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Artist Interview with Jonathon Downing

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS is delighted to present Jonathon Downing, the first winner of our monthly open call. This 26-year-old painter from Detroit, Michigan, despite his young age, already boasts an impressive track record of international exhibitions. He speaks wholeheartedly about his upbringing, inspiration, 'bag of tricks,' as well as his favorite and most challenging pieces to date.

Artist Interview with Jonathon Downing

Jonathon Downing honed his distinctive style while studying at the University of Michigan, and since graduating in 2020, he paints to exorcise his so-called 'curse of creativity.' He has been continuously perfecting his techniques in digital photo montage and realistic painting. Through the multiplication of facial features in his portraits, he builds characters in narrative poses that reflect their inner worlds. His paintings transcend reality, portraying humans in organic and sincere ways, simultaneously capturing basketball fans and the superstars they idolize, encouraging viewers to delve deeper into each character's backstory and emotions. Based in Westland, MI, Downing earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2020 from the University of Michigan's Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design. His work has been exhibited in galleries across the United States and is included in both national and international collections. Notable exhibitions include "Laced Up" at Glass Rice Gallery in San Francisco, CA (2023); "Checks over Stripes" at Bridge Mogura Gallery in Shibuya City, Tokyo, Japan (2023); "Inseparable" at IRL Gallery in New York, NY (2023); "Beyond Portraiture" at Allouche Gallery in New York, NY (2024); "Fightclub" at BETTER GO SOUTH Gallery in Berlin, Germany (2023); "Hajimemashite!" at Bridge Mogura Gallery in Shibuya City, Tokyo, Japan (2023); "Hella Good!" at Glass Rice Gallery in San Francisco, CA (2022); and "All is Not What it Seems" at Lorin Gallery in Los Angeles, CA (2022), among others.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your artwork?

Hello I am Jonathon, I’m 27 and have been painting professionally for two years.  I paint portraits in oil with multiplied facial features, with the goal of creating an all-encompassing representation of a complex person in one singular image.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: How has your background shaped your artistic practice?

I think there are a few big factors that shaped my work.  My mom always being unconditionally supportive of my passion was probably the biggest.  When I gave her an AP of my first print release with Bridge Mogura Gallery I wrote “none of this is possible without you”.  It really all started with her support.  I grew up loving basketball, so that deep rooted adoration for the game is a big reason why it is such a prominent theme in my work now.  When I was a teenager I got into fashion and sneakers, as well as hip-hop and rock music, so those became passions of mine that are also prevalent.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: How has your creative process changed over the years?

I started out using tracing paper and just tracing anything I could find, such as images from magazines like Game Informer and Slam.  Then I went into graphite drawing, mostly portraits of celebrities and musicians, followed by colored pencil drawings.  I didn’t start painting until I was 15, when I started using acrylic.  

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: How has your artwork evolved since you first started making art?

I’ve always done portraits, although I did do tattoo designs for a long time, mostly American Traditional, New-school and Japanese.  I grew up watching shows like Miami Ink and LA Ink.  I wanted to get into tattooing for the longest, from around ages 10 to 22 when my focus fully switched to painting.  For my paintings specifically I would study an artist that I liked and mimic their aesthetic for a piece or two and then move onto another artist.  Greg Simkins and Kevin Llewellyn were big for me as a teenager, as well as Basquiat and the old masters.  

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What inspired you to become an artist?

Art has always been my passion, so I feel like this is what I was born to do.  There was never a backup plan to have a desk job or something like that.  It’s sometimes referred to as the “curse of creativity” because we need creative projects to feel fulfilled.  I knew that I was never going to be fully happy with a different job or just doing this as a hobby, so I put everything I have into making it a career, and I still do every day.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Are there any particular artists or movements that have greatly influenced your work? In what way?

In high school, Greg Simkins taught me surrealism, Kevin Llewellyn taught me that classical portraits can have a punk edge, Basquiat taught me how to be loose and sneak in pop culture references, and the old masters taught me how to properly paint a portrait.  When I was in college my biggest influence was Emilio Villalba.  I say this in every interview but he is the best portrait artist in the game right now.  His deconstructed portraits from 2016 and 2017 really got my gears turning and showed me that a portrait should have layers to it, just a little something that makes it super unique.  His ability to evolve is also inspiring, because some of his work is so different but it’s still undeniably his.  That’s how I always aim to evolve: keeping it all fresh, pushing myself to improve, but also keeping my visual brand.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: How did you arrive at your style?  What can you tell us about your individual style and visual language?

I started experimenting with Photoshop in 2017 which was the game changer.  My professor at the University of Michigan, Robert Platt, pushed me to use digital processes to start my oil paintings, and Carol Jacobsen introduced me to photo montage.  It all kinda just snowballed from there.  The pieces started out pretty Photoshop-y with sharp cuts and basic layering, and I just kept refining it.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: How do you select your themes?  

The themes I explore basically just come from my interests.  I love basketball which is heavily tied with success and glory, just as fashion relates to external image.  I’m a pretty introspective person, so I like knowing what’s going on inside my head, and I want to know what my characters are thinking and feeling too.  That’s why they have so many facial features and custom sneakers and extra limbs.  I just want to show some extra glimpses into their lives, what they like, what they don't like, what they love and what they worry about.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What has been the most rewarding part of your career as a studio artist?

Helping others and giving back are the most rewarding experiences for me.  For example, I did a Sober October challenge last year with my followers and we raised money for 8 different charities and non-profits.  My sobriety is integral to my success, so to be able to share the life skills I have learned, which can be helpful for anyone, not just those who are in recovery or are recovered, was incredibly rewarding.  Raising money for causes we believe in was really the icing on the cake.  I also just did a print giveaway, and I have my first curated show opening next month featuring some emerging artists making exceptional work.  It’s a blessing to be able to have a platform that allows me to do so many positive things.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Please tell us about your latest body of work

My latest solo was Appearances, Aspirations and Allusions with VLAB Gallery back in April.  That show was really about putting all of the themes I have built over the past two years into a big show with some bold, strong paintings.  It is important to me to evolve, so the signature jerseys that my characters have worn in the past are now either displayed in frames or left in their wardrobes.  They show their love for the game in more subtle ways such as hats, shirts, sneakers, and even stickers on a guitar.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects that you are excited about?

As I mentioned I have curated an exhibition, which is with Collect Bean, titled Sunlight, opening on July 5th.  This was my first time curating a show, and it was an honor to have the opportunity to give more exposure to some emerging artists who are doing work that really deserves to be seen.  The lineup includes Darien Bird, Filippo Cegani, Dean Christensen, Mattia Guarnera, Alexander James Owen, Han Jironi, Ann Liu, Amy Liu, Morgan Sims, Jingyi Wang, and Haley Manchon.  I am working on a new series revolving around NBA Championships, and I have some other upcoming projects as well, but we are keeping those under wraps for now.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What do you think is the most important aspect of creating successful artwork?

For me, artists must have an original aesthetic and a unique viewpoint to make successful work.  Everyone’s work is derivative in some way.  That’s how we push the business forward, by tweaking the work of those who came before us.  What you have to do is make sure your work is different enough that you can put your own signature on it.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Describe your process of creating a new artwork from concept to completion.

I will find the base reference photo on Instagram, usually from fashion pages.  Then I go through my library of photos I have collected since 2018, and find images that will match.  I look for similar sex, skin tone, hair color, and pose.  Sometimes I will have a concept in my head and build off of it, but usually I just find a photo I really like and see what mixes well and build the concept from there.  Once I have the photo montage finished, I project it onto the canvas.  I almost always buy pre-stretched canvases.  They're just easier and if you buy them in multiples the shipping cost isn't too bad.  After I have the stencil drawn I start painting.  I always paint the background first, then the clothes, shoes, extra elements such as trophies, the legs, arms, hands, hair, and end with the face.  The face is always the most enjoyable part for me, so I save it as a reward for all the hard work on everything else.  Then the piece has to dry for at least a week, preferably longer, and it gets a coat of Gamvar Gloss varnish.  Then it dries for another week and can be shipped out to a show or a home.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What is your favourite medium to work with? Please tell us a bit about how the medium influences or supports the ideas behind your work

I use exclusively oil paint nowadays, Holbein Artist Oil Color.  I did my first oil painting in early 2017, and it was like a switch flipped on and everything made sense.  With acrylic you have to change the entire process of painting to make up for the lack of drying time.  I would layer way more than I do now.  With my oil paintings, I can start and finish everything in one layer.  I’ll still go back in and color correct with scumbling and glazing, but having enough time to blend the colors and push the paint where it needs to be really streamlined my work.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Are there any techniques you have developed that you use consistently in your artwork?

I commonly refer to my techniques as my “bag of tricks” or my “toolbox”.  These are mostly different textures I have learned to paint, like denim, leather, stuff like that.  Painting requires you to first figure out what the texture is and how it is put together in reality, and then how to paint it.  Denim, for example, is made through perpendicular weaving that creates a texture that is very subtly raised.  It looks smooth from a distance and rough up close.  So to make it into a painting, I will paint the pair of jeans without any texture, and then go back in with a script liner or a small bright and add the strands.  This creates that smooth look with the subtle knit of denim.  To me that’s the biggest learning curve with realism, the textures.  

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What has been the most memorable artwork you have created? What makes this piece memorable?

In 2013 I made a painting of this cartoony new-school woman with a bunch of candles on her head and an octopus on her chest.  It was super colorful and inspired by Alister Dippner who was my favorite painter at the time.  He got famous through speed painting videos in the early 2010’s, most of them being album covers for the pop-punk band Ghost Town.  It’s special to me because it was my first piece to be included in an exhibition.  It was a high school student show at Wayne State University.  I still have the painting in my room, although it needs a bit of a clean and has some unintentional paint splatters.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What was the most challenging piece you have ever created? How much do you think the effort you put into creating a work is important vs the idea behind it?

The most difficult piece I have made so far was “Courtside Seats” from my show with VLAB.  It is a very large and detailed painting, and the plastic texture of the couch was something I have never done before, so I was learning on the fly. I also filmed the entire process of the painting from photoshop to finish and made reels out of it, which took a lot of time.  People loved the inside look though so it was definitely worth it.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Can you tell us a bit about a few specific pieces you have created that you are particularly proud of?

I’d say that “Courtside Seats” is definitely up there.  “Reach for the Sky” from Countryside Jumpshot with NYCH Gallery is a favorite, being the center-piece for my first solo show.  I also made a painting for my agent’s daughter that I am really proud of.  It’s a pink teddy bear with a Steph Curry jersey.  Aside from my family he is my number one fan, so it was a really cool experience to give back and make this painting that she will be able to grow up with.  

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Please tell us about the particular materials or techniques you use to create your artwork and how they influence your work and practice?

As I mentioned with the oil paint, it allows me to really push the paint around and blend everything until it all looks correct.  The use of direct painting allows me to get pieces done a little faster because I don’t have to wait for paint to dry before adding layers.  I know a lot of realism artists who do brown underpaintings, Grisaille, or use glazes heavily, and that does allow for extra depth of shadow and tonal range, but just straight-up, direct painting makes the most sense to me.  With my stencil it’s almost a paint by numbers sometimes, and that’s another thing that is really important.  I drew freehand for years, and I can still do it accurately, but using a projector completely removes the drawing, so I save a lot of time and also have peace of mind knowing every proportion is correct.  This allows me to just follow the stencil and only worry about mixing and placing paint.  It’s very meditative in that way.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Are there any techniques or materials you would like to learn how to use in the future?

I think it’s important to always continue learning and also reconnect with mediums you’ve used in the past.  I definitely want to expand into sculpture at some point, it would be interesting to see a portrait with six eyes in three-dimensions.  I used to sculpt a bit during undergrad, so it’d be cool to reconnect with that too.  Another one of my biggest goals is to expand into commercial work such as album covers, fashion look-books, stuff like that.  I did the branding, merch, and album design for a local rap collective one summer back in college and it was a lot of fun.  My work translates really well into those artistic spheres and I am itching to do more of it.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What themes or topics are you exploring in your current artwork?

My current series explores the theme of championships and glory.  Each piece has strong references to success, such as the Larry O’Brien trophy, MVP trophies, championship jackets, royal interiors, and even a WWE title belt.  These are my most intricate works yet, lots of gold, lots of textures.  They look beautiful and I can’t wait to start showing them off later this year.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: Are there any projects or themes you would like to explore in the future?

I have a Google Doc with about 20 different ideas for series, but I think the three most likely ones would be jewelry, royalty, or if I want to switch up my aesthetic a little bit, I have a series of portraits planned that have black backgrounds.  The reference photos are done with flash photography at night, usually during social events.  The juxtaposition of the emptiness of the background and the energy of the figure is really cool.  It’s a great dynamic and the high contrast can be really beautiful.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What do you think is the most important skill a studio artist should have?

It’s absolutely time management.  I am always learning how to be better at this.  I’ve become more disciplined over the past two years, but because I push myself to make bigger and better work, I am still always racing against the clock.  I work really well under pressure, and if I don’t have that pressure I can float a little too much.  I don’t love the constant worry of meeting tight deadlines, but I think a part of me likes that rush and the accomplishment after.  Whenever I get overwhelmed I remind myself that pressure is a privilege and I’m blessed to be busy.

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What do you think has been the biggest challenge in your creative career?

My work-life balance is always a challenge.  I spend pretty much all day working on my paintings and digital works, and I take 1-2 days off per month.  I sacrifice a lot of my social life to make my career a success.  I do it happily because I know the grind is worth it, however I am excited for the day that I can manage things a little more evenly.  

ARTCOLLECTORNEWS: What advice would you give to aspiring studio artists?

Form a unique aesthetic, hone your technique, and make connections with people who can help you.  “Draw, Mix, Paint” on Youtube is a very insightful channel for traditional oil painting tips, and the Instagram page @juliebcreative is great too.  Instagram is a wonderful networking platform for artists and is really essential nowadays.  I would say almost all of us get super pumped when an artist hits us up just to chat or asks for guidance.  We love art and want to see others succeed and continue to push the boundaries of painting.  Stay hungry, stay humble, and recognize that art is not a competition, it’s a cooperation.  We all want our piece of the pie, but through cooperation we can improve much more than we can by competing with each other.  The beauty of our profession is the community, how we all support each other and do our best to help others live their dreams alongside us.

Jonathon Downing

Jonathon Downing

Jul 4, 2024

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