Puppet Quartet
Puppet Quartet
Image: Jamie Johnson (RGB)

Jamie Johnson: Sunshine on Leith

Artist and Illustrator Jamie Johnson contributes regularly to Skinny and will soon be selling limited edition prints through The Skinny Shop on CultureLabel.com. Here he discusses his unique style and how living in Leith inspires the characters he depicts
Feature by Andrew Cattanach.
Published 29 November 2011

There’s more to Jamie Johnson’s prints than first meets the eye. The initial drawing is done in pencil before working in elements of collage, layering the image with pages torn from books or photographs Johnson has taken himself. He then gets to work with a fine pen, picking out all the detail that is the trademark of his illustrations: the wrinkly nuances of the subjects’ faces; their tiny sorrowful eyes. Lastly, he reworks the pictures on his computer before making the final prints.

Needless to say, it’s an involved process that is more than simply drawing a wee figure on a page. “In every piece,” Johnson explains, “there’s lots of different scanned old pages, bits of watercolour, lots of different components.”

The process enhances the drawings, giving them the gravity of something old, something with the weary hindsight that comes of advanced years. Like the wizened faces of the characters that people Johnson’s tableaus, the drawings have an undisclosed history.

Not being able to tell how it was put together as a print is really interesting,” Johnson says, “because the difference between my scanned-in sketch book page and the final print is really important.”

The same mystery cloaks the characters in Johnson’s prints. Are they homeless? Are they strange, local eccentrics he’s seen on the streets – odd obsessive collectors adrift in the urban sprawl?

I don’t know why I’m drawn to characters like that so much,” Johnson explains. “I guess I’ve grown up in Leith and I’ve always been surrounded by local oddballs and I’ve always just had an interest – with absolutely the most respect possible! I’m not laughing at these people in any way. It’s more just a study of someone I’d consider to be an interesting character.”

Based on real people or no, they are dignified; there’s nothing pathetic or sinister about the characters in Johnson’s work. They might be peculiar, scruffy and alone, but they seem to have arrived there more by choice than circumstance.

One could say the images are even imbued with a sense of magical realism. Seemingly down at heel, the subjects are nonetheless empowered by a certain mystical transcendence. They live in wondrous, temporary shacks, their detailed clothes are inscribed with symbols that signify to them alone – a code too complex to be deciphered by anyone not of their caste.

The impression of magical realism would set Johnson in a tradition of many a Scottish artist and film maker, from Stephen Campbell to Peter Mullan, where the everyday or the destitute is elevated.

Johnson was inspired by a recent trip to South Africa when making work for the Culturelabel project, which offers limited edition prints of his work, along with the work of six other artists featured in our Showcase section over the past four years and available to buy from December through www.culturelabel.com. One image in particular shows a scene from a street fair he saw in South Africa.

That was based on a thing in Johannesburg,” he explains. “It was just a kind of weird street fair with not very many people there. The performers were guys with giant puppet structures – really surreal. I interpreted it in my own way but it is inspired by this crazy street fair.”

With a few unconfirmed exhibitions lined up for the near future, including a pop-up show in Glasgow this month, Johnson continues to make work for galleries alongside illustrations for publications, including regular contributions to The Skinny (this month's cover, for example). Like the strange individuals that populate his drawings, Johnson’s artworks are at once familiarly accessible and subtly transcendent.

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