Heath Johnston's New Direction

Heath Johnston reached out to me about a new body of work he’s been hard at work on. He described these new works as commentary on “the state of America, the world, and human progress.” These new paintings have an added level of realism in comparison to his older works, and incorporate strong representations of  light and shadow. Johnston unfortunately lost one of these paintings in a varnishing accident earlier this month, but check out some of his other new works below. Then, dive into my conversation with Heath about his inspiration for this series, his thoughts on modern technology and how he utilizes it, and his progress as an artist over the years.

To start – tell me about the new series of paintings you’ve been working on.

I’ve been looking at a lot of 19th century American paintings and thinking about the parallels they share with the new world and the seemingly forgotten virtues that were lost over time. My best guess being that’s due to us having so much access to everything.
But there’s still this sort of spirit of ideas and innovation in the air and I believe those timeless, almost stoic virtues coupled with that spirit of innovation is largely what drove us so successfully into the 21st century and that’s what I tend to think about when painting these days and it helps to drive my own work. So for example, today I woke up around 6 and went on a walk and while walking I thought about what I can do to be better in most aspects of my life. Usually when i broadcast those types of thoughts, I receive very virtuous ideas and try my best to carry them with me throughout the day and because I’m painting every morning after my walk, it often helps to inform my level of work ethic and provides theme for thought.

You described these new works as commentary on the “state of America, the world, and human progress.” Can you explain that further?

That question prompts a very broad discussion, but I love to think in broader/big picture terms. We know that the U.S. strategy for global competitiveness has two main cornerstones- tech innovation and marketing. We don’t and will never have the lowest cost of labor or raw materials, so we have to exploit higher up on the value chain. Ideas, in my opinion, have tremendous weight and value to them.
My ideas for these new works are from photos I’ve taken on my iPhone, which is my primary tool for documenting. I’ll usually make a drawing from my phone or computer, scan it off at Fedex and transfer the important lines onto canvas and that process is mostly organizing ideas until the painting phase. That in and of itself says a lot about human progress in the arts. Our tools are way more advanced than 100 years ago and ideas can become reality in no time flat. Furthermore, the subjects of these paintings have a carefree nature to them. I know it’s tough to make the call that America is so care free when it’s such a shit show according to the news, but keep in mind that the media will do everything it takes to keep anyone’s attention and the ones who are social distancing don’t fit in the frame of an Instagram photo. I feel like i’m starting to digress, but my point is that if you tune out your feed and just live your life and work hard, it’s easier now than ever before. We might be known for our liberties, sure, but to balance that out we also have a tremendous amount of responsibility to one another and now is our time to push things forward.

I agree that technology has made things much easier for us, especially artists, and that it’s just a matter of not being distracted by the negative sides of tech. With that being said, we obviously both utilize social media to our advantages and to build a platform. As an artist, how do you view social media as a whole? Because it can be hard to use it as a tool without letting it consume you.

As a whole, I think it’s a pretty awesome thing. It’s such a new tool, so I think we’re bound to make these early mistakes. With that being the case, there’s this great book called “Trust Me, I’m Lying” by Ryan Holiday that has been absolutely HUGE in helping me understand how blogging reshaped the media machine and the ways we consume it. So I think, in most cases, there’s very few things that knowledge can’t prevent, but you have to be interested ahead of time. I can go on and on about this topic, but i’m not an expert. In the end, a good mental diet is essential for happiness and healthy amounts of information can be much more transformative.
One thing I noticed about these new works is that the highlights/shadows are so well done. For me, they add another level of realism without looking too real. Looking at your feed over time, it seems that realism has been progressing naturally over time in your work. Would you agree?
Yeah for sure, it absolutely sends my mind spiraling when I see a realist painting where light and shadow are represented in a cool way. Form is very interesting to me even though I used to be an abstract artist [laughs]. But even then I was always drawing. 
I still love abstractions, but they’re way more interesting, at least to me, when you stumble onto them in representational works.
Could you see yourself moving back into abstraction in the future?
At the moment I don’t think so. I have a direction I’m aiming and a clearer understanding of where I want to be and the type of work I want to make. I still like to play around with paint and deconstruct forms, but I don’t see myself venturing too far away from that.
When I last interviewed you, you mentioned that you’ve been writing “every day for the past two years.” Have you continued writing? How does writing inspire your work?
Yes, though I wouldn’t say it necessarily inspires the work but it definitely helps me sort through ideas and clear up mental fog. I write every single day and I’m a huge advocate for low-stakes journaling and drawing! Both are effective methods in perceptual training and can impact learning in other areas as well. It’s something that I’ll continue to do for the rest of my life, no question.
What short and long term goals do you have for yourself?
Short term – finish this drawing. Long term – autonomy.


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