Talking Print with Gavin Johnston

Talking Print with Gavin Johnston

April 23, 2018

Born in Falkirk in 1950, Gavin Johnston is essentially a landscape artist who was taught the basics of etching by a prominent German artist Sylvia von Hartmann RSW. Keen on pencil drawing from an early age he joined Edinburgh Printmakers in 1985. The Society of Scottish Artists selected one of his aquatint prints for their 99th Annual Exhibition and in 2014 that Society also hung one of his etching and aquatint prints in the RSA. 

"Castle at Dusk", Gavin Johnston, Etching and Aquatint Print, 2017


Edinburgh Printmakers have selected his work on many occasions for their exhibitions and in 2012 he took part in a mixed print show in The Scottish Arts Club.In April 2014 he had a solo exhibition titled “ Holyrood Park” at The Story Telling Centre on The Royal Mile and in February 2015 his solo exhibition “ Isle of Lewis” was hung in The Penicuik Community Arts gallery. 


"An early influence was a Scottish Arts Council exhibition of prints by Albrecht Durer. That show in the mid 1980's gave him the notion to take up etching. As Gavin spent much of his working life in the countryside it was not surprising that he was to set aside monochrome etchings for colourful images drawn from nature. Presently his practice is based on stone lithography with screen printing for detail . Having a strong interest in woodlands many of his images are drawn from that environment."

"Tortoise Shell Butterfly", Gavin Johnston, Stone Lithograph & Screenprint


You describe yourself as a landscape artist turned printmaker, when and what changed your artistic direction?

It was in the early 1980’s when I visited the Albrecht Durer exhibition in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh that I decided that I wished to take up etching. I am very passionate about printmaking having been practising since that time.

As a printmaker how much creative freedom do you actually have in your artwork?

My style varies depending upon the printmaking medium .Early townscape monochrome etchings were tightly controlled drawings, whilst my more recent and colourful large scale stone lithograph within Greyfriar’s  Kirkyard appears loose and impressionistic.

"Springtime at Greyfriars Kirkyard", Gavin Johnston, Stone Lithograph


Your work as a printmaker seems heavily influenced by the outdoors, is this a direct decision or is it more influenced by your passions?

It was following mixing lithograph inks that I decided to take up painting at an easel. I am however most enthusiastic about using soft pastels outdoors at the scene. Nature, landscapes, woodlands and rural life are what most interests me. Architecture also excites me for outdoor sketching. It might well also be the somewhat unusual that will hold fascination for an image.

Is there particular artists who have helped or inspired your artwork along your creative journey?

The colour wax and also water colour German artist Sylvia von Hartmann RSW taught me the basics of etching in 1985 and has since been most encouraging. There are many artists within the Edinburgh printmaking community which inspire me.

"Blackface Ewe & Lamb", Gavin Johnston, Stone Lithograph, 2017


Is there fellow artists alive today that you admire? If so, why?

In regard to painters, I have for many years had huge admiration for the work of Frances Walker RSA. It is her clinical depiction of coastal landscape topography and perspectives which appeal to me. Phil Braham and Derrick Guild RSA are also painters which I find inspirational. The former for the mystery in his realist paintings and the latter for his obsession for detail in his nature paintings. As to printmaking the screen prints of Jenny Martin hold most appeal for me in that technique. Her subject matter as well as the colours in her images strike a chord with me. In the technique of stone lithography I have the greatest admiration for the prints of the Polish artist Aleksandra Kargul. Her draughtsmanship skills at architectural drawing make it seem so simple but she can also vary her work to colour blends in subtle coastal images. Having only learned the technique a few years ago she now teaches classes at Edinburgh Printmakers.

"Portvoller Duck", Gavin Johnston, Stone Lithograph & Screenprint 


When it comes to the subject matter of your work, what draws you to those themes?

Outdoor recreation in woodlands and the countryside lead me to wish to depict a particular scene. I decide that I must return with art materials to a particular spot. The more I visit galleries to view both historical and contemporary artists work the more I have an eye for a composition.

Could you describe the process behind your art? How do you get from concept to execution?

In regard to printmaking much planning is involved. My current theme is wild flowers. I am making a series of prints whereby the background is created using the stone lithograph process with the detail using the screen printing technique. Initially I use a compact camera although sometimes I will also sketch the flower.  A case of getting to know the subject as closely as possible and also for the accurate matching of colours. The process is thereafter involved and complex.

"Foxglove", Gavin Johnston, Stone Lithograph and Screenprint, 2016


My aim is to make a composition of four or five flowers on the one print. First step is to make a series of stencils on acetate using black acrylic or permanent black marker. These stencils are then fixed to a screen using a photo-emulsion layer and a UV light box. One colour might be used for part of more than one flower. As it is all worked out in advance there is therefore a natural conclusion to when the artwork is complete. The print art work that I am presently working on is called “moorland flowers”. In the last week of April 2018 I look forward to screen printing two tones of purple for the wild orchid part of the design.  With paintings there just comes a point when the work seems complete.

How has your art evolved to be where it is today?

My artwork is evolving having participated in a number of course. In 2017 a monotype course with the birdlife artist Kittie Jones was amazing and very encouraging.

Which of your artworks are you most proud off?

I expect the work I am most proud of is the aquatint “upturned rotting hull” purely as I was fortunate to have it hung at The Society of Scottish Artists annual exhibition in 2014 in the Royal Scottish Academy. Only the second time I have been favoured in this way. I was thrilled to discover the large etching “Capital townscape” in a bistro and bar in Edinburgh’s New Town several years ago.

"Capital Townscape", Gavin Johnstone, Etching and Aquatint, 1992


If you could travel back in time, is there a particular artistic period / era that you would like to have been involved in?

Living and working as an artist in Paris during the last third of the 19th century must have been absolutely amazing. I never tire of viewing the Impressionists.

What challenges do you feel the 21st century artist has to overcome?

It is extremely difficult to be accepted and retained by galleries. Clearly they are commercial and unless they see your work shifting off their walls then they will lose interest. In the 21st century there are just so many hundreds of talented artists working in Edinburgh alone.

Unless an artist has that something special then it is probably just economically not practical to attempt to earn one’s living from practising art. Contemporary art seems to be largely overtaken by digital art and there is just such a great deal of creativity in its many varied forms on display everywhere. Traditional drawing skills often seem to be somewhat overlooked. The fact that it is largely out of fashion is a pity.

"Roadhouse Flowers", Gavin Johnston, Stone Lithograph & Screenprint


What direction do you see your artwork moving towards in the future? And do you have any upcoming plans for exhibiting your artwork to the public?

For over thirty years I have been a member of the Pentland Art Club. This year their annual exhibition will be held from 11th - 18th August 2018 at the hall on Lanark Road, Currie, Edinburgh. I shall be exhibiting five original prints and one ceramic sculpture. This autumn I also plan to exhibit art work at the Cancer Research Campaign's 50th Annual Exhibition which will be held in a hall in Newbattle Terrace, Morningside, Edinburgh. The final members exhibition of Edinburgh Printmakers at Union Street , Edinburgh will be " DELUGE" curated by David Faithfull. It will run from 27th October - 22nd December 2018. I intend to create two new stone lithographs for this show and I am particularly inspired by the theme for this last exhibition before Edinburgh Printmakers move to their new home at Fountain Quay, west of Tollcross, opening for the business of artistic printmaking on 1st April 2019. 

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