Artist Janna Watson paints large, colourful abstract works
BY SUZANNE WINTROB
As a child growing up in Flesherton, Ont. (population: 700), Janna Watson loved hanging out with her grandfather. Arthur Bonnet owned a Toronto flower shop and he taught industrial design at a local college. But his real passions were drawing, abstract painting and rug-hooking. His sense of colour was “otherworldly,” says Watson. She was fascinated watching him paint and delighted whenever he offered her lessons.
“One summer, he gave me a mission to go out into the forest and make an abstract drawing of a tree,” recalls Watson. “When I came back to show it to him, he criticized my work by telling me it was okay but that I needed to become more wild with my drawing. I think I was only 12 when I got this critique, but I have never forgotten the artistic freedom he passed on to me in that moment.”
Bonnet died in 1999 but his legacy lives on in his granddaughter. Today, Watson is an accomplished abstract artist with a Toronto studio and she co-owns a rug company called Watson Soule that produces “visually expressive floor pieces” (think cool art on the floor). Her work is shown at Bau-XiGallery in Toronto and Vancouver, Foster White Gallery in Seattle, and Galleri Couture in Stockholm. Paintings range from 24-by-24 inches ($1,700) to 60-by-60 inches ($7,400).
Watson’s big break came while she was studying art at Toronto’s OCAD University and working part-time as a waitress at the Soho Metropolitan Hotel. She was living with a friend’s parents at the time and they were enamoured with a six-by-four-foot painting she had made for class. They wanted to buy it. She thought $800 sounded like a decent price. They snatched it up, which boosted her confidence.
Next, the hotel’s property manager asked if she would display her pieces in the hotel’s lobby. She painted every free moment over the next six weeks and produced six large works. Several were sold and the hotel commissioned Watson to paint more. Then, while serving coffee to some hotel guests, she overheard an edgy-looking woman tell her colleagues that “money is energy.” It was enough to prompt the budding artist to quit her job and focus on her craft. She’s been making a living at it ever since.
Watson’s medium of choice is acrylic mixed with gouache on birchwood, and she evokes feelings using colour and negative space. “The wood tends to suck the pigments in, creating a flatness,” she explains. “But my final touch is a coating of resin, which pulls and pops the colours back to life. Not that they were ever dead, but the resin creates that ‘wetness’ of the initial paint. When I play with colour, it is a strategy to mix, kill the colours, but bring them back to life. For example, when I mix a Chinese red with a peacock blue, you get a dark blackish sludgy brown colour. But mix that with titanium white − it’s resurrection. It’s just incredible what comes up. When I paint I thrive on the unexpected and build my compositions this way.”
Watson is now busy preparing for a new show in February at Bau-Xi’s Vancouver gallery, titled “There’s No Dimmer.” It features large, bold works. As always, she hopes they’ll sell well. “I don’t eat if the art doesn’t sell and I am not interested in not eating,” she quips. “Some painters like to suffer. I’m not one of them!”
Watson says she gravitated to abstract art because she finds it confining to work from sketches and photos. Like her beloved Grandpop, she likes to be in the moment. “He taught me to be an abstract painter by looking at a tree and finding the essence of it and forgetting about the exact way it looks,” she says. “I’m not sure I can even paint a realistic tree anymore. I should try!”
Janna Watson’s work will be exhibited from Feb. 13 to 27, 2016 at Bau-Xi Gallery, 3045 Granville St., Vancouver. An opening reception will take place on Saturday Feb. 13 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.