An Interview with Artist Howard David Johnson

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With a background in natural sciences contemporary American artist Howard David Johnson creates stunning works of art using a vast array of mediums. His work has appeared globally with such clients as Cambridge, Oxford, The University of Texas, Warner Brothers, The National Geographic Society, ABC/Disney, and The Australian Mint to name a few. For more information on his various works please see: http://www.howarddavidjohnson.com/

What were you like as a child? Did you discover your ability to see the beauty in all things at an early age or is that something you developed as you went?

My Mom and Dad said 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.  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.

Do you think in the hectic pace of today’s world people often forget to appreciate the beauty that is around them?

All too often, that seems true. In ancient times people had hours to wind down, usually gazing at a fire instead of fighting traffic. Modern folks nerves and sensibilities are under constant barrage of negativism from the media. It takes a conscious effort to put it all down and take time to “smell the roses.”

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Do you enjoy having the chance to remind people that there is beauty in all things?

To tell the truth, I never think about that on a conscious level, it just comes out in my work.

What did you love most as a child?

God, family, nature and adventure. My parents tell me as a pre-schooler I would worry them sick disappearing nearly every morning before they got up piling barstools and boxes to unlock doors and go to the woods returning with stories of having been walking and talking with God.

I notice on your website one of the pages is dedicated to your parents. How did they influence you become who you are today?

I could write a book on that one. I devoted my life to art at the age of six in spite of stubborn opposition from my father. This dynamic conflict shaped my life and forged my driving motivation. I found buying art supplies for my kids and lavishing them with praise and encouragement did not work. Conflict was essential I later realized. My father feared I would end up like my great uncle Howard who fought in nearly every island combat against the Japanese in the Pacific War. Howard came home a war hero and his heart’s desire was to be an illustrator and when he found a tough job market instead, took his own life. My father never told me the real reason for his violent opposition to an art career until later in life, and upon hearing this, I began using my full name, Howard David Johnson. My Mother was a talented artist herself, always encouraged me and never missed an opportunity to take me along to a site or a museum to acquaint me with my Old World Traditional spiritual and cultural heritage along the way. While being evacuated from Libya during the Six Day War, my father pulled strings to get me sent back to my birthplace in Germany. The forests and charming villages with their winding cobblestone streets and picturesque mountains crowned with castles mingled with the Roman ruins I played on the African coast and set my imagination on fire with the romance of my heritage. It was there and then that the seeds my mother planted took root and I had an epiphany about my mission as an artist that has shaped my life to this day. One train trip to Paris stands out as I recall dozens of artists copying the Mona Lisa. I asked, is this Ok? The guide said, “As long as it is not the same size, it is just study”. He then showed me many masters completely and then partially copying other’s paintings to learn deeper secrets. This practice is frowned on today by uneducated internet trolls. I see these pieces as like into the three notches of Arne Sachnusem in Journey to the Center of the Earth, an 1864 science fiction novel by Jules Verne. He wanted those who came after him to be able to follow his path. I WANT people to know I studied the hell out of J. W. Waterhouse.

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What led you to pursue the Natural Sciences? How did those studies help you in regards to your career as an artist?

When I went to the University of Texas at Austin School of Fine Arts they gave me a squirt gun and told me to squirt the canvas with paint. I wanted to study the old masters but they wanted me to imitate monkeys. Threatened with failing the class for drawing in the back row, I brought a fish skeleton and slapped it into the huge canvas with its build up of thick oil paints. They declared me the next Jackson Pollack with my organic textures and I thought, …”Oh, Brother…” and went to my Science class where the professor did not mind my doodling. He was going off about a dinosaur dig and I started sketching his dinosaur site. He walked around and said; ” The head is too big and the horn is too short”. When he came back around I had modified it and he said, “OK! Now the Cycadeoides { fern like plants} are too close to the water. The next trip around the classroom he said: “Do you want a job? Our so called illustrator cries like a baby and throws a temper tantrum every time I point out his mistakes.” He took me under his wing and taught me things no art class ever could and the travel was wonderful. Later my art class mates who told me I was not a real artist because I eschewed abstract art had towels on their arms waiting tables and I was writing Artist on my IRS form. I have a gallery of Dinosaur art up now…

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What are some of the most daunting obstacles you faced when you were first learning your trade?

My hand was torn apart in a hydraulic lift and reconstructed in1964 and I taped my pencil to the brace but it was mostly the beatings from my father. He would drag me away from my drawings and when he saw me using a kitchen timer to time gesture drawings of a human figure he was sure I’d flipped my lid and took me to the Air Force base psychiatrist. I practiced 4-12 hours a day to be a comic book artist and they had to be fast as well as good. I was hired by DC comics in a nationwide talent search and he tore up the check, beat me with a yellow pine 2×4 and said, “You’re not goin’ to NEW YORK ~ you’re goin’ to VEET nam. Ah, good times…

What advice would you offer the artists of tomorrow?

Learn to dodge? Seriously? Practice, Practice, Practice, and learn to keep savings against lean times and or get a significant other with a steady job.

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Who are some of your favorite artists?

Some of the artists and writers that have influenced me the most; William Bouguereau, John William Waterhouse, Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, Edmund Blair Leighton, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, Arthur Hughes, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Viktor Vasnetsov, Jean Auguste Ingres, Anthony Van Dyke, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Wallace Wood, Jack Kirby, Frank Frazetta, Ray Harryhausen, H.G. Wells, Gustave Moreau, William Morris, Henry David Thoreau, Will Durant, The Pre- Raphaelites, The Symbolists, et al.

How does it feel to see your work so well received worldwide?

Deeply rewarding and fulfilling. My statistics show my website is visited by every country on Earth, every day. My Dad often used to say, “The world is not going to beat a path to your door”. Well, he did not foresee the internet. That being said, I do not consider myself famous by today’s standards, but then, most people outside the industry can’t name three living artists.

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How has your artist style evolved most over the years?

I started with all traditional mediums like pencil and oils and added digital media, I began as a comic book illustrator, strove toward photo-realism and when attaining it found it upset people so much I evolved into a more traditional looking style blending old masters and modern illustration.

Is there one subject you enjoy covering more than most?

Women.

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Are there any little known things about you that our readers might be surprised to know?

I have been the pastor of a small non-denominational Christian church without any form of pay for 30 years. I was a Boy Scout leader in the inner city in Austin, Texas for 12 years. I am called “Der ferret herder” in Deutschland and have eight ferrets. In Europe there is also a drinking game involving naming my references and sources that show in my illustrations.

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You also work in photography. What do you think is required to take a truly stunning photograph?

Good subject material. Good equipment. Nikon is the best.

What do you think is key to a life well lived?

I’ve heard it said you can be a success at everything and fail as a father and be a failure at everything and that you can succeed as a father and fail at everything else and be a complete success. That being said, the world crowns success, GOD honors faithfulness.

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Is there a certain satisfaction in knowing that when you leave this world with any luck you will leave behind so many pieces that were the work of your own hands?

My mission as an artist is to help preserve our Western heritage. I have done so. When I saw the works of great artists were being removed from schools and libraries because of mild nudity I realized we needed an Aesop of images to gather, edit and reinvent a body of work teaching about our cultural heritage for future generations.

What are you feelings on life and death and such?

The LORD still speaks to me often and I am visited by angels. I will be reunited with an army of ferrets in heaven who are currently waiting for me to join them. As Joshua said, I say today: “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

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How do you hope to be remembered when your time comes?

I hope to be on a list of illustrators like Arthur Rackham or Howard Pyle and also in a way like the Brothers Grimm and Aesop for gathering and reworking images as they re-worked stories for preservation for future generations.

Do you have a dream project you’d most like to bring into existence?

The Book of Revelation and The Book of Enoch… I am working on them now.

Is there anything you’d like to say before you go?

My illustrations take their inspiration from the realistic paintings of the old masters just as the film West Side Story came from Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, who in turn copied it from Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Our shared cultural heritage, great works of art, literature, music and drama, cinema, folk tales and fairy tales are all drawn upon again and again by the creators of new works.

These works in the public domain are both a catalyst and a wellspring for creativity and innovation. Where would Walt Disney be without the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, or Victor Hugo? Where would Aaron Copeland have been without American folk music? Or Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus without traditional images of Father Christmas? Pablo Picasso without aboriginal African art? Public domain appropriators, one and all. It was only in the Romantic era that total originality ceased to be considered vulgar and offensive. Today there are even some folk who consider traditional ideas about art to be immoral. I don’t think the medium is the message or that art MUST be offensive or vulgar. I disagree with the modernists. I love beauty. When America was formed, copyright law was created to promote the public creativity and had 14 year terms to reward the creators, but now with 100 plus year terms very little is currently allowed to enter into the public domain and its preservation is of the utmost urgency to our future cultural well-being.

In keeping with art tradition and etiquette following the exhibit , I mention some of the artists and writers that have influenced me the most; William Bouguereau, John William Waterhouse, Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, Edmund Blair Leighton, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, Arthur Hughes, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Viktor Vasnetsov, Jean Auguste Ingres, Anthony Van Dyke, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Wallace Wood, Jack Kirby, Frank Frazetta, Ray Harryhausen, H.G. Wells, Gustave Moreau, William Morris, Henry David Thoreau, Will Durant, The Pre- Raphaelites, The Symbolists, et al.

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