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The Art of Howard David Johnson

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Some years ago I had the pleasure of working on some publishing projects with Howard David Johnson, a local Austin artist I met through a mutual friend. He was a classically trained artist who was working as a studio photographer at the time and was interested in getting back into art. I was working as an editor and art director for a couple of different publishing ventures and his style was very compatible with my tastes, so I encouraged him to start doing some illustration work and threw a few small jobs his way. It was at a time when digital art was really coming into its own and I gave him a shove in the right direction with some suggestions of ways he could combine his traditional style and techniques with digital technology and got him started experimenting and discovering things on his own.

It's now years later and I recently stopped by his website and discovered some impressive new works and really remarkable developments in his skills and technique. He's living proof that in advanced middle age, if the will and imagination are there, you really can learn new things and grow creatively. David always had a remarkable facility for copying the style of other artists and illustrators, and was particularly influenced by the great illustrators of the late 19th century and the artists of the pre-Raphaelite period. For example, you can see the influence of Millais and Waterhouse in the first and last images accompanying this article. As he began to explore digital media he began combining these classical styles with his interest in photography and digital art to produce mixed media images where elements were hand drawn, scanned, and then finished as digital paintings incorporating photorealistic elements and figures based on live models.

David's online gallery is a remarkable resource and provides a history of the development of his technique, because many of his works are dated on the site. When I first worked with him there was an awkwardness in how he combined these elements, and sometimes the relative perspective wasn't quite right or the different textures of hand-drawn elements and digital elements were jarring. By the time of our last collaborations his style had become more integrated, but you could still tell where he was working freehand and where he was working from photos or live models, and in works he did quickly, like his illustrations of Reiner Knizia's game Res Publica, he still sometimes lapsed into a kind of two-dimensional cut-out style which was distinctive but less aesthetically pleasing.

Then, sometime in 2006, several years after our last involvement, David seems to have reached a creative tipping point. Works from that period on show a seamless integration of styles and a fully developed awareness of depth and proportion and lighting. You can tell that he's still using the same combination of traditional techniques and photorealism, but the two styles have met in the middle, creating works which are realistic but clearly original and stylistically coherent. Many of these are just magnificent, such as Queen Cinderella (above and left) and Valkyrie Maiden (to right), with subtle shading and use of light and a kind of altered realism which is very effective at making the fantastical seem real.

In his latest works David seems to have come full-circle, moving through digital art and returning to traditional media, but bringing his new techniques with him. Some of his most impressive new works, for example Circe the Enchantress (to the left) and Athene (top right), are done entirely without digital modification, in pencil and oils on canvas, respectively. That he is able to work in both digital and traditional formats and produce such similar results is a truly remarkable commentary on how completely his skills have matured and what a great command he has over his tools. I find "Athene" to be particularly impressive, with the realism of the figure softened enough to fit with the more painterly background, and a really excellent recreation of the style of the pre-raphaelites, resulting in a work which reminds me a lot of the work of Sir William Russell Flint.

When browsing David's art, be forewarned that he does take the occasional foray into the "chicks in chainmail" genre in the tradition of Frank Frazetta and he does have a fondness for beautiful and scantily clad women. The site even includes a section of erotic pin-up art, though he seems to have removed some of the most provocative images. There are also some disturbing religious themes if that kind of thing bothers you – both from a pagan and Christian perspective. He's been very productive in the last few years and has managed to do detailed illustrations for the major themes of Greek, Celtic, and Norse Mythology plus Arthurian legends and elements of other mythologies as well, all included on his website. In addition, David has extensive samples of his fairy and fairytale illustrations included on the site, as well as articles on his technique and some of his subject matter and even a set of short art lessons for beginners.

If it's not sufficient to view his work on the web — and it really isn't the ideal format for this sort of detailed artwork — he has collected many of his images into two books which are available for purchase online. One covers mythology and the other covers fairies and fairytales. Original paintings are available for sale and you can also purchase prints of many of his works. Furthermore, it looks like more and more you'll be able to see David's work on book covers and other publications, because as his work has improved his marketability has also increased – so it looks like after years of hard work he may be starting to get some of the attention he deserves. Bravo!

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About Dave Nalle

  • Vickji Decker

    Mr. Nalle
    Only the ego of the young makes the assumption that as people age, their learning capabilites decline. Unfortunately this is an untrue and oft repeated fallacy. If one has organic damage as they age caused by many things; usually alcohol and medications or if they become bored or lazy, their learning capabilites will decline. Actually peoples skill and capabilites often improve with age, often due to greater focus.
    Other wise, your article was excellent.