Artist Johnson visits Butler Elementary

Artist Sonja Johnson visited Butler Elementary with examples of her oil paintings to talk with the kids about being an artist.

The students in Brenda Angstrom’s fourth-grade arts class recently viewed Johnson’s oil paintings depicting farm life at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum.

“I knew when I was your age that I wanted to pursue art,” Johnson said, of Fort Dodge. “And I do, and painted every chance I could get.”

Johnson said when she was the students’ age, she was not the best artist in her class.

“I was really average,” she said. “I wished I had the talent some of the other kids had when it came to drawing and painting.”

With hard work and motivated by passion, Johnson kept learning and was able to perfect her craft.

“I was thrilled with working with color,” she said. “When I look at swatches of color, whether it’s in a hardware store or I open a box of new paints and see all those colors I just feel this rush of enthusiasm. I can’t wait to use those things.”

From a young age, Johnson would doodle and sketch. She still keeps a notebook of ideas, which she showed the students.

“I just kept trying different ways of pushing myself to learn how to see the shapes and transfer it onto my paper,” she said.

Copying from the masters is one way of learning, Johnson said.

“A lot of artists through the ages, that’s how they learned to draw and paint,” she said. “If you were an artist at the Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, you would be copying other major artists’ work. You would put yourself at the foot of a major painting or sculpture and try to sketch that again.”

Johnson, for the majority of her life, lived in the countryside and continues to draw inspirations from farms. Her paintings, each of which can take six months to complete, depict farm animals.

“People say, do you go out in the pasture and just put your easel out there? I say, no. I would probably get eaten up by the flies,” Johnson said. “But observing, really observing these animals and their gestures.”

Johnson said she takes several photographs and compares them while painting to create an ideal composite, making adjustments as she works. She also is conscious of her colors.

“I found the relationship of color, I call them warm colors and cool colors, the cool colors would recede back and the warm colors would pop forward,” she said. “The artists who do things like this are trying to produce the illusion of depth just with these colors. I find this fascinating.”

When asked, Johnson will always say, with enthusiasm, “I love being an artist.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating sometimes,” she said. “Do I have problems with a painting? Definitely. But that’s part of the joy, the problem-solving. What can make this better? What can make this more exciting? What am I trying to say?”

Some details in her paintings, Johnson said, she likes to leave abstract.

“Sometimes when I leave some things a little bit looser, I feel like the observer fills in the blanks,” she said. “And that’s OK with me. Sometimes, it works better that way.”