Humble in the discussion of his work, a creative spirit and a vivid memory unlike any other,
JohnDonaldson's unmistakable style has captured the hearts of many collectors over his long and fruitful career, exhibiting in London Mayfair, France and Devon. He is a genuine, natural talent, dedicated to his creative endeavours and with a quick witted dry sense of humour.
To celebrate John and his 15 years with us at Mayne Gallery we are proud to announce his next solo exhibition "Reflections" launching on April 1st 2023.
Here we dive into conversation on the inspiration, his intention and journey through life as an artist, although John would have me call him a painter as he doesn’t see himself as an artist…What is the intention behind your artwork?
“To reveal something the viewer may have not noticed - I’ve never been a great one for beautiful major landscapes and vistas, it's the things you walk past that suddenly grab you as beautiful, unnoticed things in nature and architecture. I want to encourage people to look more closely at what they’re seeing, which is what David Hockney does , who played a significant part in my learning painting and in a similar way to how my Grandfather taught me to look.”What did you learn from your Grandfather as an artist?
His impressionist mindset drew him towards painting only what one sees, not what you “know”, he told me to switch off my intellect, just look at what you see and put that down. That made such an impression on me. Being present is what I learned most from that little episode in terms of music and other creative things. He was a man of few words but the few things he did say made me look at things differently”Can you tell us about your journey to the arts? What made you decide to become a painter?
Painting was in me from the start, I don’t remember ever being encouraged or wanting to do it. The coronation of Elizabeth II was my first moment of consciously wanting to create a piece of art. My parents gave me a roll of wallpaper and on the inside of the paper I produced a painting of the whole coronation procession down the mall, coach and everything with a little tiny portrait of the Queen smiling out of the window, all the horses, the whole paraphernalia. After that I was given a book on John Constable by an aunt, there’s something about Constable’s painting that got me as a child. Then, I started looking at trees mainly in watercolour and then I graduated to painting pubs. There were fifteen or seventeen pubs in Lewes. A great place to grow up in your teens with it being only 8 miles from Brighton. One or two of the pubs still have my watercolour hanging in the bar. Then music got me really. It’s been a lifelong battle for my attention. I’ve never quite been able to reconcile myself with having two competing interests that are so equal. Admittedly, music can go straight to the heart in a way that painting can’t, painting needs to be filtered through the brain, I think, to get the same response. Emotionally music is heart felt, as if it already exists, we just need to switch it on in ourselves whereas there's a lot more brain work (is) required when relating to painting.
Tell us more about your love affair with music?
I absolutely love Chopin’s piano music, mainly what he would have considered his minor studies, there’s generally a very simple, almost naïve little tune going on - that's the thing that makes tears come to your eyes, not the virtuoso middle section which is about going bananas on the piano keyboard - like so much in life I find.
There’s a sort of way of thinking of the heart as a kind of brain, there’s that old hymn “ God be in my head and in my understanding” when it comes to the heart it saying “God in my heart and in my thinking” I don’t think that’s accidental, there’s something going on between the brain and the heart. We’re accustomed to the idea of the heart being an emotional organ in romance and it has its own resonance, like a second brain.
The piano arrived when I was about 8, I had three lessons with an old lady round the corner and started to teach myself which was a big mistake and got accepted to a grammar school in Lewes, a state school with attitude. They had a chapel built in the grounds designed by Giles Gilbert Scott who designed Liverpool Cathedral. When they had an organ donated by an Oxford College I elected to play the organ as a means of getting out of having to play football and then I became really interested in keyboards playing. Not because of the power of an organ but much like painting, it's the quiet sounds an organ can make, the variety of sound, semi-orchestral sounds and super soft organic sounds. So there’s always a link between the music and the paintings. It’s my ambition to paint a series of abstract paintings based on pieces of music that I’ve loved and I’ll make a start on this after this solo exhibition. I used to do that when I was a teenager; do action paintings to Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra or something like that. A bit more self indulgent really.”
We’ve spoken about your intent, what about the inspiration for your paintings?
That’s the bit I don’t understand - what makes me want to paint something? It takes me back to Constable really, I think he was the first impressionist, he was really one of the first people to look at nature in England and represent nature as it is, with green trees, the bark of trees being usually grey or black virtually never brown and the leaves the proper colour. In the distance he would add vermillion red in the leaves to bring out the green, he was quite an active thinker about how his paintings worked and I just fell in love with that.
I think it’s colour more than anything, I think I’m a colourist first, but there just has to be some kind of emotional hook in what I see that stops me. And it can just be a rocky path, part of an old building, the edge of a woodland or something.
And what does the emotional hook feel like?
It's a sense that if I let the moment pass without capturing it in paint there will be regret - of course with photography I can capture a moment - so long as I look long enough before or after I take the photograph, but when I used to paint outdoors a lot I learned my lesson in France and Italy in the late 80s, early 90s where I had gone abroad to paint. I would get caught by a view to paint and wonder if there was something better round the corner, I’d drive off and probably drive for 100 miles around Le Languedoc, Liguria or somewhere like that and then the next day I’d have to go again because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to paint that thing. I can’t tell you how but I just have to acknowledge it and do it if possible. I still feel a sense of regret for some paintings that I could have had, you don’t own it by painting it but I felt a sense of loss if I missed something. I still remember some of them vividly.
In what way is painting reflective of music for you?
When organ playing you often have to improvise - one of the great joys of going to Paris was to go to the church Olivier Messiaen played in - an incredible environmentalist - who used to record bird song in the woods and write scales according to bird songs and play them on the organ but improvisation as a solitary person is easy. In the late 60s early 70s I was heavily involved in Jazz, my wife used to sing Jazz songs in some of them, my brother in law was a fantastic drummer and a lovely guy from Ireland Frank Dempsey multi sax player and flute player. Unlike playing the organ, being part of a group when you’re improvising - where each person is improvising as well, there’s hardly any structure, you’ve just got to be well mannered within it: there’s form but there are no rules. It’s more important to know what you don’t do than what you do do - "to be cool” as they used to put it - that’s kind of had an influence on my life in terms of painting as well.
Improvising in a group there’s a responsibility to one another that goes along start to finish, sometimes it's good, sometimes it isn’t, that's a bit like painting a picture - except it's a more solitary thing.
The start of the picture seems fast, untiring and undemanding, and the end of a picture just seems like infinitesimally tapering off, it seems to occupy more time and effort to finish the final 10% of a painting that the first 50% but a painting is a kind of improvisation in the same way, you’re making something up from fragments of things, colours, marks and using various implements. That’s why I’m totally disinterested with a painting when I’ve finished it. I can’t wait to see the back of them, like children that wouldn’t leave home. Then when I see them again in the exhibition when they’re all hung and I think “oh they’re ok, those children have all grown up to be nice people."
As an artist what does a typical day look like for you?
When I first started - when I came to Devon in 75 after a reckless move to Devon to become a full time painter, I painted a picture every other day for a gallery opposite where your gallery stands today and he shipped them to the states which gave me the push to get started.
When I painted for a Mayne Gallery exhibition in 87 I would paint from 10am - 6pm non stop. Whereas during my time exhibiting in the West End from 1988 I would work much longer hours, on the days I painted I’d start at mid morning, then I’d go up and paint under daylight tubes and paint until John Peel came on on radio 1 - painting to punk music - so my hours were very long and I was painting around 100 large pictures a year and that went on for 25 years. Virtually all pictures of France, Northern Italy and Spain.
From 2008 when I came out of London and started with Mayne Gallery, I’ve started to want to paint at night, I’ve never been very good at relaxing and sitting on a sofa and watching TV, reading a book, I can’t do it. So today I do everything I need to do to keep myself going during the day and then I start work after supper and I work through to midnight/1am 7 days a week.
Because I was a musician, gigging, it meant that I wouldn’t get home until 2am and. I love going to bed late and I love getting up early. There’s an awful tension there, after living a very urban life in Sussex, around Brighton and South London, coming to live in Devon in 75 was a total shock. That was what opened me up to getting up early in the morning. All year round the mornings are just so beautiful. In September the whole day feels like morning, that’s what I love about Autumn.
What moment in your career are you most proud of?
Having had 20-30 one man shows in various places, my exhibition in Aix-en-Provence was my proudest moment. It was so difficult to achieve logistically; painting pictures in Provence and the Languedoc over a period, getting them back to Britain, getting them framed, then taking them all back down to France, it was a big hassle and I managed to time it when we crashed out of the E.R.M. and you couldn’t even draw money from banks if you were British. It was September 1992 in the Galérie Les Amis des Arts in Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful city, with the best markets ever - sensational flower markets. The comments in the visitors book were so moving. It was great fun, especially in the evenings. That was a proud moment in a way that the London exhibitions were but even more so, I guess it’s the intrepid nature of doing something like that. I’ve still got a whole pack of posters from the exhibition.
What other artists and creative that inspire you?
Gabriel Deschamps who painted in Grasse just north of Antibes and I’d never heard of him, but I walked into the gallery in Mayfair where his work was flying out of the door. I looked at the paintings and I hadn’t been to France, I’d been to Italy but not France. There was something about the light in the painting, the whole vibe of it was just incredible. He kind of made me go to France with that one painting. So he was a mechanical influence in a sense, but really I just wanted to be where he was. That’s what gave rise to that period of 25-30 years where I did so much in France and Northern Italy. Constable as I mentioned, as a child turned me onto painting. Especially his flashy little sketches on cardboard - which I could relate to being an impoverished art student. Picasso in his early years, relating to what I do, his paintings of rooftops in Barcelona, paintings of his parents and so on, such a fine painter. The impressionists really got me generally. Dufy, Cezanne of course probably had the most effect on me. Degas, he was a fantastic painter, my grandfather painted a bit like Degas, he did interiors, figures, dancers and things.
But the one artist if I had to choose, a very uncelebrated artist even now, with a more enlightened view on life in general is Berthe Morisot. The female impressionists would always paint more domestic paintings than the men, but she outpainted all of the men. It’s her technique I envy. The lightness of touch, the brashness of her brushstrokes are just astonishing. So she would be the one.
How would you describe your pieces?
It’s difficult to stand outside myself to see that. They’re kind of impressionist without the scale of the work which gives looseness to the work, as I’ve scaled down the paintings in size they’ve become more intense. What I’d love to capture in my paintings is the sound of a distant bell ringing, birdsong, if I can hint at it with other elements that’s the best I can do. I don’t think I fall into any particular genre. Certainly with the abstract work it is very autobiographical and unique to me in a way that perhaps my ordinary figurative work isn’t.
Do you have a favourite piece out of all your paintings?
My next one is my honest answer. The dream of what you could create, very seldom gets in sync with the result. Anyway it would be like answering the question which is your favourite child in a way. Perhaps that’s taking it a bit far but no I’ve just got such hopes for the next one, every time.
We can't wait to see it John.