artist interview - johnny bull

We love the quaint buildings lining the streets of France, with their delicate detailing and pretty-as-pie paint jobs. Johnny Bull was kind of inspired by them too, so he created a series of paintings called, well, 14 French Shops. Ooh la la! We had a chat with him about his practice, motivations and oh-so sweet designs.

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What is your name and how old are you?
My name is Johnny Bull and I'm 63 years old. 64 in November. Jesus.

Where were you born and where do you live now? I was born on the Isle of Wight which hangs of the bottom of the English mainland. It's diamond-shaped and very pretty.

How does where you grew up and where you live now affect your art? It's a very interesting question. My earliest memories are of the sea. Dramatic horizons etc. Not terribly surprising, I know, but a very early memory of the Queen Mary seen from a bus with my mum, and making me a bit anxious (I was quite a sensitive lad) about the safety of a fisherman digging for bait, inspired me to make a print that got accepted by the Royal Academy Summer Show. I called it 'The Return of The Native'. It was a 'people print'. I make giclée prints - which are like montages, but put together on Photoshop - as well as paintings.

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Please describe the space where you do most of your creation – whether it's your art studio or kitchen bench! It depends what size I'm working on. But, you're right; it is the kitchen bench or the studio, where I can make bigger images on canvas.

What kind of mediums do you use? Why do you choose to use these mediums? Kitchen pictures are usually gouache and acrylic. I've only recently begun to appreciate the flexibility that gouache has if you chuck in a bit of acrylic. I did a series of coffee cup pictures, all having the tiniest of cracks in them and tide marks that were left by the coffee. I never got on with gouache at college; it always seemed to have a life of its own; but now I think I've undermined its authority. But probably haven't.

Is there a running theme to the work you create, or do you just make whatever comes to mind? I spend a lot of time making illustrations that solve particular problems, so my mind's always wandering. The little French shops came about when a friend of mine wanted pictures for his house in St Rémy, in the south of France. I took lots of photographs of interesting nooks and crannies, intending to celebrate something or other local, but didn't know what! It was only when I got home that I realised I could provide him with 30cm square paintings of the local shops. He then obliged me by going out and taking more photographs of the shops he loved! Perfect client.

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What kinds of ideas and things are you working on at the moment? I'm fascinated with music and love jazz in particular; but I also love the way that jazz seems to have crept into the subconsciousness of some pretty young popsters like Midlake. Their "Antiphon" is a thrilling piece of music. Not jazz, but unthinkable without it. I dug up some old jazz-based paintings of mine and attempted to work some paths into them. Music, being sequential, means we can't just see it, like you can a painting or drawing. I got so involved in these paths that they really dominated the figures. I think they might very well become pictures in their own right. I wanted them to involve the viewer, like music does. Although I hate it when people say, "That picture really sings to me...". Actually, only one person has ever said that; one of those hapless fuckers that come to your show as you're closing, ask you millions of questions, then pick up a postcard and go.

What is the strangest thing or thought that has inspired a piece of work? When I was in San Francisco with my family. I was slightly nervous about driving to the Grand Canyon, and since I never got out of jet lag mode, every morning from six, I doodled like mad, out in the yard with a coffee and holiday cigarette. I started doing tiny obsessive drawings that were all based on paths; disappearing, reappearing, ducking and diving... I think I knew my wife and two daughters would be miles away as we hurtled down a nine-lane freeway through Las Vegas. My fears were well founded. I got my own back by running out of gas on the way back. In the desert.

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Which era of art do you appreciate the most? Probably early 20th century. My fave painting is Les Desmoiselles D'Avignon by Picasso. I also loved Whistler; and Kitaj, who was given a very nasty drubbing by the soulless middle class dweebs who call themselves critics. My first art 'rush' was seeing a Larry Rivers in a Studio magazine in the art cupboard at school in '66. I still love it.

What do you doodle when you are daydreaming? Palm trees. Always.

What budding artists do you love? I love Humphrey Ocean, oh hang on; he's not really budding is he? But check him out...Can I say without sounding too creepy, that Brett Whitely is (or was, sadly) an unbelievable genius; a mixture of Matisse and Francis Bacon. Fantastic painter.

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What do you enjoy doing when not creating art? At my age, just sitting down with a book on my lap, wondering where I left my glasses. Oh, well, music. Ambrose Akinmusire is my favourite trumpet player. Check out his gig with Yaron Herman playing Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" on Youtube. I like cooking and watching films that are quite slow. I love Bela Tarr and his Satantango is a seven-hour rain-drenched slice of genius. Tilda Swinton is a brilliant actor. Check out I Am Love. Oh, I'm also a karaoke show-off.

Where can we see more of your work? My website which is being overhauled, johnnybull.com.

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