, his landscapes exude spontaneous energy. Conversely, his still-life scenes are the result of a more methodical approach. He has always been drawn to the
natural beauty and color of flowers
and began painting them back when the only time he could devote to his artwork was after business hours. “I could set up the still life, and it would remain intact until I came back later,” he explains.
Johnson moves between mediums as well. Primarily an oil painter, he has an enduring love of drawing and considers the ability to draw well to be the chief foundation for effective and successful painting. In fact, he credits drawing with giving him the freedom and
expertise to begin paintings straight from the brush, without preliminary sketching. “I jump in with the brush to get a feel for the canvas,” he says. “I like to get the brush going.”
Johnson has refined his painting process over the years, and today he begins each composition by applying a thin wash of color to eliminate the starkness of the white canvas. Following that, he applies a thin, monochrome design, placing big shapes and values to construct the overall composition. At this stage, Johnson works loosely, maintaining “absolute fluidity” and giving himself permission to change any element. As the painting progresses, the artist’s mindset changes, and each mark becomes one of purpose and intent, carefully and meaningfully applied. “The goal now is to make every brush stroke stand on its own,” he explains. Johnson loves the physicality of the paint and thrives on his ability to manipulate it across the canvas. He knows a painting is finished only when he sees what he envisioned before he began.
“I strive to create a loose and engaging feel to a painting,” he says. Such an approach allows the artist to marry abstracted elements with sophisticated detailing to produce imagery that is at once expressive and highly naturalistic. Some elements come across crisp and detailed, while others appear looser, leaving the remaining narrative to the viewer’s imagination—informed by life experiences and filtered through his or her unique lens.
Johnson’s process is one of total immersion into his work—as if by painting he can enter an elevated realm of consciousness that facilitates the inextricable connection between artist and artwork. He writes, “Each brush stroke is a unique living record of the artist’s personality—his view of life and beauty on the day the brush touched the canvas.”
Johnson seeks to create canvases that harness the intrinsic beauty of his subjects and speak to viewers on a purely aesthetic level—a place that transcends words. “Art, to me, is divorced from verbal description and exists only inside,” Johnson says. “I like to paint something that involves the viewer. I try to build a strong, powerful painting, and whatever the viewer puts in, they put in.”
Featured in the August 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine: