For everyone in the room that night in Fredericksburg, TX at the 22nd Oil Painters of America National Exhibition, it was a touching moment when Johanna Harmon, overcome with emotion, received the Gold Medal for her painting “Jonathan”. Not only did she receive $25000, but she became the first artist in OPA’s long history to win the award for the second time. It’s quite remarkable.
“The award came as a complete shock. It was an overwhelming honor and an incredibly humbling experience to have received this recognition from juror, Sherrie McGraw and Oil Painters of America. While I’ve never personally studied with McGraw, I’ve always respected and admired her outstanding talent. Words honestly cannot describe just how incredibly powerful this experience was. All I can say is that it inspires me to continue the pursuit of all that is beautiful.”
In her pursuit of beauty, Harmon finds figurative subjects most appealing. She feels that working with a model she is not only able to expressively render one’s outer appearance, but also the inner life as well.
In the current issue of Southwest Art (Nov 2013), ”A Compassionate Vision”, writer Gussie Fauntleroy says of Harmon, “Those who pose for her are often friends, or become friends. It’s one reason her art radiates a deep human warmth…and why she has gained the attention and respect of collectors and her peers.”
Harmon’s paintings radiate feelings of peaceful contemplation, introspection, and sincerity. The beautifully muted palette provides the essential color harmonies needed to clearly communicate those feelings. Her compositions are deceptively simple, but upon closer examination, one discovers a well planned diversity of shapes, values, and color, resulting in a wonderful overall unity.
How much of your work is intellectual vs. emotional…and how would you define the difference? My work definitely combines both qualities to varying degrees depending on the piece. Initially, my emotional response fuels the desire to explore the subject on a deeper level, I’ll then quickly transition towards my intellectual response by establishing my visual intention for structure and build upon that structure towards what I hope to be a beautiful completion. Ultimately, I’m emotionally connected to my subject and I’m intellectually focused on painting.
Do you let the subject determine the concept of the work or do you first define the concept and find a model suitable for the task? To me, a concept can mean different things. As a visual idea, they are directly inspired by the models and their interests. Once I become more familiar with my models, more meaningful ideas organically unfold. As a visual intention, they are generally separate from my subject and can simply be inspired by the desire to describe a variety of concepts including the passage of light, painting local tone or focusing on the dark-light pattern.
Do you typically select models and work with them? Most frequently, I’ll approach anyone that inspires me to paint them, including family, friends, neighbors and even complete strangers. How I work with them depends on their nature. Some are able to sit for extended periods of time, others that aren’t familiar with the standard process require a brief photo shoot and studies.
What is the primary quality you look for in selecting a model? A strong sense of individuality and beauty that exudes from within.
Your paintings have a distinct style and coloration. Was that a conscious effort or did that evolve naturally? Early in my studies, I was advised that one’s style would naturally manifest, that my focus should be on learning. So, I made no effort to develop a style, trusting the guidance of my instructors and ultimately enjoying the limitless possibilities that mindset offered me as I worked. Distinct coloration would most likely be a result of working with a limited palette.
How do you decide on a dominating color key for a painting, and how do you maintain it? Snippets of various color harmonies are something I post to my studio inspiration boards. Arranging them based on whether they are triad, analogous or complimentary combinations. When exploring a specific visual idea, I’ll experiment with a few color arrangements and choose the most appealing option based on the model’s natural coloring, light source and chosen surroundings. I’m able to maintain my arrangement by mixing respective pools of color on my palette during the initial block-in.
What colors are most often found on your palette? You will frequently find Titanium White, Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre, Napthol Scarlet, Transparent Oxide Red, Phthalo Emerald, and Ivory Black on my palette.
Are you more concerned with value or color? Value first, then color. Once I establish the value structure, the color must remain within the structure. Otherwise, I may lose sight of my original intention and risk the potential of completing a successful painting altogether.
Describe your typical block-in technique. Once I establish my visual intention, I begin with a toned canvas and thinly block-in the various dark abstract shapes to organize a basic simplified structure and define the overall mass, doing so will immediately reveal the light shapes. Followed by “notes” of the lightest light and darkest dark (to accurately compare values), predominate colors (for color harmony), and the sharpest edge. Slowly working from shadow/dark/background shapes, to the light/foreground shapes, to the finish.
What’s the most difficult part of painting for you? When fully engaged in painting, it’s magical. Yes, the magic includes the struggle of learning. But, what I find most difficult is managing all the elements of being an artist in today’s world outside of actually painting. Often, I wish I were two people, one who manages the details of business, and the other free to be completely immersed in creating art.
How do you know when a painting is finished? I experience an overwhelming sense of joy when I’ve achieved my intention and realize that by adding one more brushstroke would only weaken and clutter the painting.
What part does photography play in your work? I painted exclusively from life during the years I studied painting and It wasn’t until I was ready to paint more complicated pieces that I turned to photography to consider new perspectives and compositions I might otherwise be forced to overlook, as well as, the ability to paint those that may not be able to sit for prolonged periods of time. The key is to paint from life, so you are aware of what is missing in photography and to not rely on it exclusively.
How does your work reflect your personality? Never really thought about this before. I’d like to think it conveys honesty, strength, sensitivity, intelligence and clarity.
Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why? It would be impossible to determine one individual as the single most influential person on my career. Throughout the years, I’ve collected insights from every soul that blessed me with their knowledge and expanded my creative world. Of course, some influenced me more than others, but it definitely is a cumulative manifestation.
Where does creativity come from and how is it nurtured? That’s an interesting question, perhaps creativity is a combination of imagination, passion, intelligence, technical understanding, problem solving, and focus. Nurturing would require a heightened awareness and desire to expand on all the creative qualities you currently possess.
How would you define “success” as an artist? When you experience a complete sense of fulfillment through your paintings.
What advice would you have for a young artist/painter? Enjoy the journey and be completely receptive to learning, define your goals, study with those you respect and admire, and study directly from Master works to expand your level of sensitivity. Think in miles of canvas covered, not inches.
What’s your opinion of art competitions and how do you go about selecting paintings for these shows? Competitions offer a platform to share in the universal desire to attain a greater understanding in art with your peers. They also challenge you to recognize when you’ve created a piece that exceeds all preceding works. Those are the works I personally select to be juried.
There are some tremendous female painters out there today. Was your gender ever a hindrance to the advancement of your art career? Not that I’m aware of. Any obstacles I experienced were completely self created and ultimately provided the opportunity for personal growth. Perhaps my perspective is influenced by growing up with brothers who considered me their equal…I was just one of the guys. While I recognize the disproportionate number of male artists to women artists represented and recognized in prominent galleries, collections, institutions and museums, I prefer to focus my energy on creating beautiful works. Any shortcuts toward advancement based on gender (or any other means) only hinders ones artistic development anyway. I wouldn’t want that for myself. If by simply being a woman inherently hinders the advancement of my art career, then I’m up for the challenge!
If you weren’t an artist, what would you like to be? A Chef or a Humanitarian.