Jonathon Downing Talks About His Paintings, Artistic Growth, Basketball & More

by Rubén Palma
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Jonathon Downing (b. 1997) is an oil painter whose portraits craft conversations about public image and internal truth through the lens of the professional Basketball fan. He created his unique aesthetic while studying at the University of Michigan; and since graduating in 2020, has continued to refine the process of digital photo montage and realistic painting that he is becoming known for. While Downing was raised and currently resides in the Metro Detroit area, the subjects he paints reside in an alternate reality where human beings are monstrous amalgamations of portraiture. Surprisingly organic and honest, these portraits simultaneously depict the Basketball fan and the superstars they idolize, promoting deeper observation in order to fully form a hypothesis on each character’s backstory and present emotions. Downing has shown these characters in United States galleries from coast to coast, and is included in both national and international collections.

Hi Jonathon. Thank you for sitting down with me. First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in Detroit?

So it depends on if I have work or not. I work retail for a day job. It’s easy, the schedule is super flexible and everyone I work with is nice. On those days I just clock in and clock out, then try to paint when I can. On my days off I try to get to the easel by 10-11am, but it’s usually 12, and then I paint until about 6:30. After that it’s dinner and then either reality tv time, or I’ll watch basketball if there is a good game on. I usually do my digital montages in the evening as well. It’s nice to have separate times to do the paintings and the montages because they’re such different processes.

Ok Jonathon, so I know that you grew up in Garden City, Michigan. I’m curious, what kind of kid were you? What did you enjoy doing and how did you spend your time?

I was actually a pretty outgoing child, and I enjoyed playing outdoors in the backyard, playing sports. I did always like making art, but I stuck to drawing for my entire childhood. For some reason I hated painting and cried when we had to do it in Kindergarten, so it’s pretty funny how everything turned out! I owe a lot of my success to my Mom and how she supported my creativity unconditionally. I remember I was big into tracing in Elementary School. I traced manga and comic book art, tattoo designs, images from magazines like Game Informer and SLAM, anything I thought was cool. She bought me packs and packs of tracing paper and that’s all I did for months. Then I moved to Flat Rock for Middle School and High School, and started really getting into my artwork and focusing on succeeding academically. My work transitioned to tattoo designs, graphite portraits, and realistic and surreal acrylic paintings.

You have a background in photo montage. What made you choose painting as your preferred medium of expression?

Painting has been my preferred medium since I was around 15, and before that it was drawing. For the longest time I wanted to get into tattooing, and I still may at some point, but nothing compares to painting. I started doing photo montage in 2017 while I was in ndergrad after taking a course mixing photoshop and oil painting. I’d like to give a shoutout to Robert Platt for getting the ball rolling for me! Jim Cogswell too, he helped me expand my conceptual thinking a lot.

It’s crazy how much the overall view of a painting changes when you add an extra set of eyes and sometimes an extra nose or mouth. It’s a style that you’ve really perfected. What’s the backstory to the origin of the look? and how long has it taken you to develop?

So the aesthetic started with that class, and then it just grew and grew. I didn’t start doing multiple faces until about a year after that, and I didn’t start doing the more refined ones until about 2021, so it’s been a journey to reel everything in and make it look professional. I’m happy with where I am now in regards to making the portraits look less exploded and more naturalistic, but I’m always growing and improving, especially in my technique. Until I get to the level of painters like Robin Eley or Gottfried Helnwein or Kevin Llewellyn I won’t really be satisfied. I look forward to the day I can start a painting and know I will nail it cuz my bag of tricks is so big, but for now I am enjoying the ride. I think that’s the most important thing for an artist to do is to always keep growing and to have fun making the work.

While we’re on the subject. What do the extra facial features symbolize? And who are the people in your paintings?

My subjects aren’t anyone in particular, and I think that makes them more relatable. Sometimes I will use specific models but I try to give them a certain amount of anonymity. The extra facial features are meant to show the different sides of each person. For me the goal of a portrait is to really capture the essence of the subject. It’s nearly impossible to fully encapsulate a person in a singular image, so I try to expand that and capture more through the multiplicity of features.

I know we touched on this topic earlier. But you actually make reference photos on your phone before starting on a painting. Can you talk to me a little bit about your creative process from idea to end result?

Yeah so I use an app called Photoshop Mix, and it’s made specifically for montage. It has everything in a simple workflow and I can bring it with me anywhere. I get my reference photos from fashion pages on Instagram. I have like 13,000 photos I have amassed over the years. I just find a base image I like and then go through the library to see what may compliment it. I look for similar features and a similar pose so that I can get that slightly offset look without it being all over the place.

Working on my phone also gives me a good idea of how the image will translate into a mobile setting. We view art through our phone way more than in person or a desktop, so I want to make sure it looks good on that small screen. Adobe stopped updates for the app and removed it from the store, so my days with it are numbered, but for now it’s the easiest option. The brush tool recently stopped working on the app with the new iOS update, so I need to use the lasso tool for everything. Thanks Apple.

So when did you start taking painting seriously?

I started taking it seriously around mid-2021 when I made my first few sales. Since then I try to treat it like a real job as much as I can. I’m still working on my discipline and getting 8 hours a day, but I still meet my deadlines so I guess it works out!

NBA jerseys are a recurring feature in your portraits. Same thing with the countryside / suburban background. What’s the story there? And what is the connection between basketball and the countryside?

Basketball is a historically urban sport, and the United States is historically rural. I like that contrast. I think juxtapositions are always interesting. The beauty of the countryside setting mirrors the beauty of the game as well. I think they just mesh together in a way that is successful and unexpected.

As for the jerseys, they relate to the idea of idolization and the quest for greatness and success. In the United States in particular, the idea of celebrity is a barometer for success. It’s fascinating to me how we can feel that we know people we have never met just because we know about their public persona. We as fans wear the jerseys of our favorite players to support them, but also because we resonate with them in some fashion, and their success is inspiring and leads us to idolize them. It’s an interesting dynamic.

What do you hope that we, the viewers, take with us after viewing some of your pieces?

I want the viewer to have an emotional response, and feel that they’ve seen something they never have before. I spent a long time studying and emulating artists I love and my work was derivative for so long, it matters to me a lot that my aesthetic is original. I know I’m doing something right too because the people who love my work, LOVE my work. I don’t have a specific feeling I want to convey. I want everyone to have their own experience, I just want it to be memorable.

Alright. Can you talk to me a little bit about basketball? What is it about the game that you love? And who’s your favorite active player and team?

Basketball has always been my sport. I played it growing up until I realized in 7th grade I was bad at it! I went through phases of Baseball and WWE as well. I still enjoy watching a game or a match, and I still follow the Raw and Smackdown storylines through podcasts, but Basketball is the only sport that has always held my attention. It has that excitement and drama and community, nothing compares in my opinion.

My favorite player is probably Derrick Rose although he isn’t playing much right now, and growing up I loved Carmelo. Both of them have such pure games in regards to scoring. It’s beautiful to see Rose glide to the rim or Melo jab step and hit the jumper. I resonate with the comeback story a lot which is another reason I love Derrick Rose, and getting to see him play for the Pistons for a year and a half was really cool. I really enjoy watching Lebron play as well. He’s a savant and the drama surrounding him and his team is always popcorn worthy.

I gotta go with the Pistons for my favorite team. Not only are they the hometown team, but they’re a franchise that has contributed a lot to the growth of the game. That 2004 championship team played as a team, and went hard on defense. They really personified the idea of hard work and team basketball. I like the Knicks and Lakers as well because they are historic franchises, and the Lakers in particular because they represent sustained greatness. Oh and the Nuggets too cuz of Carmelo. It’s gonna be interesting to see if they retire his jersey and Jokic’s, they’re both icons and first-ballot Hall of Famers.

You’ve already opened your second solo show, which I will get to in my next question. But for now, can I ask you. Do you ever get nervous or do you have any kind of rituals before exhibitions?

Absolutely I get nervous! I’m a naturally anxious and introverted person, so when I’m walking up to the gallery for an opening I’m freaking out on the inside. I have this fidget thing that I wear as a ring and play with it while I hang out, it’s meditative and relaxing. It’s called a rizzle by Fidgetland, so if any of my anxious friends want something that might help, hit up Amazon. But yeah the openings always end up being fun after that initial anxiety. I get to play celebrity for a few hours and meet a bunch of people I vibe with. This last opening was incredible cuz I got to meet so many people I’ve known online for over a year.

Real quick follow up question to that. Being that you can get introverted and anxious, is that in any way reflected in your work?

I think that everyone puts parts of themselves in their artworks, and my anxiety and introversion are usually reflected in the slight melancholy that a lot of my portraits have. I want to try and dig up some of those internal emotions and push them to the surface of my portraits. That’s where the real beauty of a portrait comes from, everything we don’t want other people to see. Sometimes I view the montaged faces as a type of mask and the intersections of each feature are the cracks in it. Of course that relates back to the idea of iconicism and public image too.

Ok, so your current exhibition at IRL Gallery is titled “Inseparable”. What’s the story behind that title?

The working title was ‘Dynamic Duoz’ based on the proven model for a championship basketball team. Now that the “Big 3” era has seemingly passed, NBA teams are being built around two star players who compliment each other again, most evident by the 2019 offseason where players like Kyrie and Durant teamed up, as well as Paul George and Kawhi. Lebron and Anthony Davis won the championship the next year, so it was kinda proof of concept that the model works in the present game. Of course it goes back to Jordan and Pippen and Shaq and Kobe, but the game has changed so much, it was interesting to see that it still works.

As I finished up the paintings, I realized I wasn’t painting the players, I was painting the fans, so the idea of a star duo didn’t really make sense. So then ‘Inseparable’ was born. The fan base unites people who are essentially strangers, and creates a strong community. I wanted to explore how the subject can interact with another subject in the painting, and how they then relate to the viewer. That all came together through the exploration of friendships, romantic relationships, and sibling dynamics.

I’m curious. Where do you go physically or mentally when you need to chill out and unwind?

I usually don’t feel a need to unwind often and I think that’s because my work is relaxing itself. It’s like on Happy Gilmore when he goes to his happy place, the easel is my happy place. When I do need to unplug from the art I usually just watch movies or tv or play video games. I love video games but I’ve kinda cut them out cuz they can become a time suck for me, I’m not disciplined enough to just play for an hour. Spending time with my family is very important to me, so I unplug in that regard too. Oh, and annoying Ginger is one of my favorite pastimes! She’s my parents’ Corgi.

What motivates and inspires you?

I find inspiration in pretty much every form of media! Film, music, painting, photography, sports, everything. Painters like Emilio Villalba inspire me in regards to portraiture. He used to do exploded, abstract portraits with multiple features back in 2016, and I think that subconsciously inspired my current aesthetic. His portraits from 2020 are next level too with his handling of impasto and mark making. He’s always breaking the portrait down in exciting ways. I think he’s the best portrait painter doing it right now.

Notoriety and the goal of being consistently happy motivate me. I want to make something that is significant and helps motivate other artists to continue pushing the envelope. Art in all forms is one of the only things that lasts forever and can create personal experiences for people, so I want to do my part and contribute to history. At the moment, painting is the only gig that makes me feel fulfilled, and having the chance to make a living doing it is a blessing. I can’t see myself being as happy doing anything else, and I think that drives me to stay on track.

What song are you listening to the most right now?

Let’s see, so Spotify says it’s “haha” by Soulache, which is a page that was made to repost unreleased Juice WRLD tracks. I used to listen to Soundcloud more than Spotify because it has a bunch of the unreleased stuff, until I found pages like that. There’s a bunch of people who just make accounts with vaguely emo names and then post unreleased Juice. Hopefully I’m not letting the cat outta the bag and it doesn’t get taken down, it’s one of my favorites.

As for Soundcloud, I’ve been listening to a live version of “Worlds Away” by Lil Peep a lot. He’s my favorite artist, and you can see his tattoos in a lot of my works. He performed that song in a theater in Moscow and the music just vibrates out of the speakers and bounces off the walls, and the crowd makes it even better. The whole set is really good too, lots of his early stuff in there so it’s a different vibe than a lot of his concerts, but it’s still cool. There’s a full set from October 2017 in LA that is probably my favorite, but I feel like I’m straying from the question so I’ll stop fanboying.

What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?

So I go back and forth between two movies: ‘The Lobster’ by Yorgos Lanthimos and ‘In Bruges’ by Martin McDonagh. The first one is this surreal love story that is so unsettling at first, but it grows on you and is actually a beautiful character study into what makes relationships work. That film was an inspiration for ‘Inseparable’. All of my work is somewhat unsettling, but when viewed closely is really human; so that tone is definitely similar too, but the relationship dynamics in particular were inspiring to me.

‘In Bruges’ is a comedy that has my favorite script ever written. Everything ties in together and there are no loose ends by the end of the film. It’s funny but dramatic, and it makes you feel bad for laughing at some of the jokes, and the climax is a tear-jerker. That’s what I look for in a film, it has to make me feel something. Once I find a movie I love I have to learn everything about it, and then I just rewatch it constantly to see how everything comes together. The original script has a different ending and some deleted scenes, so it’s really cool to see how the idea evolved.

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