John Austin Hanna’s paintings capture quiet, timeless scenes
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the December 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art December 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story
During spring break of his senior year at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where he was about to graduate with a degree in advertising art and design, John Austin Hanna packed up his extensive portfolio and headed to Fort Worth. He showed his work to the head of the art department at an aircraft company there. It was 1964, an era when mechanical illustration was done by hand. “The guy looked at my portfolio and said, ‘You don’t want to be doing this.’ I had so much drawing that was not mechanical, he thought I’d be happier in Dallas at an illustration studio,” Hanna says. So he drove to Dallas and met with Bill Neale at TracyLocke advertising, famous for such national branding as Borden’s Elsie the Cow. Neale looked at Hanna’s work and said, “You need to go to New York.”
So Hanna drove to New York City with $150 in his pocket and the names of three design firm owners. One firm was closed. One owner had died. The third firm was about to close. Discouraged and with no other leads, he made his way to the Society of Illustrators’ dining room and bar. “An old black fellow was the bartender there,” he remembers. “He looked at me and said, ‘I guess you’re looking for a job. Come with me.’ So I followed him over to where a couple of guys were having lunch.” It turned out the two were with Ted Bates Inc., at the time the second-largest independent advertising agency in the world. Hanna was hired almost on the spot.
The 73-year-old painter recounts the story as he sits in his studio at the home he shares with his wife, Sherry, on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, TX. Large, high northeast windows look out into the leafy branches of a pecan grove. On one of his easels, a spectrum of colors in a sheep’s fur reveals the artist’s recent explorations into a more expressive approach to representational art.
Like many acclaimed western painters, Hanna’s long, successful career in what he refers to as easel painting was preceded by a period in illustration and design, in his case in New York and Dallas. His illustration credits include work for Car and Driver—reflecting his lifelong love of classic cars—Automobile Quarterly, Town & Country, Popular Science, and other national magazines, and such companies as Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Bell Helicopter, Borden, and Lockheed Martin. He also produced book illustrations—for James Bond author Ian Fleming, among others—and work for Warner Bros.
Yet in most ways, the distinction often made between commercial art and fine art is not one that Hanna shares. “I have trouble with thinking there’s a difference between fine art and good illustration,” he says. “If you’re doing it to sell, it is commercial. And some ‘fine’ art is good, and some is not good.”
Still, there are aspects of advertising art and illustration that diverge from what an artist does in his or her own studio, and the benefits extend both ways. For one thing, from his time in New York and Dallas, Hanna attained a high degree of self-discipline. “You have to produce. You get a job, and they want to see roughs in two days, and two days after that you have to have finished work,” he says. On the other hand, the paintings Hanna has created in his studio since settling in Fredericksburg 37 years ago emerge from no one’s ideas or aesthetics but his own. They are produced with the freedom that provides a window into his personal interests and deeply held values—and they open a door for viewers to experience those qualities in their own way.
As he drives around on back roads with a camera in his car—often in the Hill Country near Fredericksburg or in rural Missouri, where his daughter lives—Hanna is especially drawn to places where his love of visual beauty intersects with his attraction to land and structures shaped by the human hand: old rock walls, working farmyards, aging barns. “I just have my eyes open. I don’t go looking for something in particular, I just recognize it when I see it,” he says of his ramblings. “Southern Missouri is really pretty. I remember driving past a farm that raised draft horses, or I’d pass a little old shack where a guy does knife sharpening. What I enjoy are scenes with humanity in them. That’s one reason I love the area around Fredericksburg, with the old farms, although they’re disappearing fast.” Other places call to him for their glimpse into Texas history, including old sections of Houston or the Galveston waterfront, where pre-Civil War buildings from the cotton-shipping era still stand.
A significant focus of Hanna’s art involves animals, both domesticated and wild. THE CROSSING evokes a quintessential Hill Country sight as cows languidly cross a shallow river running through limestone cliffs. “I like to stop and watch them for a while,” he says of the cattle. The painting also offered an opportunity to hone his skills at rendering trees, a ubiquitous subject yet deceptively challenging in its balance of simplicity and detail.
On another drive the artist stopped again near a white limestone cliff. This time a Great Pyrenees and four goats caught his eye as they rested in the shade. “I had to laugh,” he says. “The dog had that look like, ‘I thought I was a sheep dog, and here I am guarding goats!’ That’s the sort of scene you can’t plan on; I just saw it.” The resulting painting, PYRENEES AND COMPANY, playfully captures the large dog’s “sheepish” expression and the quietly domestic feeling of the scene.
While Hanna works primarily in oils these days, with an occasional watercolor done mostly for himself, as an illustrator he became proficient in a number of other mediums, including gouache, acrylics, and liquid dyes. When he first settled in Fredericksburg and shifted into easel painting, he continued using acrylics for a while. But slow-drying oils provide much more flexibility for the kind of work he likes to do. “Oil paint is one of the most forgiving mediums—there’s time to look at it, time to wipe paint off and change it,” he says. Oils also brought him full-circle in his artistic life. As a boy, his earliest experiments in painting were with oils his mother bought him, applied to pre-stretched canvas on board.
That was in Beaumont, the East Texas town near the Louisiana border and the Gulf of Mexico where Hanna grew up. His father owned and ran a single-truck trucking business, with sidelines as a preacher and professional wrestler. But it was the artist’s mother who first set him on what became his life’s path. “When I was 5 years old she tricked me into going into the hospital to have my appendix taken out, and she gave me paper and pencils to draw with while I was in there,” he recalls. “She saw something there, in what I could do with them.” Throughout elementary school his mother supplied him with art materials and entered his artwork in local shows. And while other interests like baseball and model airplanes took up much of his time, he always returned to drawing, even spending his allowance money on Walter T. Foster drawing and painting books.
One summer during high school Hanna got a job in the art department of a television station in Lubbock, where he and his mother lived after his parents divorced. The next summer his boss, Fred Beasley, opened his own design studio and brought Hanna on board. Beasley served as a mentor as the young artist learned hand lettering, created patent drawings, and became skilled in other aspects of illustration and advertising art. It was with this experience and four years of college under his belt that he traveled to Fort Worth to find work.
Today Hanna’s fascination with history, his appreciation for the visual touch of humanity, and the beauty of his home state are reflected in landscapes, pastoral scenes, still lifes, and paintings of animals and people. He continually adds to and draws upon the extensive reference file of photos he has taken and collected over the years. And he talks about the dream road trip he and Sherry hope to take soon: “We’ll tell our son to come feed the cats, and we’ll get in the car and take off, with no planned destination—just go,” he says, adding that they will likely point the car toward the rural Northeast this time.
In his studio, that same spirit of exploration continues to keep his approach fresh. His brush strokes have become a little looser in recent years, and at times he trades brushes for palette knives. He finds himself moving paint around more freely and following his inclination toward a simpler, more expressive style. “I guess it’s just the fun of painting, more than anything, that I enjoy,” he says. “I want to do it more and more—I’ve never lost that love.”
Featured in the December 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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