” As a mixed media oil painter, I feel inspired to paint by the environment that surrounds me and how I can interact with it. This can come in many forms; from landscapes to more abstract works. I enjoy using a range of materials to create my art and at present, I am exploring cardboard and wood as materials of choice. Recently New York and Oslo have been the inspiration for my paintings after a couple of fascinating visits to these incredible cities. However, now in isolation, I find myself inspired by what’s on my doorstep. I am developing new ideas using objects from home to create more geometric abstract pieces constructed from items found in my rickety shed and garden. My garden art continues to evolve along with my cardboard pieces which use recycled materials that I have collected over time. I am currently exhibiting at The Virtual Art Fair. “
1989-1992: Studied BA (Hons) Fine Art at University of Humberside, Hull.
1992-1993: Studied PGCE in Art and Design and qualified as an art teacher.
1993 – Present: Art teacher and Primary School teacher.
June 2016: Exhibition of paintings at Madeleine’s Café, Petersfield.
October 2016: Art Exhibition, Rogate Church, Rogate.
August 2017: PACS Exhibition, Petersfield.
August 2018: PACS Exhibition, Petersfield.
October 2018: Art Exhibition, Rogate Church, Rogate.
February 2020: Exhibition of paintings at Gallery No.30, Petersfield.
May 2020: The Virtual Art Fair, online exhibition.
When did you begin painting and how did you get started?
Justin: Painting is and has always been an activity that I have enjoyed and been interested in. My early memories consist of days out with my family visiting The Tate in London and looking in wonder at the incredible works on display. I remember seeing artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Dali as a young boy and being driven to pick up a paintbrush. I recall looking forward to my art lessons at school and always finished my art homework before anything else. I tended to work in watercolors at home and paint local scenes and football players. Photography too played its part, I was able to compose an image with increasing confidence as my skills developed. Living close to the center of London as a teenager allowed me to explore all the wonderful galleries in this great city and my true love of painting was set in stone when I visited ‘Monet in the 90s’ at the RA. My passion for painting and the desire to improve as a painter meant that I chose firstly to go to art college (Foundation Course) before studying a degree in Fine Art at university.
What is the most challenging part of being a mixed media artist?
Justin: Choice. Infinite choice. When working in a range of media the possibilities can seem endless. The choice of which media to focus on is often challenging, but one which I really enjoy. Working in a range of materials often allows me to get out of my comfort zone and the challenge of using different items together is one that excites me. When starting a new piece of mixed media work I will usually have a vague idea of what I am after, however (as I have grown older) I have become more comfortable in allowing work to take its natural path and not be concerned if the idea changes. By this, I mean that I try not to allow myself to get into a fixed mindset, but instead embrace the whole process and react positively to materials (and media) as things happen. Even as a boy, through adolescence and into adulthood I have loved working with cardboard. I’m sure seeing the Cubist (paper and card) collages early in my life along with the work of Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg and Anselm Kiefer have had a profound effect on my desire to work in mixed media. The dynamics of materials combined in unique and extraordinary ways have always been a big part of why I love the challenge so much. Finally, knowing when to stop is an enormous test. I often struggle with the temptation to continue. When the work has reached the point where I am building up layers, color, and/or textures I am at my happiest, however, I’ve also learned that not to overwork a mixed media painting is crucial. The genius of all great artists is their ability to know when to stop. The work has reached that point where less is most definitely more.
What is the message you are trying to give with your art?
Justin: Optimism and hope. I am a glass half full person. Even now into week ten of lockdown despite a few little wobbles along the way I am an optimist and hopeful that society can make changes for the better. Better for each other and better for the environment. Whether I am painting a landscape, a building, or an abstract I want to uplift the viewer and give them pleasure whilst also making them think about its content and meaning. Whether my paintings are capturing nature, urbanization, or purely without representation I intend to project a love of what surrounds us all. This can often come using recycled materials as I am a firm believer in reducing waste and caring for our planet. Respecting our surroundings and one another is a message I hope to give by recognizing the beauty of the natural world and what humanity can create. The architecture that I paint brings joy to their cities and its visitors, whether it be a New York skyscraper or an opera house in Oslo. Humanity can do so much good; however, we can also do so much harm. This lockdown has made me reflect a lot more on this and my hope now is to create art that sends a message of appreciating what is around us. Let’s stop the level of pollution by reducing waste, stop buying what we don’t need and reuse and recycle as much as we can. My garden art series has only been made from an old shed, shelving, and a rotten compost heap – items that otherwise would have gone to the refuse center. There is no doubt that to do anything creative helps one’s mental health and wellbeing. I hope my paintings will inspire people to look at what surrounds us all and be appreciative and protective of its fragile existence, so we may all live happier and fulfilling lives.
Could you walk us through your process? How much planning do you do before you jump into creating artwork? If you do, what are you trying to solve at each stage of it?
Justin: When I plan a piece of artwork it usually stays in my head as I very rarely if ever sketch out an idea first. When commencing my landscape and urban paintings I tend to draw out my composition onto canvas whilst referring to the photographs I have taken. Photography has always been a love of mine and I use it to help me capture the location I wish to paint. I may do a little bit of editing and cropping at home first before embarking on my artwork. I paint in stages, usually top to bottom starting with the sky and working my way down the canvas. I love layers of paint and deliberately rework most areas of the painting at least 2 or 3 times if not more in some parts. I enjoy seeing the oil paint become more vibrant layer by layer as its depth and richness increases. Due to the nature of oils, drying time is usually about a week, this gives me time to think about my artwork and what I intend to do next. I enjoy looking at my canvas on its easel and will happily ponder my next session. I hope to evoke an emotional response from the viewer through the painting’s depth of color, sense of place, and love of the subject matter. Representation is important for these artworks, but I always try to put my own personality on the work in response to my memories of being there. More recently I have been creating a series of abstract landscapes that are 100% spontaneous. All the mark making is without any planning whatsoever. I dislike intensely wasting any paint, so I have been using up my palette at the end of a session by painting imaginary landscapes using expressive brushstrokes with much greater freedom. I would like to explore this further in the future but on a larger scale.
What do you believe is a key element in creating a good mixed media piece?
Justin: Texture is a key element for the mixed media pieces I make. Whether rough or smooth, regular or irregular, rotten, or pristine, the surface of the individual piece of work is crucial. I want the viewer to examine and explore the artwork not just in terms of content, but also in terms of surface and texture. Working with different materials together allows the painting to come alive in different ways depending on the viewer’s point of view. For example, I want the viewer to have a different experience (in response to my work) if they are close and examining the surface compared to if they are looking at it from a distance. From a few feet away, my work is more laid bare. You can see the tears, rips, and cuts of the materials and the structure of its composition is far more apparent. I hope this will evoke an emotional response of curiosity and questioning. Why have I used these materials together? What qualities do these items on the surface contribute to the painting? What am I trying to express by using these materials collectively? As the viewer moves further away from the artwork, the composition and design of the piece should become more apparent and dominant. Whether I’m making a landscape, building, or abstract piece the materials in a mixed media artwork should have a point of interest to enhance the composition of the painting. Only by looking and examining the work from different distances and viewpoints can the texture truly be enjoyed and appreciated. I hope people will want to take the time to look and wonder.
You say some of your artworks are inspired by travel. Describe a real-life situation that inspired your artwork?
Justin: Memorial Day, New York City 2019. Last year I was fortunate enough to visit NYC for the first time with my wife. We spent 5 days there at the end of May and loved every single minute. We arrived late afternoon in New York and the weather was not great. Wet and windy. I remember the rush of excitement as we approached New York on the subway and glimpsed the Empire State Building (on the distant horizon) for the first time. That evening we explored Times Square and walked past and through the Rockefeller Center. Mesmerizing. It was very humid; the pavements were full of puddles and Radio City glistened in the wet. However, this isn’t the situation that inspired a piece of work. This came the following morning. I was up early, just after dawn, and popped out of our Manhattan hotel to get some breakfast. On route to Starbucks, I suddenly became aware of how quiet the streets were, nobody was about, no cars, no sounds, no taxi cabs – just me. I looked up to see the clearest bluest sky you can imagine with the glass buildings around me illuminated in orange by the rising sun. The shadows were crisp, rectangular, and stretched the entire height of the skyscrapers. The contrast of light and shade was incredible. I quickly reached for my phone and took a series of photos to capture this moment. Why was it so quiet…? It was Memorial Day; New Yorkers were not out and about yet. The streets were disserted, the sun was rising, and it almost felt like I had the whole place to myself. I can still vividly remember this spine-tingling moment and it is what inspired me to make ‘New York rising’. Oil on cardboard. 2019. The whole visit was incredible, I will return one day for sure.
How has your art evolved over the years?
Justin: As a young art teacher in the 1990s I tried hard to continue practicing my own art. I mixed planning art lessons for my classes at school with painting at home at weekends and in the holidays. Despite living in the beautiful county of Yorkshire for much of the 90s I didn’t paint too many landscapes. Those I did paint were of wide-open spaces and ploughed fields using acrylics on stretched paper. Being in my twenties I had a massive interest in the popular culture taking place in the UK at this time. Music, film, news, and art generated ideas for my mixed media work. I worked intensely with collage (billboards, advertisements, music publications) and paint together. Brit Pop was at its height and I loved the indie music scene taking place. The Sensation Exhibition at the RA blew me away and the cinema was rich with films like Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, and Seven. All these combined helped me to create pieces like ‘Choose Life’, ‘Noel’ and ‘Greed’. Pop Art was definitely a big influence and unusually for me I chose to paint figures during this period. Becoming a parent in 2000 of twin girls and moving back to London (because of promotion) brought a big slowdown of artistic output for a little over a decade as parenthood and work responsibilities took priority. It was in 2012 that the spark to paint once again was lit. David Hockney’s exhibition (again at the RA) was utterly spectacular. Many of his landscapes on show were completed close to where I had been living in Yorkshire in the 90s and they generated real nostalgia in me and a desire to pick up my paint brush once more. Moving to Hampshire (in the south of England) and living close to the beautiful South Downs gave me the perfect environment to return to landscape painting. This stimulus influenced my work for a good 5 years almost uninterrupted. I would return to oils and work once again on canvas which I hadn’t really done since university. My mixed media work evolved slowly over this period also and I used cardboard as a favourite material of choice. Oslo in 2018 and New York a year later took my paintings in a whole new direction with urban landscapes and architecture taking hold. My desire now was to capture the essence of these wonderful and very different cities through the medium of paint and cardboard. Since these two visits my work has evolved further (into abstract geometric art compositions) due to exploring MOMA in New York and the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo in addition to witnessing buildings such as The Rockefeller Center and Oslo Opera House first hand. In recent weeks because of lockdown, my geometric art has taken a further turn into something new and exciting. I have created a series of garden art pieces using materials from the garden that otherwise were heading to the tip. An old garden shed, a rotting compost heap and tatty shelving have become the raw materials for my ‘Compositions in Isolation’. Quite a journey and one which I am enjoying.
What artists influenced you the most and why?
Justin: In my previous answer I tried to explain how my art has evolved over the last 30 years and moved in different directions. During this time many different artists have influenced me. I will however endeavor to pick out those that have influenced me the most. Picasso’s early cubist work has been an influence, particularly his use of collage (newspaper, cardboard, paper). To see these works first hand as an art student and teacher really inspired me to explore mixed media in my own work and that of my students. The idea that art can be made of anything and not just be limited to painting has been inspirational. Alongside this, I would include the Pop Artists Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton, and Peter Blake. I adore their use of mixed media materials and objects that they all include in their pieces and how their paintings are social commentaries of the time. Henri Matisse is another giant of modern art that has been massively influential to me particularly with regards to his incredible use of color and brushwork. I also love his Paper Cut-Outs which (when I saw them at Tate Modern) just blew me away for their scale, ambition, and resilience. To make these artworks from a wheelchair is utterly inspirational. David Hockney has had two major exhibitions in London over the last 10 years and I have been privileged enough to see them both. Hockney’s Yorkshire landscapes have been a huge influence on me through his use of color, subject matter, and mark-making. Hockney’s work oozes love for nature, the environment that surrounds him, and the way the different seasons affect the landscape. As I previously touched upon, David Hockney’s exhibition at the RA in 2012 was a defining moment for me returning to painting. Last year I realized a dream and stood in front of ‘Broadway Boogie-Woogie’ for the first time. To visit MOMA in NYC was truly inspirational and to view Piet Mondrian’s masterpiece was just incredible. Mondrian’s paintings along with that of Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky have without a doubt been of influence this last year as I embark on a more abstract journey. The purity of line, shape and color, and the rhythms that these artists evoke in their paintings absolutely fascinate me. Mondrian’s limited palette and use of perpendicular lines I witnessed in NYC first hand (in the grid system of Manhattan) and in the design of The Rockefeller center. To paint ‘Top of the Rock’ last year was one of the most challenging and rewarding paintings I have ever completed. Malevich and Kandinsky’s use of diagonal shapes and lines are heavily influencing my cardboard and garden art series currently. The movement and dynamics created by a diagonal shape or line entering or leaving the canvas is unbound. I hope to use these visual devices effectively myself in the works I am embarking on right now. To visit an art gallery and see work first hand is unparalleled and I cannot wait for the opportunity to once again visit exhibitions as we hopefully come out of lockdown soon.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Justin: The Agora Gallery in New York emailed me last year to say they had seen my website and how much they liked my work. The gallery wanted to enquire about me registering with them, this was a lovely and memorable response out of the blue. I was truly flattered and delighted to receive their feedback. I hope in the future to have the means and time to follow up on this potential opportunity. In recent weeks I have been asked to do a radio interview to talk about my work and promote a painting that I have auctioned for charity. This was very memorable and a great chance to answer questions about what I do and why I wanted to raise funds for the NHS at this time. In February I had my first solo show at Gallery No.30 in Petersfield, Hampshire (@galleryno30), and was delighted to welcome many guests to my Private View. This was memorable as I was able to exhibit my recent New York and Oslo series of paintings for the first time. The feedback was very positive and the show which lasted for a month was extremely well received, particularly on social media. Finally, I am delighted to have received real encouragement and compliments from Hatch Watches, London. Their watches are truly unique using architectural geometric forms and patterns to inspire their designs. They regularly respond to my Instagram posts (as I do theirs) and we enjoy seeing what each other create. I intend to make a couple of pieces later this summer for them inspired by the fantastic watches they make. I now have one myself.
What is the best way people can reach you that are interested in your art?
Justin: I am on social media and have an Instagram account: @justin_lees_paintings which includes both unfinished and finished pieces. I am also on Facebook: @justinleespaintings which charts my progress and promotes upcoming events and pieces available to buy. I have a website also: www.justinleespaintings.com which has a full catalog of all my work going back to the 1990s. Finally, I have a webpage: https://marcel.pt/justinleespaintings which is more of a visual blog and shows behind the scenes pictures of my little studio, photos of me with my work, works in progress (unseen on Instagram and Facebook) as well as a Shop with work for sale. I can be reached through any of these sites and by using email. My address is email@example.com
Are there any upcoming shows or workshops we should know about (or canceled due to the Covid-19 situation)?
Justin: I am currently exhibiting at The Virtual Art Fair which is an online exhibition created and curated by Lucy Morrison (@lfmartwork) for artists to have the opportunity to exhibit during this period of isolation and lockdown. This fabulous exhibition can be found at https://thevirtualaf.wixsite.com/thevirtualaf and also on Instagram @thevirtual.artfair. I am delighted to have 6 pieces on show including a recent garden art construction, 3 works made from cardboard, an Oslo painting and a couple of NYC pieces. I hope very much to continue to exhibit at Gallery No.30 on its reopening and all being well I am planning to do an exhibition of cardboard art next year.
Do you see your art as serving a purpose beyond art?
Justin: Most definitely. Art is therapy. Art is about risk-taking. Art can inspire and encourage. Art can be a powerful source of strength when times are difficult. My art serves all these purposes. When I began to paint again for pleasure in 2013 I desperately needed a creative outlet. Art helps the mind focus on something positive, to create something allows the mind a chance to heal. My art serves and supports mental health. Both for me personally and I hope for the viewer. Art is only one form of creativity, but it is a vital one. I want to give people joy, hope, pleasure, and curiosity when they look at my work. To take the viewer out of themselves (for that moment) when life’s pressures are forgotten. This is so powerful and one which cannot be underestimated. Art can bring confidence. The positive impact that art has on young people, I recall vividly seeing as an art teacher, is something that I will never forget. Art can raise one’s self-esteem – it has certainly helped mine. When making art you must be curious, resilient, independent, adaptable, and have an inner desire to keep going and not be afraid to get things wrong. Doubts naturally occur, however without these I am not convinced that your work has any purpose. As the great Henri Matisse is quoted as saying ‘an artist is an explorer’. My art is not only an exploration of the world I see but more importantly an exploration of how I am feeling about the world. This has never been more so than right now stuck in lockdown and almost self-isolation. A vision of hope, appreciating what we have, not taking for granted those around us, and being respectful to the environment, planet, and each other.