Questions à John Lovett – from Pratique Des Arts – March 2013
You paint many different subjects with different techniques, yet landscapes seem to
be a big part of your corpus. Do you always work onsite?
As much as I enjoy working on site, most of my best work is done in the studio. I love the spontaneity and excitement of working onsite. There is also a freshness to small quick paintings done on location that is hard to reproduce in the studio, but the controlled light, familiar surroundings, lack of distractions and reliable coffee always seem to coax me into producing better work.
You are a seasoned traveller; which landscapes move you most?
The remoteness, spectacular colors and ancient weathered textures of the Australian outback have always attracted me, but the architecture, culture and history of Europe trigger an entirely different approach to painting. I could not say I prefer one to the other – I think the contrast between two vastly different subjects maintains a fresh outlook on how I approach my work.
Your landscape paintings often include a detailed area and parts that are less so. By
doing so, what are you trying to describe? Do you stay true to the subject or are you
more interested in creating an atmosphere?
I find the contrast between areas of intricate detail and areas of understated suggestion seem to amplify one another – the detail appears more detailed when placed in areas of simple suggestion and the simple suggestion appears even less defined when placed near areas of detail.
I am not at all concerned with staying true to a subject. I see the subject simply as a starting point – my paintings often meander in all directions from there. I will often obliterate large parts of the subject if the painting requires it. Much of the understated areas of my work are the result of scrubbing Gesso into a large area of the painting then working back into it in a simple, suggestive way to create the atmosphere I am after.
How do you create a landscape painting? Particularly in terms of composition:
how do you suggest depth, how do you make the viewer’s eye travel inside the
composition, how do you choose your focal point and how do you find the right
perspective that will highlight your subject, how do you decide which shapes to
My main concern when starting a painting is to reduce the subject to a simple abstract composition. This underlying structure is the backbone to the painting – get this right and the painting will be fine, get it wrong and all the careful painting in the world won’t save the work. The abstract expressionists have a great influence on the underlying structure of my work. The paintings of De Kooning and Franz Kline are so beautifully proportioned and composed. To these artists, creating a dynamic, balanced composition seemed to be effortless second nature
I usually decide on a focal point in the subject, decide where to place it in the painting, then arrange for my strongest colors and maximum tonal contrast to be at this point. I will then look for lines or shapes that will reinforce the focal point and lead the eye back to it. I will then create secondary points of interest for the eye to pause on as it travels around the work. The important thing is to make sure these secondary points don’t compete with the main focal point and create confusion.
Simplifying shapes and loosing parts of the painting are done as the painting progresses. I don’t usually decide where areas of understatement will be before I start to paint. As I paint I carefully monitor what is happening and at some point the need to simplify parts of the painting becomes evident.
What part does drawing play? Do all your paintings start with a thorough
underdrawing? What part do the lines added in charcoal play in the final design?
Could you send us a few preliminary sketches?
Drawing is an extremely important part of my work. I keep the underdrawing fairly simple and economical, but always use direct, confident lines because, quite often, they remain as part of the finished work. As I build up a painting I will draw into it with charcoal, ink, pastel or brush and paint. I don’t see a point where drawing stops and painting starts – one thing tends to run into another.
I like to use ink and charcoal lines to give parts of my work a loose, sketchy quality. Again, it is the contrast between this loose sketchiness and careful detail that make the work interesting.
Do you have a fixed set of colours you always work with?
I have a very simple palette of half a dozen colors from which I can mix pretty well any color I want:
French Ultramarine Blue
Permanent Alizarin Crimson
Quinacridone Gold or Indian Yellow
I also use White Gouache and White Gesso
Of these colors, the yellow is probably the most important. I use either Quinacridone Gold or Indian Yellow. These are both extremely transparent yellows and will influence the color of a mixture without lifting the tonal value. This mean extremely rich darks can be mixed without creating mud – a problem all too common with opaque yellows. Occasionally I will introduce another color, play around with it for a while then go back to my regular palette.
Before you use new painting implements, you always test them (such as colours
tested for lightfastness). Can you please us tell us a bit more on how you go about
Testing new colors (Paints, inks, pastels, crayons etc.) is a simple but time consuming process. All you need do is put a mark of each color about 10mm wide and 50mm long down the center of a sheet of paper. The paper is cut in half down the center of the color samples. One half is put away out of the light, the other half is taped to the inside of a window exposed to the sun during the day. After six months the two pieces of paper are compared and any colors that have faded or changed are not reliable enough to use.
Gesso plays a big part in your creative process. Sometimes mixed with acrylics,
sometimes used as a wash over your painting. Can you please expand on this.
The wonderful thing about Gesso – especially the new watercolor Gessos – is the fact that once dry, they can be painted or drawn over. I like to work Gesso over an area of a painting, diluting it and feathering the edges so there is no visible edge to the area of gesso once it has dried. I end up with an area of milky haze graduating into an area of fine detail. This lost hazy area can then be worked over in a simple, understated way to suggest what is happening in that region of the painting rather than spelling everything out in detail.
By removing elements of the painting in this way, then simplifying and suggesting them the painting becomes more engaging. The viewer must interpret what has been left out.
It is pretty obvious that you very much enjoy painting with watercolours, yet at the
same time you often add charcoal, gesso, inks and other techniques. Is there a limit
you set yourself when combining different techniques? Are there for instance, certain
experiments you wouldn’t try at the risk of endangering a painting’s durability in time?
I always make sure what I use in my paintings is permanent, neutral pH, and light fast. I only use artist quality pigments and test them all before making them part of my collection of painting materials. A lot of the materials I use in an unorthodox manner, but the paintings will always be durable.
Have you sometimes been rejected from competitions and/or exhibitions because of
your unorthodox painting techniques?
I have never been told that my work has been unacceptable because of the combination of materials. I avoid entering work in “transparent watercolor” shows because that is not what I do. It is interesting though, the American Watercolor Society now accepts any water based pigment into their exhibitions, drawing the line at pastels. There seems to be a relaxing of the old traditional view of watercolor as a pure transparent medium. For me, there are so many interesting materials around that combine beautifully together, why limit yourself to just one type of pigment. It’s a bit like saying music should only be played on a piano!
There are not that many new painting products and tools released each year. Over
the years, have there been certain products (paper, brushes, paints) that, once you
tried them, changed the way you paint?
I used to use a small sable brush for all my fine line work. This was OK while the brush was new but the tip soon wore round and the lines became thick and clumsy. Someone gave me a rigger brush and the difference was amazing – beautiful fine lines all the time.
Another brush that has had a big impact on my painting is the cheap old bristle house painting brush I use for 90% of my work. I stumbled across it by accident – it was the brush I used to apply gesso to canvas. For some reason one day I picked it up and used it to make lines in a painting I was working on. The effect was amazing – such interesting, unpredictable lines full of character. Ever since it has become the brush I use all the time. An all purpose brush capable of fine hair like lines using one or two bristles to big bold brush strokes full of interest and vitality.
The other big discovery for me was the shift to a transparent yellow. It allowed for a full tonal range to be employed, and kept the colors rich and vibrant.
My latest discovery is watercolor gesso – it takes some getting used to, but opens up all sorts of possibilities.
John Lovett Interview for Create Magazine
Who is your role model?
I don’t really have a role model, but I guess if I was to choose someone, it would be Franz Kline. The way he worked so hard throughout his life, reducing his work to simple, calligraphic marks that were so beautifully executed and perfectly proportioned, is an inspiring feat.
Do you ever pass on your knowledge through workshops and classes?
I run workshops a couple of times a year here in my studio at Currumbin and I also do workshops in Europe each year. Every couple of years we also go to the US to conduct workshops.
The workshops are a lot of fun but also a lot of work. We work pretty hard doing 2 sometimes 3 paintings a day, then critique sessions thrown in every couple of days. Everyone tends to be worn out by the end of each day. The European workshops run for a couple of weeks which is great for the students. People really get to know one another and become more relaxed about their painting. This combined with the amount of painting we do really accelerates their progress.
What has been the biggest highlight of the last decade?
Being a big fan of the abstract expressionists and the New York painters of the 1940’s and 50’s, it was a real treat to spend time in East Village, New York. Visiting the galleries, bars and restaurants and wandering the streets where these artists had their studios made that whole exciting era come to life.
How did you first become involved with watercolours?
I first became involved with watercolour about 30 years ago. I used it more as a way of recording information – pen and wash sketches and quick little location paintings.
Now I guess you’d call it an addiction rather than an involvement. Once I learned to stop trying to control and master watercolour, and to work along with the unpredictable accidents that occur, I was hooked. I love not being in complete control of the paintings outcome – starting with a rough plan, encouraging accidents to happen then working with the unpredictable things unfolding in front of me.
What do you love about your job?
I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to make a living doing something I enjoy so much. It’s not really like a job, it becomes a way of life. Work can become pretty intense when I’m in the studio working on an exhibition. There are ups and downs, some paintings work, some don’t, but in the end it’s very satisfying to see 35-40 paintings I’m really happy with hanging on the gallery walls.
The other enjoyable part of my work is the chance to do a lot of traveling. We usually spend 2 or 3 months overseas and about the same amount of time traveling to remote parts of Australia.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I get a lot of inspiration traveling to different places. The contrast in landscape, architecture and culture always seems to trigger ideas. My last Sydney Exhibition was called “Tall Tales” and was inspired by the misinterpreted stories, cultural differences and underworld shadows that pervade daily life in Sicily and Southern Italy.
I like to visit galleries and see what other artists are doing. Books Magazines and contact with other artists via the internet also provide a lot of inspiration.
What influence has the internet had on your brand?
The Internet has made a huge difference to the way my name is promoted, both as an artist and as a tutor. We have a website (www.johnlovett.com) a blog (www.splashingpaintblog.com) and, recently, a facebook page. These have generated a large mailing list for exhibitions and workshops and also provide a marketplace for my books and DVD’s.
I write regularly for International Artist Magazine and can do this from anywhere with mobile data coverage. I once wrote and illustrated an article on painting in Venice while camped on the banks of a river in far North Queensland. The finished article and half a dozen Hi res images were uploaded to the publishers via my mobile phone.
How long would you spend on a typical painting?
Actual painting time varies a lot. Sometimes a painting will be quick and spontaneous and finished in a few hours. Sometimes it will take days. I like to get a painting 90% finished then put it aside for a few days. Coming back with fresh eyes will often reveal problems not initially noticed. I also like to sit down with a beer, listen to some music and scribble down what I think should be changed in paintings I’m working on. I’ll come back in a couple of days, look at the work, read the notes and, if I still think the changes need to be made, go ahead and make them. For me, this solves the problem of being over enthusiastic and creating problems in the final stages of a painting.
How much of a perfectionist are you?
I think to produce good work you have to be a perfectionist. If I’m not 100% happy with what I do, it won’t leave the studio. That might seem funny when I like my paintings to look almost as if they have evolved by accident, but woven into all those accidents is an underlying structure and balance that I am neurotically fussy about.