David Jonason captures the southwestern landscape with a bold new visual vocabulary
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the August 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art August 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art August 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
Sheer cliffs and jagged spires streaked in a rainbow of colors reflect in serene pools fringed by sparse stands of trees. The scene is unmistakably Canyon de Chelly, the sacred Navajo homeland in northeastern Arizona and a national monument considered one of America’s most scenic and spiritual places.
Yet, like any successful artwork, PAINTED CANYON, a recent oil by David Jonason, gently provokes the viewer to see its familiar subject anew. Rich colors in a carefully chosen palette irresistibly draw, and then continually satisfy, the eye. Meanwhile, the composition’s hard-edged forms—trees created with jagged zigzag contours reminiscent of Navajo blanket patterns, cliffs like fractured crystals, clouds so well defined they seem solid rather than vaporous—conjure an otherworldly quality that compels the eye to linger as a feeling of enchantment gradually builds.
“I try to convey the sublime atmosphere of a place, the sense of wonder it evokes in me,” explains Jonason. To that end, he continues, “I’ve tried to develop my own vocabulary for dealing with rocks and trees, clouds and skies.” In a style he sums up as “a fusion of cubism and realism,” he aims to “facet the elements of a painting with hard edges, to give them a volume, a feeling of real solidity.”
He derives his colors from a range he carefully plans and mixes before brush ever touches canvas. “I think about my colors like my painting is a movie, with some colors the main actors and others the supporting players. I try to make them all strong without being overwhelmingly saturated. The colors are definitely what draw people into a painting.”
Such works have been attracting legions of collectors since Jonason, who turns 63 this month, began painting full time just a decade ago. The past few years, “they’ve been selling as fast as I can paint them,” he says in a voice combining equal parts delight and disbelief. Such success comes well earned, after a lifetime of studies, careers, and experiences that have shaped his natural talent.
Jonason was born in northeastern Maine, into a family where aesthetic pursuits were commonplace. His father worked as a portrait photographer and “painted on the side.” His maternal grandfather was an accomplished “Sunday painter.” Even more influential, perhaps, was his grandmother. “She would do things like take a shoebox and cut stuff out of a magazine and make dioramas with snail shells from the yard. Or hollow out carrots for dinner, put peas in them, and serve them in a sea of mashed potatoes. She heightened my sense of visual awareness, that you could make things visually exciting from your surroundings. That was a big influence on me becoming an artist.”
When Jonason was 5 years old, his family moved to the beachside Los Angeles community of Pacific Palisades and then on to the nearby San Fernando Valley when he was a preteen. Throughout those years, while he excelled at any chance to draw or paint, he dreamed of becoming a fine-art photographer. “Photography was really hip in the 1970s, and through my father’s studio, I had unlimited access to cameras and photo paper and chemicals.” He went on to major in art, taking photography, drawing, and painting classes at the nearby state college campus. “But, as an artist,” he says, “I felt I already knew what I needed,” and he chose not to complete his degree.
Newly married, he moved cross-country to Concord, MA, to be near his wife’s family. “And I wanted to be back East, where I perceived that big things were happening in art.” He began to pursue photography. Soon, however, he discovered that “you couldn’t sell enough photos to make a living doing fine-art prints,” and he supported his young family “by doing the meat-and-potatoes photo stuff like retouching and custom printing.”
Rather than being disillusioned, however, Jonason showed resilience and resourcefulness. Textures and patterns had long interested him, so he decided to try textile design. In the mid-1970s, he and his wife and their young son headed to the island of Montserrat in the West Indies, where Jonason’s parents had retired to a lime plantation they’d purchased, and he spent the next several months putting together a portfolio.
Back in New England, he soon landed an agent and commissions—and then a full-time job designing wall coverings for a major manufacturer. But two years later, he grew bored and restless and decided to try his hand at illustration for advertising. Returning to his parents’ plantation, he worked up another portfolio, then wound up spending four years creating pieces for travel agencies, hotels, cruise lines, restaurants, and other clients in the tourism-rich area.
By then, computer-generated graphics were booming. Jonason picked up that skill set and got a job in Manhattan in the art department of ABC News. For the next 10 years, he came up with an ever-new stream of graphics to grab viewers’ attention for the wide range of stories that cycle through network telecasts every evening—wars, human dramas, political campaigns. “That’s where I started developing my own weird vocabulary of chunky-looking cubist shapes,” he says.
In his spare time, he began applying that style to the paintings he’d do for fun. He found it particularly appropriate for the images he loved to paint of Art Deco buildings. “I’ve always been drawn to things that are streamlined and stylized,” he says. He also began to pick up freelance illustration assignments, including many book jackets and magazine covers.
To take a break from the demands of his career and the intensity of New York life, Jonason and his family started to make regular visits to New Mexico. “I always had a love for the desert Southwest,” he says. “Philosophically, I connect with what it represents—nature unadorned. When I’m there, I always feel that it’s my home.”
In 1993, he decided to leave corporate life, move to Galisteo, NM, just outside of Santa Fe, and work full time as an illustrator. More and more, he also painted for his own pleasure, “because the commercial stuff was never satisfying.” Along the way, his first marriage came to an end, and in 1998 he met Michele, to whom he’s now been married for 11 years.
Then came September 11, 2001. “Suddenly,” he says, “nobody was doing promotions; everybody was just waiting to see what would happen.” His illustration work began drying up, “and so I started painting more and more, and got a few shows at galleries in Los Angeles and then in Santa Barbara.” Soon, a gallery owner mentioned that Jonason’s cubist style—which he had been applying mostly to “the heroic architecture of the 1920s and 1930s”—might translate well into landscapes, and the artist began his continuing exploration of the iconic landforms of the Southwest. By late 2003, he was a full-time fine artist, and he and Michele had moved to Mendocino, on the Northern California coast.
Jonason continues to make lengthy visits at least twice a year to the region that inspires him, bringing along a sketchbook and a digital camera. “I’ll do a little sketching and take lots of photos,” he says. “I want to soak up as much as I can. Sometimes while I’m photographing, I’ll register in my mind that the scene is a painting. I can just see the ones that will work.”
Other times, though, the images will serve as a visual grab bag for future paintings. Back home on the computer, in the studio he has set up in a spare bedroom, Jonason says, “I might take clouds from one photo, maybe even great clouds I saw over a parking lot at Wal-Mart, and put them over the Vermilion Cliffs in Arizona. Or I might squash a photo or stretch it out or add more to the top of the image. Basically, I’ll manipulate it until I get what I want to see.”
Then he’ll transfer the basic composition to his canvas, using a grid system to draw it up to scale by hand with a Prismacolor pencil in Tuscan red, a color that disappears easily in his earth-toned palette. “In the process of doing that sketch,” he continues, “is when I begin to stylize the composition. That’s really fun. I try to ignore a lot of the detail, looking instead at the broad contours of the shapes and improvising more than actually drawing what’s there.”
Finally, he’ll apply his chosen range of colors. “I think of the painting as very design-oriented. I plan out the colors and make sure they’re all harmonious, keeping them limited, and apply them with no texture. I don’t like the look of brush strokes. I want the finished painting to look almost like it’s printed, and I’ll even use Q-tips to blot out any edges of paint.” Following such a meticulous process, he’ll finish about one painting a week, while having three or four different ones going at a time.
Having contentedly settled now into a career that truly suits his sensibilities, Jonason has no plans to change that process. But he does foresee an evolution in his paintings. “I’d like to start working larger,” he says. “And I’d like to pare things down even more, make them bolder, more empty, more open, less busy. I’d like to use fewer and fewer shreds of reality while maintaining the sense that I’m still painting landscapes—a bit like a jazz musician playing a standard with just a few recognizable hints of the original melody.”
It’s all in service of a personal vision of the Southwest that he’d like to share. “I’m trying to convey that rarefied feeling of being in the desert,” he says. “You get out of your car and everything is silent and you maybe hear a little bit of wind. And you feel invigorated and serene at the same time.”
Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ; Marshall-LeKae Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Meyer East Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson Hole, WY, and Park City, UT; davidjonason.com.
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