Not long ago, friend Jesse Joshua Watson, painter and children's book illustrator, made a YouTube video of his paintings. I am in awe of both the person and the work, and asked (begged?) Jesse for an interview - he graciously agreed.
First, the video:
Holly: Your paintings have this astonishing sense of immediacy and emotion – how do you capture that?
Jesse: I think it is all in the eyes. I really like to be drawn into the spirit of the person I am looking at, and the eyes are always the windows in. So I work extra hard to make sure the subtleties of expression in the eyes are there. Also, with many of these portraits of musicians, I get to know their music well enough to pour that vibe into the painting, whether through the background or color scheme or even simply the movement in the brushstrokes. Unlike some of the illustration work I have done, these were intended to be more raw and less polished-looking. I allowed random things to stay because it only helped the whole picture to feel that much freer.
H: How does traveling tie in with your work? Do you travel in search of subjects, or do the subjects find you?
J: For the majority of my fine art, I have used memories of travel as inspiration and subject matter. I always shoot excessively, so I have a huge pile of visual reference to help me remember and represent accurately. Now that I have some babies running the place, I do not really travel. Haven't since they landed. But soon they will be sturdy enough and we will be back on the road, if we can only figure out how to afford it. By then the dollar and the peso might be neck and neck.
When I am traveling I recognize that I am in the hands of God. I am not running the show. This is true in daily life as well, but we forget it due to our well established boxes we tend to live in. Nothing wrong with that, but when you travel you realize how far out of that box you are. And that is a wonderful reminder for me. Subject matter and individual models definitely find me, rather than me seeking them out. They are walking along the same little path I happen to be on during the day and they turn into indelible visual memories. Then when I am back in the box, I use them to take me back to that place for a while. My art is often the expression of that.
H: Tell us about your painterly origins.
J: I decided to become an artist the day my drunk boss at a surveying job cut a tree down the wrong way and it landed on my head, crushing me and breaking my back. That sucked. But I am grateful for the way it shaped my life. Actually, I am grateful to have my life!
I had my mind made up that I did not want to be an artist because it is so hard to make enough money to survive. True. But when the tree happened, I knew that I did not want to work in the woods, I wanted to paint. So I started painting all the time. I thought of it like a job and my mantra for many years was, It's This or Taco Bell, This or Taco Bell. So I worked very hard learning how to paint. I decided it would be smart to isolate my subject matter so that I could gradually perfect it and watch my progress. SO I worked exclusively on visual elements of reggae music and Rasta culture. I went to Jamaica and soaked in as much as I could and then when I was back in the states, linked up with a reggae club which let me show and sell my work on the walls. I got to know lots of reggae artists and spend time with them getting shots that I could help make portraits. And I sold tons of original art. I would paint one, bring it to the club and before I could hang it on the nail, someone would buy it. I never got photos of lots of those paintings, but I learned by doing them. They were the necessary work that was required to get me to the next level.
When I look back through these paintings I do see a progression from not great to very good. I felt like after five years I could move on to something new. But I wanted to take baby steps, so I moved focus to Brazil, where Mariah and I spent a month soaking up the culture. Right around then is when I started getting involved in children's books. And like clockwork, then came the new babies and so it has been a natural evolution from that inspiration to my current inspiration- my children.
H: How did/does painting so many portraits inform your current medium, children’s books?
J: One of the basic needs of any picture book art is the consistency of likeness. It needs to look like the same person throughout the book. Doing so many portraits where a primary focus is likeness, I feel like I am more capable of achieving that now in books. Also, it is important to express emotion in ways that people connect with. Regardless of what style or art media, the best books have a quality of expression that draws in the reader.
H: Tell us about your partnership with G. Neri for Chess Rumble.
J: Greg is my brother in arms. We are both very serious about the success of our book, Chess Rumble. I found out soon after finishing the book that he was not joking around when it came to marketing. Being one of the original henchmen of the 2K7 posse, he began promoting the book well before it was out. I met him for the first time at the L.A. SCBWI conference last year. I had finished the art a few months prior and we were both giving workshops. Since then we have been working together very well. Recently, we instigated our own little book tour in NY. We did school and library programs all over the boroughs. We even got the opportunity to share at a juvie in South Bronx. It was awesome.
We can see the fruits of our hustle, too. Greg got all of LA's bajillion libraries to order books for all their branches. When we were in NY, we inspired librarians to order copies for all of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Chess Rumble has been the little engine that freaking could. We got an ALA Notable, tons of awesome reviews and endorsements and most of all the kids are buying and reading the book.
H: Do you speak or visit schools?
J: I do. I have been doing lots of school and library visits lately, as well as little art workshops. On my website (www.jessewatson.com) I have a page about my school visits and give a list of everything I have done recently. It is a really fun part of my job now!
H: What is up next for you and your paintbrush?
J: Well, honestly, I am trying to figure out how to pay my bills next month. So that's first. Gotta love that eternal monetary struggle that has nothing to do with my happiness but haunts me every month. Yeah, that is just real life everywhere. It forces us to think outside our boxes and get up off our asses. Both really good things for artists to be doing.
Right now I am just finishing up a brand new art show that I will hang next week [April-May at Sweet Laurettes, Port Townsend, WA - and you can check them out on his blog]. This brings me lots of joy because while every manuscript and dummy I have worked on for months and years is out there getting rejected, I get to be really busy playing around with new media and styles and allowing myself to evolve as an artist. This show is an autobiographical journey through my life as a pacific northwest surfer, and it is some of my favorite work ever. I have some of it on my blog but I imagine soon it will all end up on my website.
H: Thanks, Jesse, for letting me share your story!
More Jesse links:
Richard Jesse Watson Gallery, Port Townsend, WA
Chess Rumble on Amazon
Jesse's links. This is a guy who lives his message and cares about the world.
Chess Rumble book trailer: