Feeding the Animals

Clay Johnson at work in the studio

My path to a good painting is indirect. I begin by dividing the picture plane horizontally into two or three sections, and the rest of the process is a series of corrections. I try to fix the things I don’t like without destroying the aspects that appeal to me. Of course, this is often not possible—sometimes destruction is necessary, and usually in the end something good comes from it.

But all of this, in a way, is a distraction. These are design decisions, and while they can be important in themselves, they also serve the critical function of occupying my mind so that I don’t think too much about “making art.” Because the art in the paintings happens surreptitiously, while my back is turned. I’m aware of it, and I try in a subtle way to encourage it without scaring it off. But it’s better for everyone if I just do my job, focus on the task at hand. “That section needs to be larger.” “These colors aren’t working together.” These sorts of thoughts let me pretend that my intention is important and that I’m in charge. But in fact I’m trying to coax a timid creature into eating from my hand, and making sure not to look directly into its eyes.

Art and Darwin

I don’t put a lot of stock in inspiration. I’m more interested in evolution. My methodology is to work and re-work a painting until its past and present fuse into something I could not have predicted at the start; something I could not have been inspired to create.

I’ve always been intrigued by artworks that use their own history as an integral part of the final product. This began in college while studying Michelangelo’s drawings for the Sistine Ceiling. Of course the ceiling itself is astounding, but it was the studies for it, rendered in chalk and charcoal and showing evidence of adjustments and corrections, that brought the artist to life for me. Those smudges and partial erasures are a window into his process, but are also important parts of the drawings themselves.

Editing is a fascinating (and often painful) process common to all the arts, but painting and drawing are uniquely adept at displaying the editing process and allowing an artist to transform elements of a work without deleting them. When I finish writing and editing this piece, you won’t be privy to the words I’ve taken out. I could tell you about all the phrases I’ve changed replaced, but there will be no evidence in the writing itself. I’m always interested to hear songwriters talk about how a particular song developed—the switching around of verses, lines being removed from the chorus and turned into a bridge, etc.—but that information is not part of the song. It’s the song’s backstory; meta data as it were.

When I start a new painting I generally have a vague notion of what I’m about. It could be an idea about color, a specific color combination, or something structural. It doesn’t really matter because once the first layer of paint is applied the rest is a series of reactions. In the end, there may or may not be some evidence remaining of the painting’s original concept. That also doesn’t matter, because the concept has evolved, and in a rather Darwinian way. Survival of the fittest in this case refers to the ability of an element in the painting to contribute to the overall direction. Sometimes one section of a painting, even though it’s in the minority, is strong enough to bring the others around to its way of thinking. But just as often that element must evolve or be killed off. And each time this happens the concept evolves again and includes now the hints and remnants of what came before.