Q&A with Jonathan Smith / by Kellie Miller

I first started to work with Jonathan about 14 years ago when I was running an art rental scheme for businesses. When I opened the gallery in 2013 I knew that I wanted to work with him again.  Read on to find out why I love his work. We will be hosting an exhibition of Jonathan's paintings in November 2018.


When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?

That’s a good question.  I knew that I wanted to go to Art school, because that was where all the cool people went.  After I left, and moved to London, it was a few years before I came back to painting.  In the eighties I worked in warehouses,  timber-yards, engineering companies, toured and recorded music. 

How long have you been painting for?

Years!  Moving to Sussex meant that there could be space in the house for paintings to be made – always working at home rather than separate studio, makes it easier to grab a bit of time and work on something.  Four years in Art school teaches you a lot, but learning to teach painting teaches you more!

What inspires you?

Weather!  At the moment, it’s mostly about transitory moments of light, so although I draw a lot, the phone in the pocket is really useful!  Discovering new artists is also inspiring – sometimes in galleries, but the internet is a wonderful thing….

How do you inspire your students?

Show them lots of art, introduce them to many different processes, bring practicing artists into college, go to galleries,  give them interesting things to draw, get them to bring their ideas to the party.

What was the subject matter of your first painting?

I remember painting a giraffe at Primary School……  Both my parents trained as painters at Grays in Aberdeen.   There was quite a bit of art going on when I was small.

Why do you paint with oils?

Acrylics are great, particularly if you want to chuck bucketloads of paint around.  I switched back to oils about ten years ago because of the feeling of substance, and the trueness of colours as they dry.

Most of your paintings are of Scottish or Sussex landscapes if you could paint anywhere in the world where would it be and why?

I love working in Venice…..  Because I work in the studio from drawings, colour studies and photographs, my gathering process is fairly portable.  I think that you have to commit to a place, pretty much immerse yourself,  if you are going to work on it.  One painting  is never enough.

What are your processes before you start to paint?

Boilersuit.  Music.  Cup of tea.  Tidy something. Go through sketchbooks. Tidy something else. Prime canvas. Cup of tea. Check phone. Do preliminary sketch. Cup of tea and possibly a biscuit. Check phone again. Paint.  Prevarication is a big part of things!  There are stacks of sketchbooks going back thirty years.  I can sometimes find something in a very old drawings which kicks things off.  At other times I am trawling through photographs from recent trips

What has been your greatest achievement in your artwork to date?

Getting pieces into the RA or the RBA is always a bit of a buzz – affirmation if you like.   Tony Southwell, the late Vice-president of the RBA, bought a painting, which I delivered to his house by the river at Henley.  He made tea and we had a very encouraging chat.  I thought, ‘this is it Jonathan, you have made it….’

What do you think your proudest moment is in life?

I’m proud of my family, but that is down to them not me.  Being proud of my own work only lasts for about half an hour after a piece is finished.    I am enormously proud of the work made by Art students at Varndean College, and the work of their tutors.

How do you balance your painting alongside of your teaching?

That is always difficult,  but is getting easier.   Over the last ten years,  I have reduced my commitment to managing education, and focussed on teaching and making my own work.  Teaching absorbs energy, but you also get masses of energy and inspiration in return. 

What is your favourite book and why?

Reading a lot of Robert Macfarlane  at the moment – he walks and thinks and writes, and I love Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring stories.

If you could own any painting what painting would it be and why.

That’s a good one.  There are paintings you have to go and visit – perhaps ‘Combing the Hair’ by Degas, which was owned by Matisse, or there are some very approachable rucksack-sized Rubens sketches in the Courtauld.  A Raeburn might be nice too.  And a Joan Eardley.  All because of the quality of the drawing, primarily, although colour matters too.

Jonathan Smith : Evening Rocks

Jonathan Smith : Evening Rocks