“Copy everything until you hit upon your own personal style. Do it because you love it, not because it’s a job. In this profession I have good days and bad days, but I need to occasionally remind myself that I create pictures for a living, and that ain’t bad!”
Introduction & Interview by Theo Constantinou
Colin Johnson’s piece Everything & Nothing, has a quote by Eugene Delacroix, “The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.” Life isn’t perfect; in fact, nothing is perfect. I don’t even think that you can achieve perfection in one particular thing. Like Colin says, you have to do something because you love it and not because it merely pays your bills. My interpretation of what Dealcroix said is that individuals, not only artists, should focus their time into one specific thing in search of an eventual perfection, even though it may never be realized. People should focus more on doing something they love, because it enriches their soul and not their wallet. With hard work and some luck, they can realize their true passion, and Colin Johnson is the perfect example of this personification.
Colin, what was your vision for the Chuck T shoe promotion, and how did you start collaborating with one of the most iconic American shoe brands?
My personal work generally tends to focus on the co-existence/struggle between man and nature, so it was easy to simply pull the Chuck T sneaker theme into my strange world and make it very personal. The chance to do so was provided by a company in Portland called Sandstrom Design. They had Converse as one of their clients and allowed me the opportunity to freely interpret the shoe design; probably one of my favorite final images that I’ve ever created for a client.
So, when Harvard Business Review approaches you and says we’d like you to illustrate the China Crisis … How does your vision create such beautiful imagery and what is that process like?
No matter who the client is, they typically send a manuscript or a short blurb about the article that they would like you to illustrate. In the case of Harvard Business Review, they wanted me to illustrate an article regarding China’s out of control pollution problem. I think that I probably turned in a number of different sketch ideas before coming to the resulting final image. But just riffing on the idea of overwhelming pollution in China was the key motivation for the resulting conceptual image.
I found a quote from Dali in which he says, “Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.” Do you believe that drawing is truly the HONEST approach to art?
I think it tends to be “honest” in the sense that, it is the framework for whatever finished form of artwork you eventually create. All of my illustrations or paintings start with some form of sketch idea. Most of my sketches for illustration work tend to be fairly tight. Some of the drawings that I do for paintings tend to be a little bit looser; sometimes they are only loose thumbnails. Unless you are creating purely abstract paintings, you tend to need some type of detailed drawing as a blueprint for the final art.
My god, the Nth Degree must have been so laborious and demanding … How long did that piece take you, and where do you find the imagery / words that you use in your pieces?
Yeah, that piece was very laborious! It probably took a month or longer to finish. I have a large collection: old books, magazines, old papers, notebooks, scrap books, sketch books, etc… that I’ve collected over the years from garage and estate sales, antique shops, church sales, etc… and I pull a ton of images, symbols, letters, numbers, words and other stuff from those source materials. I’m always searching for new, weird, old and obscure sources to draw from for inspiration.
In your piece Flotsam & Jetsam, are you referring to the nautical meaning behind the words or the metal thrash band from the 80s?
Ha, ha!! Neither actually. In general, I’m simply referring to the term “flotsam & jetsam” as it’s meaning relates to odds & ends, rubbish, or discarded bits of scraps or materials. That was really the sense that I had in regard to my initial experiences visiting antique shops. They really felt to me like receptacles filled with the objects of forgotten histories. Large stone buildings packed with obsolete technologies, dimly lit histories, old diaries of forgotten ancestors and other foggy notions of times long since past. I’ve always regarded my collage artwork as some strange form of physical manifestation of my experience and visits to those antiques shops, as though I was attempting to capture the feeling of those visits in a visual form. I always feel that those types of shops are somehow sad, beautiful and full of ghosts. I like to think that I’m, hopefully, not in an arrogant way, preserving the memory of objects that would be all but forgotten if they hadn’t been rescued from the dusty attic shelves of such stores.
It was Keith Haring who said, “Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic.” Do your illustrations live through magic?
You may have to answer that one for yourself! I’m not sure if I’m qualified to judge whether my work lives through magic; however, I do feel that there is a sense of timeless magic such as Haring refers to in all good artwork. Really good artwork inspires, excites, and delights the senses. Good artwork seems to have some type of energy, life force, or electric charge to it, which is manifested in the viewer in some form of unexplainable electrically charged form of inspiration. There is a sense that humans have been given the ability to “create” for a higher transcendent purpose.
When I first saw some of your illustrations, they vaguely reminded me of the Nickelodeon cartoon Aahh..Real Monsters … Are you familiar with this cartoon and what cartoon illustrators have had an impact on the way you create?
I’m not familiar with that cartoon. I’ll have to check it out. Specifically, I’m not sure that I can think of any cartoon illustrators as having direct influence on my work; however, many of them may have influenced my work subconsciously over the years. I do have a large group of old cartoons in my DVD collection from the 1920s-1950s. I am greatly influenced by a vast array of editorial illustrators, comic book artists, and fine artists of all kinds. Too many people to name here individually.
Can you tell me more about your show in 2010, “100 Heads for Haiti”?
Technically speaking, that wasn’t my show. That was a charity show to benefit the people of Haiti created by the great illustrator/designer team of David Plunkert & Joyce Hesselberth of Spur Design in Baltimore, Maryland. They put together a great roster of some of the best illustrators working today, to each create an original “head” related illustration, which were then sold at a gallery show held at Spur Design in Baltimore in 2010. A poster featuring all of the heads created was also sold at the show and online. All proceeds benefited Haiti.
I noticed you’re a fan of The Aislers Set … How I Learned to Write Backwards is a great album … What other kinds of music do you like and have you ever done illustrations for album covers?
Yes, that’s a good album. I listen to literally everything. I know that’s a wide range, but to give you some idea of recent stuff: Cannonball Adderley, Le Tigre, Loretta Lynn, Hood, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Verlaines, Gustav Mahler, Low, Jim Reeves, Suicidal Tendencies, Woody Guthrie, Double Dee & Steinski, Spike Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Broadcast, Mayo Thompson, Bing Crosby, Stephen Malkmus, Parliament, Uncle Dave Macon, Diamanda Galas, Buffalo Springfield, Archie Bell & The Drells, Autechre, Sonny Rollins Quartet w/ John Coltrane, Kitty Wells, Joy Division, Frank Zappa, David Sylvian, Black Tambourine, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Bill Broonzy, etc….. I haven’t done illustrations for album covers but I wouldn’t be opposed to it.
If you could tell a teenager anything about pursuing his dreams or making a career out of being an artist, what advice would you give him / her?
No matter what the chosen profession, working hard is really the key thing. For aspiring artists, I would recommend studying the old masters and getting a good fundamental education in drawing and painting. Also, take a broad range of different classes, not just art classes. Taking some business classes might be a good idea if you plan to become a professional illustrator, freelance artist, designer, or fine artist. When I was a student in college I wasn’t required to take business classes but I really wish I had. Also, seek out great work. Copy everything until you hit upon your own personal style. Do it because you love it, not because it’s a job. In this profession I have good days and bad days, but I need to occasionally remind myself that I create pictures for a living, and that ain’t bad!
To read a more detailed FAQ about my advice for illustration students and young artists see this link.