Q&A: Layne Johnson

Layne Johnson, has returned to his fine art roots in a series of staggeringly breathtaking cloudscapes. ‘[I]f you haven’t experienced the Texas Hill Country,’ he says, ‘I hope you can someday.’ If you, like us, are stuck under the grey autumnal skies, then head over to Johnson’s impressive Instagram. You’ll find contemporary American Impressionism at its very best. Intimate morning suns gleaming through the woods. Glorious pink and orange sunsets over distant mountain ranges. There are few artists today who can capture a landscape as does Layne Johnson.

BS: So, where did it all begin?

LJ: Art wasn’t really a big focus in my house. Although, I watched my mom doing paint-by-number paintings. They intrigued me! I’d use my allowance to buy art supplies and I’d paint up a storm! I even painted WWII’s Battle of Midway on my bedroom wall. I still associate the smell of linseed oil with those early days. I guess I’ve painted ever since…

BS: Not only, you’ve had three careers in art?

LJ: Yes. I got my Bachelors in Fine Art at College. Since then, I’ve worked as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator before moving into illustration full-time. But, after fifteen years, I was ready for something more meaningful. I’d always loved books and history, so it seemed natural to move into publishing and creating art for children’s books. Through my paintings, I was able to bring some wonderful stories to life. It was challenging. But rewarding. I started painting in oils again. I’d forgotten how much I loved them. 

BS: And that led you back into painting

LJ: Yeah. I felt a strong pull to get back to my fine art roots. Like many artists, my style had evolved along with my perspective and sensibilities. But the painters of the Hudson River School continued to influence me. Like America’s first great landscape painters, I believe there is incredible beauty in raw, imperfect nature. These days, I find my inspiration in the landscape. The way the light plays on the trees and rocky terrain. The big, powerful, stormy skies. The romantic sunrises and sunsets. The lazy rivers, creeks, and streams. I’m still exploring it though. I don’t know what exactly inspires me, but it’s always something about the light. I have to paint it!

BS: Your ‘Texas Hill Country’ series captured some pretty impressive light effects in gigantic landscapes. How do you capture that light and sense of place?

Layne with  Enchanted Vista

Layne with Enchanted Vista

LJ: First, if you haven’t experienced the Texas Hill Country, I hope you can someday. It’s a beautiful, unique part of Texas. I love nature and I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors. As a landscape artist, it’s important for me to experience the outdoors and take it all in so I can paint the feel of a place. I take lots of photos to record locations I want to paint. Although photographs don’t always tell you the truth. In fact, sometimes they mislead or outright lie to you. That’s why my personal experience of the location, the moment, the light, is so important. It’s really all about “the experience”.

BS: And does that resonate with some of your viewers?

LJ: Yes! I recently received an email from someone who said: “I grew up in Katy, Texas, but also spent a lot of time around San Antonio, Fredericksburg & all the surrounding hill country. I moved away 20 years ago, but will always consider myself a Texan. The reason I am writing is just to say, "thanks" for sharing your incredible paintings on Instagram! I wonder if the folks that have never had the pleasure of visiting the Texas hill country, realize just how accurately you've captured its beauty? I've seen my fair share of large format, sweeping photographs of Enchanted Rock & similar Texas landscapes, but they're never quite able to capture the breathtaking depth of color & light that you witness in person. Your paintings are the truest rendering of home I've ever seen.” 

For me, that’s what it’s all about.

BS: How do you feel your art has evolved as a result of your Texas Hill Country series?

LJ: Spending the last year and a half painting that series allowed me to really explore the subject, which I hadn’t been able to do in the past. I spent a lot of time driving the backroads, searching for those special places and perfect moments that I wanted to paint, that really captured the essence of the Hill Country.

I’ve also been able to spend a lot more time painting one of my favourite subjects: clouds and big Texas skies. I’ve been painting clouds since I was a kid and made great use of clouds in my books. But the THC series has allowed me to really explore using clouds as the primary focal point rather than just as a stage backdrop. So I’ve spent more time on them to bring them to life. But clouds are complicated! I learn more with each painting. And I love the challenge, the problem-solving that clouds require.

BS: What are you trying to achieve by doing so?

I want whoever is viewing my paintings to feel like they’re “there”. Like they could step into the painting and be a part of the moment. To connect emotionally with the scene. To feel a sense of peace, or joy, or anticipation. That’s the common thread throughout all my art.

It may sound odd, but I approach every painting as a problem to solve. But I’ve come to realize recently, when I’m painting clouds, that’s when I’m happiest. I also hope that comes through.

BS: You also seem to enjoy setting yourself ambitious challenges. You recently completed 30 paintings in 30 days, which sounds rather difficult. How did people respond to it?

LJ: The response to my 30-in-30 was phenomenal! People really got into checking out what was new each day and watching the videos of each new piece while I was painting it. I’ve never done a challenge like that before, even though artists around the world have been doing these for years. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I literally took it one day at a time. In the end, it was a fantastic experience and I learned so many great things through the challenge.

BS: What exactly?

LJ: Painting a new, finished painting every day requires serious discipline. The 30-in-30 forced me back to a more disciplined schedule – and that's a good thing. Also, “someday” only happens when you decide it’s “today”. I finally painted many of those ideas I’d been wanting to paint.

It’s good to try new things. I painted a lot of different types of paintings. I also experimented with different approaches, including wet-on-wet underpainting (and a few of the videos went viral!). For me, it still comes down to paying attention to the basics: light, form and connection to place (someplace I’ve been or want to be).

BS: And how did you feel by the end of it?

LJ: Reaching the finish line is empowering. This truly was the artist’s equivalent of running a marathon race. I honestly wasn’t sure I could do it until I did it. Outside your comfort zone is where magic often happens. While it was exhausting at times, it was also a wonderfully exhilarating and rewarding experience. 

BS: You also just got back from a week-long retreat painting outdoors, which sounds very exciting. What were you hoping to achieve?

LJ: To be honest, I didn’t have any specific goals. I’d just finished the 30-in-30, where my focus was all on what I was doing right then, so I hadn’t had time to really think about the plein air retreat much. Since I normally paint inside in my studio and I haven’t painted outdoors since college, it was a bit of an adjustment. The weather in the beginning was a real challenge, as was the drastically changing light. And since we were on the coast, the tide caused the physical landscape to change dramatically while I was painting. Which meant I had to paint really, really fast. And I had to be flexible. It really helps with the eye-hand connection and making sure you’re really, truly studying what you’re painting.

BS: As opposed to the mechanical eye of the camera?

LJ: Yes. While photography is a fantastic reference tool, what our eyes see and what the camera sees truly are different. Have you ever taken photos of a place, only to find later they lack the richness that you remember? I experienced this years ago after a trip to the Grand Canyon. When we got home, the photos just didn’t capture the color, depth and grandeur of what we saw.

I believe while a photograph records one split second, the reality is much more than that. For me, a painting is an experience of a certain place or thing. Its “essence”. The best of many moments combined into one. The best light, an intriguing focal point, the perfect sky… I’m trying to capture the experience of a place, not just replicate it on canvas – because I want whoever is looking at my paintings to feel what it’s like to be there, too.

BS: How do you think your open-air work will translate on Instagram?

LJ: I’m happy to say I’ve had a fantastic response. I’ve been sharing work-in-progress for some time, so my followers have come to expect that. And people really seem to enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at what goes into a painting. I try to show what a working artist’s daily life is really all about. And I have to say, the community on IG is so incredible. Art is a universal language that connects people in a wonderful way, all around the world.

BS: You started your Layne Johnson Studio account on Instagram last year. How do you find yourself influenced by it as an artistic outlet?

LJ: The world has really changed for artists in the last few years. Until Instagram, few people saw my work unless it was in an ad, or until one of my books hit the bookshelves. For me, painting had always been quite solitary. Almost no one outside my family saw my work until it was finished.

I used to think people wouldn’t understand what they were looking at (the developmental “ugly” phase), but IG has changed that. Today, thousands of people see my work everyday and follow along as I’m painting. Everyone is so generous and the feedback is inspiring. I also can see really quickly which of my paintings and subjects people respond to the most. That’s wonderful input for me and keeps me motivated.

Many new collectors have also found my work through Instagram. And I’ve found so many artists who inspire me, too. That pushes me to do more or try something new. We’re living in the middle of a significant art evolution. Art and artists are so much more accessible today because of platforms like Instagram. And so many young people are exposed to so much more art than ever before. Who knows what the effect will be long term, but I know it’s been a real positive for me.


For more infomation on Layne's work see his website

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Bianca Schor