art / People

Life in pen and paint

10 November 2022

This week we chat with our current social media cover artist, the South Norwood based Jonny Kemp. He’s been having a very busy 2022, so you may recognise his work from South Drawood – his exhibition of portraits of local people held at Stanley Arts in the summer. We find out more about his recent exhibitions, his projects, processes, influences, and more.

Croydonist: First of all, Croydon native or convert, and what area do you call home?

Jonny: I’m a Croydon convert: I’ve lived in other parts of south London, and moved to my current home in South Norwood in 2017.

Croydonist: Your main form of art is portraits in fine liner pen or oils. How did you settle upon your area and style of art?

Jonny: I’m interested in people: how we express ourselves, how we present ourselves, or how we might hide things away. I’m fascinated by the endless variety of the human face. That they change but you can still recognise the same person, usually through their eyes. That we look to someone else’s face for recognition, to understand them, or maybe we avoid it so we think we can keep our own feelings secret. They’re just endlessly interesting things to look at and read.

I like pen for its stark contrast, the black pen and (usually) white paper. You can have a lot of fun with shadows, darks and lights. It’s also a huge challenge: it’s pretty hard to cover up a mistake! It means you really have to look.

Oil paints are a relatively new venture for me, but I am fairly traditional in terms of what art I like. I suppose it’s like when a chef is trained in French cookery; I think I need to know how to paint in oils. And I learn something new every time I use them.

Croydonist: You’ve had a pretty busy 2022 – can you tell us about your recent exhibitions?

Jonny: Probably the busiest year of my life! The biggest project was ‘South Drawood‘. I drew about 40 portraits of independent business owners and volunteers from South Norwood, and my girlfriend interviewed them. I wanted to celebrate all the people from SE25, who work so hard to make it great. It’s an area that some people have…looked down their nose at, shall we say, but I wanted to show off the community spirit, and that the diverse people who live and work there are something I’ve never experienced before. We exhibited the portraits and their stories in Stanley Arts over the summer, and you can access a free ‘e-book’ of the exhibition on my website.

Apart from that, I sell my work at south London markets regularly, and sometimes exhibit with other local artists and craftspeople. We have a little group going and we’ve done three fayres in and around Crystal Palace.

I’m also going to run an ‘Invention Point’ through Stanley Arts, which is a project exploring the history of invention in South Norwood, inspired by William Stanley. Mine is a workshop on designing a monument to South Norwood.

Croydonist: We’d love to hear more about your latest project ‘Wake me up at’.

Jonny: I take the train up to north London every day to work; I get up pretty early and generally feel pretty wiped out, and my day hasn’t even begun yet! There’s lots of tradespeople on the train I get, who might be trying to catch another 15 minutes of sleep while they can. Feeling and seeing this every day got me thinking about the nature of work, and commuting, and how this has changed. People travel further and further to work, have to get up earlier and earlier, and this takes a physical and mental toll.

It also made me think about the over-generalisation that ‘everyone works at home now’ since the pandemic: it just isn’t true. I think it’s a certain kind of job, basically one where you might work at a computer, that this has affected, and there’s still plenty of people in the background getting up early every day.

There’s also something very vulnerable looking about people when they are asleep. There’s a sense of trust almost that your fellow passenger isn’t going to steal your bag or tickle you or something. It feels like a shared experience somehow. The first set of self portraits I did was me going through my morning routine: brushing my teeth, getting dressed, drinking coffee. What we all have to go through. Maybe I’ll end up painting the whole course of an average day.

Very excitingly, one of the paintings in this series was selected by the D31 Gallery in Doncaster for their Autumn Exhibition, which I recently travelled up to see. Pretty cool to see your own painting in a gallery setting!

Croydonist: We understand you’re not a practising artist full-time but are also an English teacher. What parallels do you find between literature and the visual arts?

Jonny: At their best, they make you sit up and go, I’ve just realised something about myself, or the world, or that person that I know, and this artist, writer, creator, has expressed it already. And that’s so reassuring. Even if you’re from the other side of the world, or from another time, something seems to reach out and hold you.

My own personal interest would be art and literature that has overturned what came before it that shows that something new is possible. For that reason, I love art and literature from the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century: Woolf, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mondrian, Picasso, Malevich. I hope I am aware enough to love art that is currently changing things.

Croydonist: Teachers already have hectic schedules. How do you find time for your art around your day job?

Jonny: It’s difficult. If you’d have said two years ago that I would spend half my evenings and weekends painting, drawing, and selling my own art, I wouldn’t have believed you. I used to do basically nothing in the week, until in 2019 when I started going to Martin Jessup’s life drawing classes at the Upper Norwood Library Hub. I knew I had to make time for myself. Sometimes it’s just a case of blocking out evenings or days at the weekend, or using little pockets of time to keep on top of things. Luckily, drawing or painting is just about the most relaxing thing I can think to do, so it’s pretty therapeutic to do in the evenings after a long day!

Croydonist: Where do you create your art?

Jonny: Mostly just on a table in my flat! I’ve started taking a small pad and pen with me wherever I go, but the proper stuff is at home. I would love to have a studio, or share a studio space, to be able to properly tune out the rest of the world. Something for the future.

Croydonist: What’s been your most challenging commission?

Jonny: Possibly the drawing of someone I met at a market – they’re a baker. Their mum commissioned the drawing and the photo they sent me had their daughter in profile, working in their kitchen, and there was so much stuff to capture that it was a difficult balancing act, in terms of composition and light, to actually be able to see the oven, bread, containers, and her at work. Pen can be very unforgiving and I had to really work with the lights and darks to keep the human form visible.

Croydonist: How long does a piece typically take you?

Jonny: That depends on the size and materials; the average pen drawing probably takes 6 or so hours, if it was of a single subject. A painting is much longer!

Croydonist: What’s your process? Do you sketch work first, or do you go straight to pen/paint?

Jonny: If it’s a commission, I would definitely sketch it out first – but I do this pretty minimally, just the essential information.

When I am feeling freer, if it’s something just for myself, I would go straight in with pen. I think some of my best work has come out of those; they seem more organic and flowing.  It’s pretty magical when it all comes together. Sometimes my students who paint ask me for advice, and I always tell them to go straight on with paint, which terrifies them!

Croydonist: Classic interview question – if you had to invite 3 artists or creatives to a dinner party (dead or alive) who would they be?

Jonny: Oh man. Very difficult. I want to do what Owen Wilson’s character does in Midnight In Paris and get a car to the 1920s and hang out with Gertrude Stein and her crew.

But if I was hosting: maybe I would start with Jean Michel Basquiat. I studied him way back during my GCSE art and that showed me that art doesn’t have to be so stiff and formal, and that was really exciting for me.

I’d have to ask Lucien Freud and hope that some of that painterly greatness rubs off, as long as that means I don’t inherit the meanness. He is, in my view, the absolute best painter of the human form and I will stare and stare at his work for hours. By all accounts he was a great storyteller too.

And finally I think I would ask Paula Rego; I went to two exhibitions of her work recently and they are beautiful, disturbing, exciting. I’ve never seen anything in pastel like that. They’re a great balance of direct and metaphorical.

I have no idea what the four of us would talk about and imagine it would probably end in a fistfight.

I am aware that I have very traditional tastes so would love for some suggestions of more diverse artists to explore!

Croydonist: Favourite spot in Croydon for inspiration?

Jonny: Grangewood Park is very close to where I live and a beautiful place to walk around. It’s wooded, which I love, and has an amazing view over Croydon itself. I only discovered it in lockdown, and would walk there a lot. It seems pretty hidden so a good place for reflection and introspection.

Croydonist: What’s next for you? 

Jonny: Lots of things planned or that I’m thinking about. I have a lot of commissions coming in at the moment, which is really exciting. I’m exploring options for some sort of ‘street art’ project in South Norwood, after the success of South Drawood, and have been in touch with the council. I had spoken to someone in Crystal Palace about doing a similar project in SE19 and need to chase that up. I would love to work part time to allow more time for my art, have a studio, or even share a space with another local business to support South Norwood’s high street, if anyone is interested. And finally, paint some more people asleep on trains I suppose!

Thanks to Jonny for chatting with us. Find out more about his work on his website and Instagram. See more of his work in person at the Art Love Life art and craft fayre at Brown and Greens in Crystal Palace Park this weekend (12–13 November 2022.

All images courtesy of the artist. Header image: selected portraits from South Drawood (from left: Len; Amina; Matt; Sana; Nick).

Posted by Julia

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