INTERVIEW with JOHN WELLINGTON
WHERE ARE YOU LIVING?
Noho, New York City
WHERE DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL?
WHAT IS A LITTLE KNOWN FACT YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE?
I graduated from The Rhode Island School of Design BFA in 1983, and later attended The New York Academy of Art MFA, graduating in 1990.
I sometimes think that my fascination with bunkers, fortresses, archery, Asian, French and Italian cultures, and other images that appear in my art come from past life experiences. It sounds crazy to write the above sentence down, but some of the visual inspirations that appear since my earliest memories – especially visually – feel like they came to me from other epochs.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CAREER AS A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST
I have taught traditional painting techniques at The New York Academy of Art and privately at my atelier since 1995. I also lecture and teach painting workshops across the county and I run an en plein air gouache workshop in Paris every summer. I have exhibited in numerous places around the world, and have paintings in prominent collections in the US, Asia and Europe.
One of the prerequisites of being a professional is identifying your client base. As an artist, one often thinks who will buy the art that they make, and ask the question “should one tailor that art towards a specific market?” With the exception of commissions, I decided early on that my client base was me – not a great choice for throwing out a big net, but a choice that has kept me painting and surprising myself for more than forty-five years.
Thankfully there have been galleries and curators along the way that supported my unique visions and collectors that could live with art that challenged them in their homes. My career has taken me to both Coasts in the US and to Europe numerous times. Having collectors willing not only to invest in my art as object, but in me as a patron has also allowed me to continue my visions.
LET'S JUMP INTO YOUR BACKGROUND A BIT. WE HEARD ONE OF YOUR FIRST JOBS WAS WORKING AS A COLORIST AT MARVEL COMICS. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
Before I began to sell my paintings and teach art, I worked numerous jobs including advertising and graphic design, managing a poster shop, running errands for a more successful artist, and bar tending at both a dive and high end restaurant in New York City. All of these jobs gave me great life experience, some interesting stories, and quite a few useful skills. However, my most memorable employment began by accident.
In 1985, I went to the offices of Marvel Comics to visit a friend. That visit had me turn down a new bar tending gig and begin my next decade working as a colorist, working on numerous pulp books like The Punisher and higher end graphic novels where I painted each page in gouache as if it were a painting. If as a child, you ever read Spiderman in your bedroom, and dreamt what it would be like to work at the Marvel offices at 387 Park Avenue South, and thought it might be the best job ever, then you would not have been disappointed in 1985. The tenth floor was not only overflowing with talent, but with humor, pranks, soft rubber bullet gun battles after the “suits” in accounting went home, and a type of geek adoration for film, pop culture, games (yes, we had our own paintball team named The Punishers), and a love of art and comics. There was encouragement to create, and in that spirit, I came up with a villain to challenge The Punisher; a Russian soldier in grey urban camouflage. I had come up with his name and identify after a lecture by the Editor in Chief about creating superheroes. He told us that the name should reflect their ability or superpower. Well, my soldier sniped so I named him … yup, you guessed it … The Sniper! The Punisher killed him after two appearances and there went my royalties.
HOW DID YOU MAKE THE MOVE INTO THE FINE ARTS?
As much as I loved working at Marvel, I didn’t want to become a penciler and was still trying to be a “fine artist” working in oils between deadlines. One in particular, The Shadow, was way past deadline and I was brought in to color it. That kept me up for three days and indirectly led me back to becoming a full time painter.
After 80 hours, the deadline made, and no sleep, a few of us went to a diner to have breakfast, drink a lot more coffee, and begin the process of collapsing. I had the NY Post with me and was skimming through the pages when I saw an interview with the director of a bizarre little art school named The New York Academy of Figurative Art. The school was loosely modeled after the French art academies of the 19th Century, teaching anatomy by dissecting cadavers, drawing casts of classical sculptures, and teaching figurative art. The New York Academy of Art was exactly what my art education was lacking and what I had been trying to self-teach for years.
Within four years of graduating, I began teaching at the NYAA as well. From that time until the present, I have enjoyed teaching various versions of my indirect painting class, beginning with grisaille and layering colors in ways inspired by older methods of painting.
YOU'VE BEEN TEACHING FOR CLOSE TO 30 YEARS. ANY ADVICE?
Sometimes one doesn’t know how much they know until they share it with others. Teaching is a great way to remind myself that I might have actually picked up a thing or two over the decades that other people will be thrilled to learn. It’s also great for formalizing and codifying methods and techniques. However, the best reason to teach is to continue to learn. Questions from my students make me go both deeper and expand my knowledge base.
1. Often what I teach outward is what I continually tell myself in my own art journey. There are a few “Wellingtonisms” that I have repeated throughout the years to students and continue to stay true for me. My most often repeated mantra is “it’s just paint.” This is especially helpful when one is struggling with a painting or their own talent. It’s just paint after all.
2. I have been known to refer to my life as an artist as “failing upwards.” This is not failing for me. This is striving for something so high that it might not be quite achieved, but the result will be so much better than if I had stayed in my comfort zone and repeated only past successes. I decided many years ago to not paint by formula. My art hits its highest notes when I push beyond my limits. In these moments, in the unknown, new paths emerged with new techniques, compositions and subjects. Going beyond my basic skill and talent level, keeps the act of creating fresh for me.
3. When I make multiple adjustments with an area, I refer to it as “correcting my corrected corrections.” I was once told by a dealer of Old Master works that when he checked a painting, he looked for corrections by the original artist. If there were no changes in the positions of hands, clothes, a horses leg, etc., then he would pass on buying the painting. It was for him, suspect. My art will always be identified by numerous adjustments and corrections up until the day they are signed … and often, after.
WE HEAR YOU'RE A BIG FAN OF NEW WAVE PALETTES ...
My first introduction to a New Wave palette was when one of my students was using the Highland in class. Picking up the palette to make a few adjustments on his painting, it was evident that this was the best palette I had ever held. The next day I bought two of the left handed Highland models at my neighborhood art store. That was years ago. Since then I’ve collected numerous models and will continue to as they come out. Palettes are like portable tables that move with you as you go high, low, left and right around a painting, no matter how large. Having a palette that is perfectly balanced in the hand, that doesn’t cut into the thumb, and becomes an extension of your arm is very rare. The three New Wave models I own do that perfectly, allowing me to be more efficient when I paint.
WHERE CAN OUR READERS LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR WORK?
I teach privately at my atelier as well as the NY Academy of Art. They can contact me directly through my website:
I'm also excited about a 3 volume collection of e-books that I finished entitled Idols Demons and Saints. It's a collection of my sketches and paintings throughout the years that embody the process of creation.
THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO TALK ART WITH US JOHN!
Thank you for having me.