J Wesley Willis, a.k.a., John, is a talented oil painter from Portland, Oregon. But wait. The word talented falls way short of the complete eye explosion of beauty you encounter when you look at one of his paintings. The man brings to canvas what Wordsworth brought to the page.
But Willis doesn’t believe that creating art is necessarily about having talent. It’s more about having creative-courage — a place where the artist is unafraid to play and unafraid of the consequences of being curious. Willis lost this place for a while, but now he has it back. He’s back and is sharing his journeys and his wanderings with us. Our time on this world is short and being able to see it through his eyes and his talent has made our journey just a bit brighter and a tad more colorful.
“I advocate for all artists taking the words “mistake” and “failure” and shoving them out a tenth story window. If the thing you create doesn’t match the image in your mind’s eye, call that “discovery” instead.” John Willis
Bridgeliner: Contemporary art is a big umbrella that covers different types of art that deserve their own classification. What type of art do you make – how would you classify it?
John Willis: I’m not sure I own the job of classifying it. It may be more appropriate for the audience to classify it. But if I’m to do it, I’d say, yes, it’s contemporary art. And it’s somewhere between realism and impressionism. Landscape, cityscape, and more recently narrative painting. The narrative work may be its own classification.
My landscape and cityscape are art about place. They’re renderings of a place that evoke certain feelings. But my narrative work is a platform to editorialize on nearly anything.
Bridgeliner: Talk more about “don’t overwork it” in art.
John Willis: I like to say “don’t underwork it”. When people say “don’t overwork it”, I think they’re saying you shouldn’t mix hues until they turn to mud, and perhaps that you shouldn’t blend loose and immediate brushstrokes into tight, cautious ones. I won’t argue with that. But most paintings I see outside of galleries and museums tend to look like the artist pulled up short, rather than looking like the artist kept working long after the piece should have been called finished. So, for most aspiring painters–beginner and intermediate–I think it can be better advice to say: follow through. If you’re still improving it, keep going. Keep improving it.
An asterisk: I find this is true with oil painting because you can always build layer over layer. You can’t ruin it, because you can change course, endlessly. It may not hold true with other mediums.
Bridgeliner: Talk about the importance of making mistakes in art – how some have horrified you and others have been a blessing.
John Willis: I advocate for all artists taking the words “mistake” and “failure” and shoving them out a tenth story window. If the thing you create doesn’t match the image in your mind’s eye, call that “discovery” instead. It’s not wrong. It’s process.
And when it happens, don’t blink. Look right at it. Look at it like you’re an engineer crashing cars to see how the fenders crumple. Because you learn a lot more from crashing cars than you do from driving them.
Same with painting. When the picture in front of you and the picture in your mind’s eye diverge, that’s free education. Take notes. Discover. Grow.
Bridgeliner: What’s your favorite color to use and why? And is there a color you’d never use (and why)?
John Willis: I don’t think of isolated colors as being preferable to other isolated colors. I think of colors as preferable only in relation to other colors, the same as musical notes.
I’m not saying this is the right way to think of color. Someone might love an e note more than an a note? Red more than blue? But I respond to chords in both music and color. And just like music, there’s an underlying theory that tends to correspond to what pleases the eye. That’s where color sings to me.
Bridgeliner: What themes do you pursue?
John Willis: There are a number of them. I like urban decay. I like the intersection of old and new–of man-made and natural. I like the nightly crossing where citylights come to life as natural light fades–the end and the beginning. Crossing paths. In narrative work I like contradiction. I like images that can say two, incongruous things at once, so that one viewer may see one thing and another may see something very different in the same work.
Bridgeliner: What research do you do?
John Willis: I take a crazy amount of iphone photos. It’s a constant endeavor. For every painting I do, I take about 200 photographs. Sometimes more. That’s for landscape and cityscape. With narrative work, I’m not just painting a scene I’ve encountered and photographed. It’s a composite of reference materials. I might use a photo I took, then do a drawing based on the photo, then use other photos to develop details. So research is just about looking, very carefully, everywhere for engaging and meaningful imagery.
Bridgeliner: How has your art changed over time?
John Willis: It’s gone from landscape to cityscape to narrative art. I think my voice has grown as my technical ability has grown.
Bridgeliner: What is your dream project?
John Willis: The current painting. The current painting is always the dream. It’s right now. This one. I have seeds of tomorrow’s painting. But the dream is now.
Bridgeliner: What role does the artist have in society?
John Willis: I think there are several. One is to narrate our lives, to give people a portal inside our emotional and intellectual process so that they can connect to art without if they can’t make it themselves. Another is to hold up a mirror. To say: this is us. This is what we look like, from my view. Another is to be subversive–to take down ideas that need taken down. Or to try.
Bridgeliner: What do you tell people when they say they don’t have a creative bone in their body?
John Willis: Nonsense. Every child is an artist. Schools beat it out of people. Now that doesn’t mean everyone has the potential to be a great artist. But everyone has the capacity to make art. It requires embracing creative process. Which is an inherently messy process. Perfectionism won’t get you there. The willingness to try and have the outcome differ from your expectation–that will get you there.
Bridgeliner: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about your art? And the best piece of advice you would give?
John Willis: To do a LOT of work. Be prolific.
To do a LOT of work. Be prolific. Try. Grow incrementally. Burn them if you don’t like them. But don’t slow down.
Bridgeliner: How did you get into your first gallery? What was the experience like?
John Willis: I love galleries, but they haven’t been an essential part of my art sales. I’ve worked with a number. But my own website is my most important gallery: www.jwesleywillis.com. And social media has been the primary means of connecting with my audience. Instagram @jwesleywillis.
To anyone wanting representation by a gallery, I would recommend asking the gallery for submission guidelines, to see how they want you to present your work. Then, figure out who makes the decision and try to meet with them in person to look at your work together.
Bridgeliner: Let’s talk about Portland. What has Portland meant to your art?
John Willis: Southeast Portland was where art began for me. It’s where I found all my first art teachers. The mother of a childhood friend used to take me to the Rhododendron Garden and teach me drawing and painting. Portland is where I learned about urban beauty. It seeded my interest in cityscapes. And it probably contributed to my interest in the intersection of nature and the man-made world.
Bridgeliner: How has the Portland art community helped you?
John Willis: Some of my most important collectors and supporters are Portlanders.
Bridgeliner: What Portland artist do you admire?
John Willis: Ruth Shively, Jody Katopothis, April Coppini. Lots more.
Bridgeliner: Who are the artists (from anywhere/anytime) that have inspired you the most?
John Willis: Edward Hopper. Fairfield Porter, Alex Colville
Bridgeliner: You’re stuck on a deserted island. You can only grab one tool out of your art box. What was it? Why?
John Willis: I think of painting as a system, so any one thing without the others is like not having it at all. But if I laid out everything that’s optional–say a choice of mediums–I’d choose a big bag of crystalized dammar gum to make dammar varnish. (I use it as a medium, not a varnish.)
Bridgeliner: What’s your favorite restaurant in Portland and why? What do you order?
John Willis: My dog, Orville, is always with me. (A woman recently asked me if he is my little “go-round dog.” I asked what’s a go-round dog? She said “That’s a dog that goes round with you everywhere. I said yes. He’s my little go-round dog.) So I love food carts, because Orville is invited. Any pod of food carts, anywhere in the city. And because I’m low-carb paleo-ish, I like cuisine that’s big on meat and vegetables.
Bridgeliner: Want to share a little more Portland faves with us? Favorite bar? Favorite brewery? Favorite shop? Favorite anything?
John Willis: Every corner of Portland has its own personality. And I love them all.
Bridgeliner: Is there anything we’ve not asked you that you wish we had? (If so, don’t forget to add the answer!)
John Willis: I sell original oil on panel paintings. Every painting is hand framed. Shipping is always free. I also make hand finished canvas prints. They’re limited editions. Also framed. The hand finishing enhances the highlights and lowlights and most vibrant hues. They don’t have the machine quality of most prints. They look hand made.
I’m having a Holiday Sale specifically for your readers.
Who: J Wesley Willis Fine Art
What: Holiday Sale, 20% Off Everything (Coupon Code: Holiday Sale)
When: Through Jan 1, 2022
Why: Happy Holidays!
The paintings above are on sale on John’s website and are named, in order of appearance:
Eastbound, Eastside. Sandy Boulevard by John Willis
West On Bond by John Willis
Anchor Line Twilight by John Willis