Today we feature an interview with artist Steve Johnson whose bold and colorful abstract paintings (like the one above) have illustrated a number of written pieces since The Sunlight Press launched in 2017. We are especially grateful to Steve for his work, and for talking with us about his journey as an artist.
How did you come to be an artist? Did you study art?
I was born in Devon, England, in 1960, and my family moved to London when I was five. I went to a large school, and I had four siblings, so I was used to being surrounded by people—which suited me fine. What little time I had on my own was spent creating: inventing new board games, drawing, or painting.
The only formal training I’ve had was studying art at school until I was sixteen. I had a good art teacher. She predicted that I would fail her final exam because I had developed a very specific style too early; but she didn’t try to get me to change that style, because she figured this would destroy my interest in art. She made the right call: I failed the exam, but retained my interest in art. I’ve also sat in on some life drawing classes over the years. And I try to spend at least a month every couple of years drawing from life.
I have worked both as a commercial artist and as a teacher in many places, including England, the United States, and the Middle East.
Has painting always been your primary medium? How have technology and new media influenced your thinking about art and your work?
Painting was my primary medium until a few years ago. Now I’m a multi-media or mixed-media artist. I work in the digital realm. I enjoy repurposing my old paintings into my newer work. I do a lot of animation work, both privately and for clients, and 3D digital work, and I often include photographs of paintings in the animations, and use my old photographs and paintings to create textures and materials for that work.
I have to always be trying new approaches, otherwise my art fails. I am all about curiosity and process. I start with an idea, and see where it goes. I rarely have an endpoint in mind. And once I start on a project, it can result in many different pieces of art.
You’re generous about sharing your work online. Have you always done this? Many artists seem to shy away from “commercializing” their work, preferring to keep it close and less accessible. Did you ever feel this way? How do your choices relate to your views about pop culture versus fine arts culture?
Whether to commercialize one’s art is a hard question; I think that every artist must solve it in their own way. I think the only wrong approach is to not give the subject any thought—and then get cynical when things don’t work out.
I am perfectly okay with making money from art, but that doesn’t mean I do all my art to make money. I am happy to put work into the public domain in the form of digital image files for people to use as they see fit. And I’m equally happy to sell my original canvasses at what some might consider an inflated price, or sell framed prints and other products for a lower price.
The author Neal Stephenson once said something that led to a moment of clarity for me. To paraphrase, he said that he regarded his own work as pop culture as opposed to fine art. I figured that if that was good enough for an artist of Stephenson’s stature, it was good enough for me. One benefit of that is, when you don’t think of your work as fine art, the question of whether commercialization is good or bad vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Before computers and cameras, the value of a work of art was always based largely on its scarcity—it was one of a kind. Nowadays, if I produce a painting, I can photograph it and make digital files of it at no additional cost. But if were to release, say, only ten copies of that image, or make and sell limited-edition prints, I’m making money by artificially creating scarcity—and that would take me out of my comfort zone, so I don’t do it. But I am not suggesting that all artists should make the same choice: we all have to decide what we are comfortable with.
What is the place of painting within the larger art world? How has its place been affected by the pandemic lockdowns? What impact did this have on you?
Painting is an important medium, but not as important as it used to be, because of the newer mediums that have been introduced—digital art, but especially photography. The ability to easily capture images of reality forced painters to reassess their role in the visual arts, and many of them moved away from representational art toward the abstract. I often wonder how the history of art would have been different if photography had not been discovered when it was.
I worked exclusively with photography for around a decade, specializing in experimental and fine artwork. I had a book published by a small press about minimalism in photography. My work tended to be mostly minimalist black-and-white abstractions. I also did some traditional portraiture and architectural images for clients.
Immediately after that period, I started creating expressionistic, vividly colored, abstract paintings—and, in retrospect, I see that I did this as a reaction against the technical and intellectual constraints that the discipline of photography had imposed on me.
The digital revolution did two things—both of which had an impact on the place of painting in the art world. First, it enabled people to make instant and cost-free reproductions—suddenly the world was awash in images. Second, it created new opportunities for visual artists. They could try out different approaches and ideas and see the results faster. I’ve often joked that the most important innovation in the history of art is the undo function on a computer keyboard. These days, the work I do to create artificial-intelligence-based art is as much about selection as about creation. When I use a computer, I can quickly summon multiple variations of an idea, and my job is to select and possibly tweak the most visually appealing. Before photography was invented, the only way an artist could see variations was to spend hours producing them.
The pandemic has not affected my process much, because I work alone in my studios and I’m not currently involved with any galleries—nearly all my business is conducted online or over the phone. And I’m not involved with the art economy in my local area—Northwest Indiana and Chicago. Most of the artists I know have been carrying on as normal during the pandemic. The ones who are involved with bricks-and-mortar galleries have been more affected, but they have all responded by building an online presence.
How has your work as a visual artist changed? Where do you draw inspiration? Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists, and favorite artists of the past? And what kinds of art do you have in your home?
My art has become more abstract and more experimental over the years. I find that the older I get, the less I need approval from others, and this is freeing.
I draw inspiration from just about anything: the work of other artists, as well as math, music, touch, texture, emotional connections with others, sounds, and reactions to world events. All those things go in one end of my creative process and come out the other—as something different but related.
My favorite artists are Picasso and Warhol: Picasso for his aesthetic sense, talent, desire to work in many mediums, and lack of any fear of failure; Warhol for his whole factory idea and for making artists feel it’s okay to produce quantity—which is still a revolutionary idea to many in the art world. It is a pity that Warhol died before the advent of the digital revolution.
The Abstract Expressionists are favorites of mine: they offered an alternative to the mathematical approach to abstraction, and they gave American artists permission to break away from European traditions. I’m a dual citizen of the US and the UK, and I enjoy the differences between the two countries’ artistic cultures.
Many years ago, my wife and I had our own art gallery. We would sometimes put on an art fair and show artists from all over, and at all stages of artistic development. Many of these artists were kind enough to give us a piece of their work as a thank you. Most of the art we have on our walls and our shelves now was created by these artists, and just about every genre and medium is represented. Each piece has happy memories attached to it.
Your abstract work is gorgeous and colorful. Were you always drawn to abstract work? Do you paint every day? Tell us about your studio, whatever that means to you.
Thank you for the kind words. I can appreciate the mastery that goes into realistic work, but it has never had the impact on me that abstraction has. Abstract art has always moved me more emotionally. The feeling I get when a piece of abstract art resonates with me is akin to the feeling I get when a piece of music moves me. Many abstract artists have felt that there is a kind of musicality in abstract art—Kandinsky is the most well-known example.
I create some form of art every day, but not necessarily painting. In the last couple of months, I haven’t painted at all, except with my granddaughter. I try to spend around four hours a day working on my art—after that, my concentration and judgment start to nosedive. I suspect that’s something to do with being over 60 years old.
My wife has been incredibly supportive and makes sure that I have the studio workspace and equipment that I need. I tend toward the parsimonious, but she encourages me not to be stingy when it comes to my art-making needs. I work in two large spaces in our home—one for painting (and other messy work), and the other for my computer, camera, and projection equipment. I use a projector to view my work and others’ work on a large scale.
What advice would you give artists who are just beginning, or those who are feeling stuck in the process?
I’d say work fast; work on many different things; don’t get obsessed by a single piece or single detail. The beginning of a career should be mostly about learning and not about showing the world what you can do.
And I’d say, learn not to base your sense of your artistic worth on the opinions of friends and family. You will never progress as an artist while allowing yourself to be judged by people who think that a good copier of reality is a good artist.
It’s important to be prepared to produce lots of bad art. Most of us never stop producing bad art. We must do that to see what works and what doesn’t. Being an artist is as much about being able to edit as it is about production. I am getting better at this, but I’m nowhere near as good as I’d like to be. I also think it’s important not to be afraid to put your work out there, even if you are not sure about it; you will get useful feedback, and your feelings about having the work out there will tell you a lot.
I suggest working from the bottom up, and not from the top down, because the end product will reveal itself at some point in the process. It’s like being a cross-country runner: the runner doesn’t have to see the finish line at the beginning to know that it is there.
If you are truly stuck, I’d say, try a new medium—and remind yourself that having unproductive periods is fine. My level of production has been very uneven. During a productive period, I can put out as many as 20 images a day, but at other times I may produce nothing of note for half a year.
And finally, I’d say, understand that your art career is a process: it is not a sporting event where you are aiming for a gold medal.
What three pieces of advice would you offer to a creative person? What have been the most influential words of wisdom you’ve received from a mentor?
First, if you want to become an artist for any reason other than love of art, find another career—at least for now.
Second, use social media, but don’t let it use you. I use social media as a sort of sketchbook. I throw stuff up onto it that I happen to be working on and think is interesting—as opposed to perfectly polished nuggets of artistic gold. This lets people know I’m still active and lets them contact me by direct messaging. And never do things in order to get likes or followers—that is the way to abject misery.
Third, if possible, surround yourself with people who believe in you—not necessarily people who like your work, but people who believe in you as a person. This will get you through the tough times.
How can people who are interested in your work reach you?