Today’s creative guest is artist and illustrator Barbara Johansen Newman from www.johansennewman.com
Barbara has had a fascinating career from puppetry to illustration to licensing. And now she has gone back to her first love which is painting. What is interesting about Barbara’s art is that although her figurative paintings are interesting in themselves, she builds a world around them using found objects and by painting on unusual surfaces.
Barbara talks about
- How she started drawing in her crib (yes she was born to be an artist)
- How she initially went to a private art college, which turned out to be a bad match for her
- How she got involved in creating puppets and became a puppeteer
- How she transitioned from creating puppets to illustration and writing children’s books
- Why she has come back to her first love which is painting and where she gets her inspiration
- Her advice on doodling and keeping sketchbooks
- What inspired her to use found materials in her art
- Her tips for discovering your art style
Find out more about Barbara
Recent work and works in progress get shared on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/johansennewman/
Barbara’s website: www.johansennewman.com
Barbara’s Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/JohansenNewmanART
Barbara also kindly answered our initial podcast questions in text form which you can read by clicking below.To see Barbara's answers in writing click here
When did your love for drawing begin?
This will seem somewhat unbelievable, but I actually started drawing in my crib. My mother used to give me crayons and let me go to town on the wall. It was an older house so she didn’t mind at all. Some years later I happened to visit that house and, sure enough, my scribbles were still on the wall.
Did you take the traditional route and go to art college?
I started out going to a private college, having applied to and gotten into their art program. It was near NYC and I wanted access to the museums. It turned out to be a bad match. I just wanted to draw and paint and everything back then (talking early 70s here) was conceptual art, especially in that school. So I came home and took almost all art classes at a local community college for a year. That was wonderful. I drew, I painted, I did printmaking, and I made sculpture. And many of my teachers were actually professional artists, fairly well known in their fields. Some would drive up from New York (where their studios were) to teach. What I thought I would get in the private college I really got in the NY State community college, for next to nothing in tuition. After that year I made plans to transfer to another school. I got into Parsons in NYC and into the State University at Buffalo. I ended up in Buffalo.
You started your career in a puppet theatre. Can you tell us a bit about that and what made you change direction and go into illustration?
While was going to the community college I was teaching part-time at a school. There I met a fellow teacher who was a puppeteer. I ended up driving into New York with her several times a week to study at the Bil Baird Theater in the Village. When I transferred up to Buffalo I began performing with my husband in that area. We were often hired to perform at craft fairs and so I began to make puppets and dolls to sell at those fairs. Eventually, all I did was create the soft sculptures. When we moved to Boston, I just wanted to draw and paint again. Illustration was something I had intended to study at Parsons. So I spent some time creating work for a portfolio and then I pounded the pavement looking for work—literally. There was no internet back then. You had to take your “book” around to get work. I pursued both the children’s book market and the editorial market. Ultimately, my first illustration work was editorial.
How did you go about creating your characters?
When I was in that community college for a year, there was a wonderful professor who was the head of the art department. One day he gave me advice that I have followed to this day. “Barbara,” he said, “Draw from your head.” And I do. I almost always start out with blank paper and a pencil and just draw figures and faces that come out of the blue. Even when I am working on portraits of specific people, I first do pencil sketches from my imagination.
You also wrote three of your own children’s books. What made you decide to do that and how did you find the process?
I have always enjoyed writing to some extent (blogged for years), but I began focusing on children’s books because I wanted to create my own venues for illustrating. It was as simple as that. I will say this: of all my artistic endeavors, the kids’ book market was/is the most challenging and often the most artistically stifling. I‘m glad I did it (worked in the field for about 20 years) but I am very happy to have that world behind me.
You later moved on to design, licensing and finally painting, which you describe as your first love. What made you venture away from illustration and what is it about painting in particular that you love so much?
In the end, I find that I am my own best art editor. I love the freedom of creating what I want to create without worrying about specs and art direction. That is actually how the doll work was for me, as well. I made what my heart told me to make, then sold it. Licensing was a little bit of that; I did the patterns I wanted to do and then found the market to sell them to. Now that I am painting I am happier than ever. I love putting paint on a surface and I am never without an idea for a new piece. Ironically, though, I do check out the “Calls for Art” on various sites. Sometimes I will even paint something that might fit the bill for the show theme. And, of course, those applications have deadlines. So in some ways, I have put restrictions on myself again. Old habits die hard.
You work is mainly figurative. What draws you to painting people?
The figure has always fascinated me. Even as a doll maker, I loved creating the persona of a character and then presenting it. I’m enamored with the details that distinguish one person from another. I am also a storyteller at heart. Figures hint at a narrative yet to be told.
Do you use reference images as a starting point to your work or are they completely from imagination?
I always work from my imagination to start. If I need reference, I find it afterwards.
I read that you love to draw and paint listening to books, movies, or TV in the background. How do you feel that helps you?
I like to work from my heart and gut instead of from my head. Do you find that you do the best doodles while talking on the phone? I do. It’s the same concept. I try to create from a place that is instinctual, rather than something I think too much about. I do my best work that way. I’ll listen to
anything sometimes, but I now love Podcasts like yours and others. And I love great books. It just takes me away and the painting or drawing seems to emerge from some subconscious place inside of me. I’ll even listen to junky TV. For a while I listened to every ghost hunting television program known to man.
You use found materials and different surfaces in your work, please can you talk us through your process?
Right now I am starting first with my painting idea then deciding on the frame and embellishments afterwards. I prefer to paint on a hard surface, so almost always use either wood or a wood panel. If I work on a canvas tarp, I pin it against a hard surface. My husband helps me build the frame I design. For some of the earlier pieces, I created the frames first then the painting afterwards. But often, something would need to be added to the frame to complement the painting. Sometimes the frame and the painting are worked on at the same time, and one informs the other.
What inspired you to use found materials, can you remember the first piece you created that way?
An artist friend whose work we have collected and who created an installation on our kitchen first inspired me. He showed me ways to take the antique dough boards I was using and make them unique. He made me think outside the box when it came to found objects and materials. The first piece created this way was the larger painting with the sled runners on the side, which he created with me. After that, I did not want to return to unaltered canvas or surfaces.
Your style is very distinct, has your style changed and developed over time?
My painting work has become more like my early editorial illustration work in that it’s edgier and tighter. My paintings from around 2012, when I was still illustrating books, had more whimsy to them. That whimsy is leaving me. There is still an element of not taking myself too seriously (I love art that sometimes brings a smile to your face), but I would say my work is more determined now and less lighthearted.
What tips would you have for an artist that is trying to discover their style?
Get hold of several sketchbooks and plenty of pencils and draw, draw, draw. It’s like handwriting—your mark-making will be unique to you. The only way to discover a personal style and help to solidify it is to keep doing it. Even if you work abstractly, draw. Draw abstractly. But keep making marks. Your style will eventually be recognizable.
Do you have any tips for promoting and selling your work?
I could write volumes for this answer if you asked me about building an illustration career. Feel free to ask me that at some point.
Now I am painting and I feel like I am swimming in strange waters. But I am beginning to have increasing success in the 2-3 years I have only focused on painting, and I would say that it is because I paint many hours every single day and I look for opportunities to get my work seen. For me, those opportunities come by submitting to juried shows at galleries and venues around the country. I have not seriously sought out gallery representation yet, but I have begun to sell my work privately, through word of mouth. I also think that Instagram is the best thing since sliced bread. It’s a great way to share your work with the public and even get some feedback. I have not yet translated Instagram exposure into sales, but it has given me some opportunities for showing my work. And some galleries and venues for showing my work have contacted me.
How important do you think regular sketching is for an artist? Are you a sketcher yourself?
It’s everything. It’s how you take the seeds of even the smallest idea and help them develop. It’s how you realize your own style. It’s immediate and satisfying. And it helps you to gain confidence when generating new work concepts. I love sketching as much as I love painting. I recently set up a new studio space strictly for working on paper.
What are your plans for the future?
I want nothing more than to continue to make art and get it seen by a growing number of people. Increased sales might be nice, but it is not what drives me. In fact, sometimes I hate parting with my work. I sold a favorite piece recently and it was very difficult to let it go, but the collectors were the best kind of collectors, so I know it has a great home.
Where can people find out more about you and your books?
(My most recent work and works in progress get shared on Instagram) On my web site:
On my Instagram account:
On my Facebook page:
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