This autumn, to coincide with the Sainsbury Wing exhibition Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals, the National Gallery is inviting two contemporary artists to display work looking at the urban landscape.
The second of these artists, Ben Johnson, is painting one of London’s most iconic locations – Trafalgar Square. Johnson is completing his painting in public, giving visitors an insight into the artist’s working methods:
I’m Ben Johnson, I’m a painter and I’ve been using architecture as my subject matter and starting point for my paintings for maybe 40 years now. But approximately fifteen years ago I decided to move from individual pieces of architecture, to the broader view and cityscapes.
Canaletto had always been in the background, but the painting that I’m making at the moment, which is the view from the roof of the National Gallery, has really been fifteen years in the making. I was invited by a curator to look at the view from the roof of the National Gallery, and I spent probably ten days going up, looking around, different weather conditions, and it is an extraordinary view. It’s a very privileged and special view. But all the time I was up there, and all the time I was making drawings or taking photographs, I kept on going back to the same spot. And from this spot I kept on thinking, there’s something underlying this view that reminds me of something not far from here. And I went down into the Gallery and I looked at ‘The Stonemason’s Yard’, and I started to analyse the geometry of the Canaletto painting, and I analysed the geometry of my photographs and there was an extraordinary set of coincidences happening.
What I did was to take the postcard of the Canaletto and I started to put in the geometry, the underlying structure: the bones of the painting for me. I took my photograph that I’d taken, or a series of photographs which I stitched together, of the view from just over the Sainsbury Wing, and I started to get this structure coming in.’ Big Ben’ replaces this church perfectly. We then go to a further stage where I’d started to put in Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, and you can see that it lines up perfectly with this large church. And all of this is coincidence.
But is it coincidence? Or is it an innate sense of the geometry. And for me, I’ve always analysed paintings on a geometric basis; I’ve always started with a ruler and a compass. This is the canvas; it’s 6ft by 9ft, roughly 2½ m by 3¼ metres, and this drawing – as we’re looking at it now –is the by-product of about six months drawing. Now, I work with assistants because this is a studio, it’s a workshop, and that’s a very important part of my process.
I’m very proud to work with very talented draughts people. Each one of these buildings was drawn separately; the most complicated drawing here being this, and this took six weeks. There are drawings back here that perhaps only took a day, but a building like, well let’s take ‘Big Ben’ –because it’s a nice easily recognised object –that’s about a week’s drawing. And these individual drawings are made on computer, but the computer is purely and simply a tool, the drawing process is a drawing that was really established in 1500.
And the reason I work with the computer is because I use a spray-gun, and to contain it you use a mask. The mask I used to cut with a scalpel and masking tape; nowadays I use vinyl, which is a self-adhesive film, and we have to cut holes in that film. We could do it by wearing a magnifier over our eyes and cutting with a scalpel, but it would probably take us 20 years to make this painting. Because we work on computer, and we work with a vector-based program, which is a mathematical program, we can then send that drawing file down to a cutter, which will cut the stencils out.
This is the drawing that was made for this dome. I’ve got to think how I’m going to paint this so I have to analyse how many colours I might use; and to do that we continue to work on computer, and we produce this. Now this drawing becomes my guide for painting. So what we have here is that dome with all the elements coloured in, and these are the number of stencils.
There are approximately 35 stencils going to be cut, and each one of these squares represents a different colour. Sometimes paintings take a long time to mature in one’s mind until you reach a point when you know you’ve got to make them. But not until I’d started the drawing, and I was fully-committed to the painting, did I discover that Canaletto had stood on the first floor of Richmond House some 300 years ago; looking up to what is now Trafalgar Square and what is now the National Gallery, and in the middle of both of our views is this dome. Art can be timeless.
When we’re cutting on the machine downstairs we can cut to 0.4 of a millimetre. You have to look very hard and catch the light to be able to see where the machine has cut into it. Here’s part of the roof coming off …... behind the dome …... and then we have to start looking for the really fine pieces. These are the flagpoles that sit on top of the building …... and these are the ties that will anchor the flagpole down.
And then these are some of the small elements like the air-conditioning unit on the roof, and, wherever you’re seeing white now, that’s where the paint will go through. Although it’s self-adhesive you can float it over the surface at this stage and just approximately place it, one butterfly matching the other. Now you’ve got to move clockwise. Clockwise … clockwise … clockwise … whoa! And this registration mark should come into place … yes. Hopefully that one is in place … that one. This is the critical stage again where you have to make sure that you don’t remove any of these very small elements that are just floating. They’re islands. You can almost hear the glue pulling away, and you can sense when you’re going to be lifting a piece of the stencil that you want to have remain on the surface. Thank you. Elements do move but they can be adjusted so that here this flagpole there should be a fine wire that’s holding up the flagpole, and the element here has moved. So we just shift it over to create a thin line; that thin line will then be sprayed.
I’m very organised in the foundations of the painting, but increasingly, as time goes on, and I get further into a painting I’m acting faster and faster on intuition. The foundations are so firm I can take risks. So just now, for instance, I've chosen a colour, which instinctively I know is going to fit in with the rest of the painting; it's going to work because I've started to establish rules as I've got further and further. And my knowledge of the painting has grown. So the painting almost makes itself but also the painting, as it grows, becomes more and more independent and tells me what to do.
Some of the changes I make in colour are very subtle and they're so subtle a lot of people would say, I can't even see those changes. And then I start to ask myself, Does it really matter whether other people can see them or not? Because the thing is, I'm making the painting for myself. But obviously, especially if one is making a painting in public as I'm going to do in Room 1,you inevitably do get engaged with the public and the question; what the hell are you doing? And it makes you question your own values. And you go back into the studio and then you rely on what you've been doing for the last 20, 30, 40 years, which is just operating off instinct.
What I've done is to experience something outside in the world of so-called reality, I’ve then come back and for 12 months I've reflected on that in the studio and I have meticulously constructed and reconstructed every building, every window until I've actually divorced myself from the physical reality of this location. This is paint on canvas. I’m not a metaphysical painter in the sense that I don't have an agenda. That I want to make a metaphysical painting; I want to make paintings that transcend their subject, through materials, to become something else.
A quotation occurs to me over and over again, on a daily basis within the studio, and it’s from Tennessee Williams. At the beginning of ’The Glass Menagerie’ the narrator says,’ I am the opposite of a stage magician. The stage magician offers you illusion in the disguise of reality. I am here to offer you reality in the pleasant disguise of illusion.’
About Ben Johnson
For ‘Modern Perspectives’ Johnson has based his painting on the rigorous geometric composition of the National Gallery Canaletto, The Stonemason’s Yard, about 1725. Like his Venetian predecessor, he subtly manipulates the topography to create an ideal view.
Johnson will also be displaying ‘Zurich Panorama’ and another painting that he completed in public: ‘The Liverpool Cityscape’, 2008 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).
Ben Johnson uses an intricate process to prepare each area of his cityscape paintings, employing line drawings and a vast palette of hand-mixed paint. He has been made an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects for his contribution to the public understanding of contemporary architecture.
Supported by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation.
Image above: Detail from Ben Johnson, 'Preparatory drawing for 'Looking Back to Richmond House'', 2010 superimposed on the geometry of Canaletto, The Stonemason's Yard © Ben Johnson 2010. All Rights Reserved DACS.