HOWARD DAVID JOHNSON INTERVIEW WITH DR. COLIN BRADSHAW-JONES 5/25/05

 "Howard David Johnson is a self-confessed exile who shuns the art world. In a rare interview in 2005 he stated "I'm a non-conformist and a recluse. I’d rather die than fit in to the "modern art scene". And yet his website regularly attracts millions of hits. His work is eagerly collected by galleries and individuals around the world. His clients have included Paramount Studios, The University of Texas, The University of Cambridge, to name a few. His work has appeared in every major bookstore in America. His oil paintings sell before the paint is even dry, this last year alone he has turned away a small fortune. He is, quite simply, that rare breed; a modern master." Dr. Colin Bradshaw-Jones

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Howard David Johnson-July 2006 photo by son Erich

CBJ Hello David, thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

DAVID: My pleasure.

CBJ Tell us about Austin, and how you came to find yourself there.

DAVID: My family came to San Antonio Texas seven generations ago in 1824 with Stephen F. Austin under the original land grant from Santa Anna. My ancestors on both sides defended the Alamo. I moved to Austin in 1974 to attend the University of Texas and loved it. After a lifetime of traveling the world with my military family I decided to settle down so mine could have roots. In the thirty-one years I’ve lived here its changed from a sleepy little college town to a metropolis like Los Angeles with all the its city problems. I live close to the University and downtown area so I can enjoy all the cultural highlights and pretend the ugly suburbs and traffic don’t exist.

CBJ I guess you’ve always painted, ‘as a bird sings’(Monet).

DAVID: You got that right. My Mom and Dad say I “painted little murals” in my baby crib with “available materials” from my diaper. My Dad said: ”Looks like we got us a little artist”. I moved on to creating murals around the house with my big brother's Crayola crayons. My mother tired quickly of cleaning the walls and began providing me with typing paper and my own deluxe set of color crayons. I drew happily and stayed out of trouble for years. By age six I was creating little picture books on subjects like the heroes of American History and informed my parents that I had decided to dedicate my life to art. Once I started school, I drew diligently every day with pencils. I always finished my assignments early and some teachers were outraged that I would quietly draw while waiting on the rest of the class and punished me but others approved whole heartedly. 

 David in his studio - July 2006 photo by son Erich

    In art classes in elementary school I got a hold of pastels and paints for the first time. All those years as a boy while I was developing my anatomy and composition in pencil people told me that it was not a valid medium for artistic expression. I could only afford watercolors and pastels so I worked with what I could get my hands on, but still everyone said I needed to be doing oil paintings and dismissed my work as invalid. Mixed media started because of lack of finance, but became a delight. My mother was among them but couldn't buy me any oils of my own because of my father's intense disapproval.

    He wanted me to die fighting in Viet Nam, not serve with honor but die with honor. For some strange reason, this did not appeal to me. She quit painting altogether, probably at his insistence. Later I could afford acrylics but I got the same disrespect. At the age of nineteen I realized my favorite masters used photographs as reference, then I learned Da Vinci and Michelangelo traced. Well, if you can't beat 'em- join 'em. Naturally everyone I knew condemned me for this and said I was a thief and not an artist. To overcome this, I bought a camera and began taking my own photos, later acquiring a complete studio of my own by reason of hard work. My sons and their love of video games is what led me to get into computers. My oldest son, Christian, wanted to be a computer artist for video games and in the process of giving him complete support I acquired all the computers and software he needed. I realized this was a whole new ball game and combined with the internet was the biggest thing to happen in the visual arts since the Renaissance and I wanted to be a part of it.

(Here are Pencil drawings rendered in the 1970's without mechanical aids)


CBJ I’m fascinated by the diversity of media that you use, but your style is so utterly seamless that I can’t always tell what was done with what, especially from photos. Could you take us through a couple of pictures on your website and tell us which medium or combination you used?

DAVID: I am an experimentalist. There is no set formula and that’s why its still fun after all these years. Finding and training the right models, Photography, Mathematical Design and assembling the various elements into a composition all come before the image is transferred to paper or canvas and rendered in combinations of prismacolor pencils, acrylics, oils, or other traditional art media. I go into great detail with plentiful examples and illustrations on my website www.howarddavidjohnson.com on the’ about the artist’ and ‘digital techniques’ pages and also have several pages of free art lessons. Like Houdini and other illusionists before me I am not eager to share all my secrets with the general public, but I do offer private instruction through my correspondence school for serious artists. 

CBJ Could you show us an image which was solely created with photoshop and an image which was solely created with paint? That’d be fascinating.

DAVID: There is no such thing. Although my oil paintings are all oil, they are based on my digital montages and my digital montages contain nearly every medium known to man. Photoshop is just another tool in my studio. In the early days of photography artists used various transfer methods like enlargement grids and the like. Later artists like Maxfield Parrish would cut out and assemble photographic collages to trace on boards or canvas and then paint. Even later projection equipment lent more speed and control, but mechanical aids could also create a dependence, stifling artist's creativity and imposing limits. This has always been one the greatest pitfalls of working from photographs. For decades I made differently sized xeroxes and tracings and and cut them out and slid them around replacing them with larger and smaller copies to get the perspectives perfect and the design of the composition to have the mathematical precision I wanted. 
What a mess! Bits of paper trash and glue everywhere! Irritating trips to a copy store that did not want to wait on customers who wanted less than a hundred copies. Then came computers..! No more mess..! much lower expenses! The old collages were a mess and were almost always destroyed because of their raggedness, but these new Digital Photo Montages are Surprisingly presentable compared to their forerunners in earlier technologies. The old masters had several apprentices to grind their pigment to make oil paints, then came oils in a tube, the impressionists and the Plein air tradition followed. They were told they were not ‘real” artists because they did not grind their own pigments, now few people realize paint didn’t always come pre-mixed in tubes. These wonderful developments in technology will have no less impact on art history! 

CBJ Your attention to detail is something I find unusual amongst today’s artists. How do you fit into the ‘art world’?

DAVID: I’m a non-conformist and a recluse. I’d rather die than fit in to the “modern art scene”. I have been acclaimed and honored by critics, curators, and scholars but also condemned by jealous third rate artists who hate me for striving for such a high standard of quality. Since the times of the ancient Greeks, Art History records a relentless quest for Realism and artistic excellence in realistic paintings and sculpture. The masters of each generation strove to perfect their craft, then passed on the torch of their accumulated knowledge and skill to the next generation. The accomplishments and technological breakthroughs of one generation have often set new standards of excellence for the next. Digital media has done that in spades!

CBJ David, you get an incredible number of visitors to your website (www.howarddavidjohnson.com) Tell us about some of the reaction you’ve had.


DAVID: I’m getting between seven to ten million hits a month from more than a hundred and fifty countries. My most gratifying feelings come from the academic and educational communities expressions of joy to discover new art works of this kind. 

I’m so busy I’ve turned away more than sixty thousand dollars in commissions so far this year. I get tidal waves of mail offering me so many business opportunities that it’s overwhelming. I have to have a screener to sort through the various kinds of mail. I used get a thousand love letters for each piece of “computers are evil!” or “illustration is not art” hate mail, but I haven’t gotten a mean letter in more than three years, I guess, like tube paints, people are starting to get used to them. I never get tired of the kind words and encouragement.

CBJ How important is it to you to teach others? 

DAVID: Very important. I wish I could, but I cannot pay back the great artists who came before me and paved the way for me by setting such fine examples for me to copy, I can only pay forward. Even though I have turned away so much work, I will always put down what I am doing to answer my students the same day.

CBJ Do you believe in fairies?

DAVID: No. However, the folklore is an important part of my American Scots-Irish family's roots and cultural heritage after all and I feel what we do have left is to be preserved and never to be treated lightly even if I don't believe any of the supernatural elements in it. The myths have so much to offer us today. We must preserve them or we will be cut off from our roots and we all know what happens when you cut off a plant’s roots. The same thing is happening to our culture, this is why I’ve rolled up my sleeves and gotten to work hoping to help do for images what Aesop, the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney did for the old stories, reworking them to appeal to future generations. Living in America, "the great melting pot" many of us are cut off from our roots. Black Americans were the first to address this crisis by embracing their heritage. I was particularly inspired by African American author Alex Haley and his book "Roots". With the mobile society and the breakdown of the family unit, other groups of Americans are now suffering an identity crisis. Very few Americans are so fortunate as to have a genealogist in the family like my mother and most don't even know the names of their great-grandparents. I feel these legends as well as our history tell us much about who we are, where we came from, and can keep us rooted and grounded as we go forward into a new age and a new millennium. I feel if you are comfortable with who you are it is much easier to be comfortable with who others are. I love mythology, fairy tales, legends, and history. Studying and painting them is still great fun for me. I am trying to preserve our heritage and draw young people's attention to it by appealing to modern tastes while staying true to the source.

CBJ Tell us what you’re working on at the moment.

   

(Above: Completed digital Montages ("Robin Hood") come before rendering in prismacolors ("All Hallows Eve") or in oils, pastels and acrylics.)

DAVID: Right now? Let's see, Commission oil paintings, acrylic paintings and Prismacolor paintings, portraits, photography, & Book covers, books, magazines, posters, cards, videos, & divers kinds of games professionally. In my personal work, I've been working in oils and digital media. This year I want to do the Robin Hood legends, The American Civil War, Texas History and more fairy tales, folklore and world mythology. I'm always hunting for new models for new projects.

CBJ Where does your work end up?

DAVID: There are originals in various media all over the world in the hands of private collectors. Hundreds were stolen while being transported in 1990. I have an enormous collection myself of every kind of media I use but oils, which I have oversold. They come together slow and are sold before I can get them finished. This is why I am in seclusion now, to build that exhibition back up. My Traditional Realistic Art was exhibited in the British Museum in London in 1996, ( 3 years before I got my first computer ) as well as numerous American ones since, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My realistic illustrations have made appearances in every major bookstore and game shop chain in America as well as magazines and educational texts around the world. Some of my more prestigious clients have included the University of Texas, the University of Cambridge in England, Paramount Studios, PBS TV, Enslow Educational Publishers, Adobe Photoshop, Auto FX, Tree-Free Greeting Cards, Doubleday, the Book of the Month Club, (Bookspan), and J Walter Thompson Advertising, just to name a few. I have contacts with many museums and when I have built my exhibition of oils up, will have a travelling show and finally donate several to key museums who have asked me. Hopefully, when I fulfill their requests they will still want them and that is where the best of them will ultimately wind up.

CBJ What’s a typical day like?

DAVID: I love my life. I live in Hyde Park in downtown Austin (in the proverbial ivory tower) and am able to ignore how my beloved little college town has turned into a big city around me with all the usual big city problems. My studio is in my home so I get up when ever I please, usually around one in the afternoon and have a cup of coffee. If I don't have a commercial project going I check my mail that my screening service has cleared for me. While I'm puttering about I burn CDs for license deals fill print orders and check in on my students. My wife goes by the Post office for me on her errands. Then I choose one of my many irons in the fire and get to work, usually going late into the night. It is so peaceful at night, I much prefer working then. I always take a couple hours off in the evening to spend with my family on workdays. Sunday is always reserved exclusively for GOD and family. Because of the blessings of GOD I have seen my dreams come true in my lifetime and am truly thankful everyday. I always put down what I'm doing when my friends call because they have such rigid schedules and I have so much freedom. Austin, Texas is a very peaceful place to live and a cultural center- a great place for an artist to call home. I love my work, I have many fun hobbies and have wonderful and fulfilling relationships with my GOD, my family and my friends.

CBJ For the record, which painters have influenced you?

DAVID: Although I love Rossetti and all the other Pre- Raphaelite artists dearly, none of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood has influenced me more visibly than John William Waterhouse. Helen of Troy is my loving tribute to him, his vision, and his magnificent and deeply inspirational works. ( My life and artistic vision are patterned after and inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but the actual appearance of my works are more patterned after those of J W Waterhouse.) One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was to hear from the Rossetti family telling me they considered me a true successor to the Pre-Raphaelites. I have always held a vision of the ideal woman from my earliest childhood. When I saw the works of the Pre-Raphaelites such as John William Waterhouse and Dante Gabriel Rossetti I was captivated by the feeling in their paintings. Their critics called them "shameless woman worshippers" but their work enchanted me and countless others. I was nineteen when I first saw them and have sought to unravel the mystery of their magic. Of course the magic is true love. It would take much more than working harder on my sketches- a quest was in order. My wife was the perfect model but so modest that she did not want me to show her to the world and wanted me to use other models. I searched high and low for women with similar qualities. Hundreds and hundreds of interviews and years of searching for my models has paid off, but my muses (my most dear and inspiring models ) were just sent to me, as if from God. With most of these I have formed life- long friendships.In all the world, it is womankind that inspires me the most- not just because of outward beauty, but because of the totality of what they are. Womankind are my moon and my stars, but my wife is the sun that brings warmth and life. I have been very displeased with the portrayals of helpless and degraded women in the media and choose to lift them up and celebrate their strength and virtue along with their beauty.

CBJ Which living artists work do you admire?

DAVID:  I wish I could rattle off a list, but truthfully, Frank Frazetta is the only living painter I deeply admire, he is rooted in the classical tradition and was instrumental to starting me on my path. I like the Pre-Raphaelites and the Old masters. Great Comic Book artists like Wallace Wood, with his Two-Fisted Tales, Valor and Frontline Combat really got me into story telling with art.

CBJ Much of your work is absolutely perfect in every way. But are there any works which stand out as masterpieces to you?

DAVID: Thank you, but I don’t agree. I have my favorites, but I think I have a lot of room left for improvement.

CBJ Anything you’d like us to learn?

DAVID: Yes, but I’ve gone on and on today, you can read my essays on my website if you’re interested in any serious thoughts about art and society I have.

CBJ David, it’s been an absolute honour and a privilege. May your brush stay forever supple.

DAVID: Thanks for your kind attention.

"Jessica (Portrait - 0003 MMVI)" - Mixed media: Prismacolor and Spectracolor Colored Pencils with Ebony pencil lowlights on Windsor & Newton Cotman 140 lb. Water Color Paper . Background heightened with pastels.)

All  paintings, pictures, & text  (c) 1993- 2006 Howard David Johnson All Rights Reserved World Wide

 

2006 Artist's Statement:

 

David & Wife Virginia 

       "Did you know that many of the breathtaking works Pre-Raphaelites were doing in oils in the 1800’s were declared not to be Art? In London the Royal Academy had a very narrow view as to what qualified. No wonder Rossetti led a rebellion against them. How about Styles? Impressionism is a great example; It was not enough that these institutions rejected the work, but they felt the need to destroy the person’s reputation and livelihood. Of course collectors pay millions for these Impressionistic paintings now, and Curators, Historians and Professional Art Critics all hail them as sensitive works of fine art. When Monet submitted his work to the Salon in Paris, they said" A monkey has gotten a hold of a set of paints" and would paint huge "R"s for "rejected on the back canvas. Rejecting him was not enough for them. They wanted to be sure he never sold another picture. They wanted to hurt him and his family for sick sadistic pleasure. He got really good at re-stretching his canvas with a double layer to cover up their hateful defacement of his original art. They saw themselves as powerful as the deadly committee for public safety in the French Revolution as far as the Art World went and delighted in "sending artists to the guillotine", so to speak. 
These hateful little petty tyrants were unable to keep his name out of the history books or to keep his paintings for selling for millions of dollars. This is the treatment someone who creates a new style gets, but developments in applied technology like manufactured tube paints as opposed to hand mixed paints were violently rejected by these types as well and they forcefully proclaimed anyone who used paints from a tube was not a "real artist". Well, tube paints are pretty well accepted now. So will photography and digital media in time. You probably  know how bad Photographers were treated, but now it is a respected Art Form. I Remember the hateful things they said about Pastels and Mary Cassat, and now Pastel Paintings are considered Fine Art and Mary Cassat’s works are regarded as masterpieces. Now that snobs have Digital Artists to look down on, Colored Pencils are starting to get some respect. Our day will come."

~ Howard David Johnson 2006

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