FEATURE: SeaTac’s Self-Taught Painter Harold Johnson
By Nicholas Johnson
Harold Johnson has never been formally trained as a painter, but that hasn’t stopped the SeaTac resident from winning countless awards and raking in thousands of dollars per original painting. His career spans more than 45 years, and after all that time he’s still an old dog learning new tricks.
For the past ten years Johnson has obsessed over maritime scenes, which are readily available in the Puget Sound region. In the summers he travels with a camera in-hand, taking away pieces of his trip that will eventually inform his studio work. In the winters he can most likely be found at his in-home studio in SeaTac, delicately applying paint to canvas as the sound of the jazz piano pours from his radio.
Copies of his paintings in thick frames cover the walls of his cluttered home, where he not only spends months fine tuning each detail of a single piece but also prints copies on canvas for wider distribution. Much of the 63-year-old’s more recent work currently hangs at The Gallery at Southcenter Mall in Tukwila alongside other, world-renowned artists. Johnson recently took the second-place prize at the International Waters Exhibit in Ventura, Calif. – an exhibit organized by the International Society of Marine Painters, featuring artists from Australia, Japan, Ukraine and around the United States. He is also a lifetime member of the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters.
As a 17-year-old in 1965, Johnson entered his first show at Spokane’s Northtown Mall.
“I remember the first painting I sold was like $44,” he said. “And the guy comes up and says, ‘is the price right?’ And I said, ‘yeah, is that too much?’”
Johnson attended Deer Park High School north of Spokane and remembers learning to paint barns and rivers with his friend Rick Hayes, who, unlike Johnson, had taken art classes.
“I would hop on my bike after school and go paint out in the woods,” Johnson recalls.
In his twenties, Johnson began making money by selling his paintings, however he found gallery owners liked to dictate his work.
“At that time, if I wanted to paint something I knew I could sell, I would paint either old log cabins or river scenes,” he said. “But I didn’t just want to do that. I found other things beautiful and interesting, too.”
He had a good thing going with a gallery in Carmel, Calif., but the curator only wanted Johnson’s river scenes. He wanted something that would sell, and those scenes worked well for business.
“At that point I thought, ‘I don’t want to be the river painter. I’ve got other things I want to do.’”
So Johnson stopped sending his work. After a while Johnson sent some paintings of old cars and the curator began buying his work outright. From then on he was able to send whatever painting he wanted.
In the spring and fall he would travel up and down the west coast doing mall shows. The traveling gave him an opportunity to do quicker, more-impressionistic pieces and collect photos of other scenes he could later take home and recreate in his studio.
By 1979 he was 31, and that’s when he began a 20-year career with an industrial design firm called Walter Dorwin Teague. Johnson worked alongside some of the top designers of the day as a senior illustrator for advertising and sales. His work was used in advertising campaigns by companies such as Boeing and General Electric. The entire time, Johnson was surrounded by classically trained artists from whom he said he learned a lot.
Since 1999 when he left his job as an advertising illustrator, Johnson spends the better half of the year traveling to festivals where he can sell his work and meet new people. He began painting maritime scenes after taking a picture of the marina in La Push – a painting of which he has made countless reprints over the past decade.
Although he regrets never exposing himself to formal training, he feels the time he has spent traveling with and working with highly skilled artists has taught him a lot. In fact, he said he feels that his style is special because it’s recognizable as his own.
“I know a lot of the teachers who have taught in the Seattle area and I can see their influence,” he said. “And some of the guys haven’t broken out of it. I think they felt that was the only way to do it, or maybe the right way to do it. Whereas if you’re picking it up on your own, you’re picking up what you want. So, it’s more of what’s natural to you and you feel like you own it more. As an artist it has to be recognizable as your own.”
You can contact Harold Johnson about his painting at (206) 878-2158 or e-mail him at email@example.com. Take a moment to peruse a sampling of his work in the photo slide show below.