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If you want painting to be fun, you ought to speak to John Hamilton. Rather than intellectualizing the putting of colour on paper and imbuing this with a deeper meaning, John is constantly searching for the next exciting thing to try and see where that will take him. He has lived the dream that many can, well, only dream of – travelling the world and painting at the same time.
A BORN EXPLORER
Born in London, John Hamilton grew up in Buckinghamshire. He loved painting from an early age, and it was fortuitous that his art teacher at school, with the impossibly romantic name of Romeo di Girolamo (who went on to be a member of the Royal Academy and President of the Royal Society of British Artists) was extremely supportive of John’s emerging talent. However, when it came to choosing a career John was clear that he wanted to study civil engineering and keep art ‘on the side’. So then in London, studying his chosen subject, John had a further stroke of luck: his college had a reciprocal arrangement with the Royal College of Art next door – which meant that John was able to pop over in his free time and study life drawing there.
John says what he loves about civil engineering is the fact that it is an outdoor profession that allows you to travel around the world, working on a particular project for a few years at a time, meeting new people and then moving on. Projects for John ranged from a gas pipeline under the sea from Scotland to Ireland, to an LNG tank in Trinidad, to a dry dock in Dubai. Talking to John about his work, you sense that he has thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this slightly itinerant lifestyle which appeals to the explorer in him.
KEEPING UP THE ART
Buoyed by his experience of life drawing while a student in London, John decided it would be a good thing if he joined a local art college or art group wherever he happened to work, to find some relaxation. While in Hong Kong he attended the HK Art College for several years and this is where the charcoal drawing (pictured right) was produced in a life drawing class: by tearing strips of paper, putting charcoal on the strips and then moving the strips around on a blank canvas and smudging the charcoal off with your finger, to create shades of light and dark.
Later that evening, straight from the life drawing class with his portfolio under his arm, John headed for a big Chinese dinner that he had to attend. Having sat down, a lady took the seat next to him. She spotted his portfolio and insisted on having a look and to John’s amazement recognised the life class model from his drawing. And yes, you may have guessed it, that inquisitive lady is now John’s wife.
Whenever John goes travelling, his little set of watercolour paints and postcards goes with him. He says it’s only when you stop to paint that you really take in the scenery around you. His friends look forward to his travels – it means a hand-painted postcard will wing its way to them soon.
“It’s only when you stop to paint
that you take in the scenery properly”
On the subject of painted postcards, John has many anecdotes to tell. One fell in a gap behind the counter in Svalbard near the North Pole and John’s watercolour polar bears only arrived at their destination ten months later. And one turned into his most expensive painting when a postcard painted during a trip to Antarctica was auctioned off for charity on the cruise ship and went for US$800.
After watercolour, oils were John’s next love – for their colour, their texture. And as he liked to take his time with a painting, oils made it easy to go back to it. After a day working on an oil painting John cleared his palette with a palette knife – this has given rise to a number of ‘palette pictures’ which did surprisingly well at exhibitions. Selling, John says, is not important to him although a sale is a welcome indicator that you are giving joy to someone else. Sometimes, selling also throws you into a quandary. One year John had rented a flat in Venice for a whole month with the intention of going out into the streets of the city to paint every day. He did a version of the Piazza di San Marco in oil which his wife liked particularly. So when it came to exhibiting this painting John tripled the price thinking it would never sell. Of course, it did and he had to paint another ‘copy’ six times the size.
After oils, John had a play with the iPad app ‘Inspire Pro’ which he says was great fun as it has enormous capabilities – there are at least 30 different size brushes. The app mimics oil painting and allows you to blend the colours together like on a canvas. It’s fabulous for travelling as you don’t need to take any equipment. The only downside is that it is very costly to print your painting, particularly if it is a large size.
Lately, John has been experimenting with acrylics. He likes the bright colours which give a happy vibe. John mentions that he has been looking into colours and colour theory more seriously and recommends Victoria Finlay’s book ‘Colour’. Working fast with the fast-drying medium of acrylics you leave a lot of areas unresolved, John says, and that adds interest for the viewers who have to look at the picture closely and do some mental work themselves. Working in his light and airy studio in the garden, John is now going for big – bigger canvas, bigger brushes. He has found that this gives him energy and seems to release his natural creativity. It was the artist Hash (Hashim Akib) who encouraged him to use big brushes, including a three-inch paddle brush. Hash has given demos at WOKAS and John has also attended his workshop in Robertsbridge.
“Working big seems to release creativity”
John feels that even if you only take away one new idea from a demo or workshop then it has been worthwhile. He is all for trying new things, exploring, asking questions, solving problems – it’s in his civil engineering blood. No, John says firmly, he does not want to find ‘a style’ and stick to that. In his words, life is too short to get stuck with one thing. It’s only if you keep changing that art remains new and challenging and gives you an exciting life.
“Life is too short to stick to one style”
John became a member of WOKAS 25 years ago and joined the committee almost immediately, offering his expertise with the hiring out of art videos to members. Over the ensuing years, he has been on and off the committee a few times. For the last six years, he has contributed actively to the society as Vice-Chairman, PR and Set-up. When asked why he values WOKAS, John reflects that art can be quite a lonely occupation – you can get lost in your own studio. It’s by meeting other like-minded people that you can spark off each other and bounce ideas around. Interaction is vitally important, he feels. Just to prove the point, John admits that during the recent coronavirus lockdown he has painted only one picture, whereas normally when he can go travelling with his wife he would paint 30 pictures a year.
So what role has art played in his life? The answer is simple: art has been fun. When he is painting he has a sparkle in his eyes. And that sparkle, even just talking to him, is somewhat infectious: it makes you want to ditch your own painting style and go and buy some new colours. John’s next attempt at re-inventing the painter in him is to use two brushes simultaneously, each loaded with several different colours.
“The goal is never to stop exploring”
So it comes as no surprise that John’s advice to his fellow painters would be: ‘Keep on exploring, posing questions. OK, things don’t always work so keep on changing. Give yourself new challenges – this leads to a happy life.’ John’s attitude to art is far from flippant or superficial though, it is driven by a quest for knowledge, always. In the course of the conversation, he mentions his passion for visiting art galleries wherever he goes. Once, in Saigon, he took one of ‘Sophie’s Art Tours’ which explore the history of Vietnam through art, even going into people’s homes to look at private collections. John took away a most interesting ‘lesson’ from this tour: the realization that during the Vietnam War the Viet Cong had many artists with them in the field who painted pictures to serve the war effort. Painting is never just one thing, it’s a million different things to a million different people, whether they be rich, poor, happy, desolate, young, old. Only you as the painter will know what painting’s true purpose is for you. For Two-Brushes-John it simply is never to stop exploring and never to stop challenging yourself.
John Hamilton is based in Rolvenden.
Gunda Cannon was in conversation with him in April 2021.
John Hamilton, March 2021
Life drawing, Hong Kong - charcoal
My most expensive painting
Acrylics now with Hash
Piazza di San Marco, Venice - oil
Postcard – Tiger's Nest
In the studio 2021