Jonathon Downing is a 25-year-old artist living in the Detroit Metropolitan area. Unlike many other artists, Downing had no backup plan or second thoughts about his art career. Growing up, his artistic endeavors were supported and encouraged by his family. This support gave him the fuel to put structured time and effort into his career.
Downing paints montaged portraits that explore the nuances of personality through multiple facial features. His artistic explorations include but are not limited to the intersection between professional basketball, iconism, and success. We spoke with Downing about his beginnings, inspiration, and his collection Inseparable.
When did you start making art?
I started making art when I was a child. I began with drawing and then moved on to painting. I went through phases of different art. I used to do a lot of manga drawings, then tattoo designs and graphite portraits. I didn’t really start painting until I was in high school, and I didn’t start using oils until undergrad. When I did my first oil painting it was like a switch just flipped and it all made sense. I had done realistic paintings in acrylic before, but it was always more difficult because of the drying time. You have to work in layers a lot more. When I started with oils, I had all this time to work with the paint and could easily get these awesome blends. I spent a year or so just deconstructing the brushmark and exploring how different it was from acrylic, and how I could explore figure painting in new and exciting ways. After dabbling in more abstract and expressionist aesthetics, I returned to realistic painting because it just made sense to me. I know that the painting is supposed to look like my reference photo, so having a set end point allows me to plan and execute easier than something that is more abstract.
Where do you find inspiration?
My main source of inspiration is fashion pages on Instagram. But, anything related to popular culture and sports is inspirational to me. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Basketball. There are so many amazing things about it: the beauty, the excitement, the drama, and the community. The Association really is a soap opera of sorts, it just has everything. Film and music are big for me as well. Like I made a piece in 2021 inspired by Léon: The Professional. I made a Lil Peep-inspired piece that same year, and I put parts of Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Tracy, and Yung Lean in other paintings.
How do you define success as an artist?
I think the most successful artists can support themselves financially and give back to the creative community. Everyone wants to be financially stable, including me; however, carving out my place in culture is more important for me. I want to give myself a place in the community where I can make things that push the envelope and inspire future generations of painters to continue making. Art and painting in particular is an incredibly beautiful thing and can positively impact people personally and culture as a whole. I put a lot of symbols of success and power in my work like jewelry, trophies, and the jerseys of various basketball idols, so I guess I’m always thinking about what makes someone successful. The goalpost is always moving, and I’m sure I’ll measure success differently in 10, 20, and 30 years.
Tell us about Inseparable. What does the collection explore?
Inseparable explores the unity of a Basketball team’s fan base and how it mirrors the close relationships we form with others. In the series, these relationships include friends, family, and lovers. I wanted to see how the subjects in my paintings could interact with each other, not just the viewer. For instance in “You Know Half of That is Mine, Right?” the idea of a sibling rivalry is present, as the figures pose with the Larry O’Brien trophy. There is a slight bit of tension between them though because they have different jerseys on so only one of their teams could have won the championship. I think the trinity between them and the viewer creates some interesting dynamics that haven’t been seen in my work yet.
What is your favorite piece in Inseparable, and why?
My favorite piece is “Proper Posture” because it takes the neck ruff from 17th Century portraiture and puts it into a modern portrait. It plays on the idea of royalty and power which are consistent themes in my work. I also painted a girl in a neck ruff when I was 16, modeled after the Virgin Mary by Kevin Llewellyn, so oddly enough, that accessory holds a special place for me. It’s a pastiche of classical portraiture and my nod of the head to those who have paved the way for myself and other portrait painters.
What advice would you give to emerging artists?
I feel like there are a million moving parts in regards to making a career out of this, but I’m gonna see if I can give some pearls. So the biggest thing in my opinion is to find an original aesthetic. Paintings have to be recognizable, it’s like building a clothing brand, or any brand really. It needs to be recognizable and it needs to be fresh. I think if you have those two things you’re in really good shape.
Find that aesthetic and then build your practice. Build a routine. I have set hours that I paint and do my digital work. I try to treat it like a regular job as much as I can. We don’t have employers to hold us accountable daily, so self-accountability is big. I plan out my weeks with what parts of each painting I’m gonna get done on what day so that I meet my deadlines.
Once you have a practice, it’s time to build your brand and expand your network. Instagram is a beautiful place. Hit up your favorite artists. Lots of us are happy to support other creatives and answer questions about our career paths. It’s really awesome when I get a message from someone and we just start talking about what could work to get them into their dream job.
After that it’s just about keeping the passion, keeping your work fresh, and keeping it interesting to you and your audience. I think that when it becomes boring or unfun it no longer makes us happy, and that’s really why we create because we need to in order to feel whole. If it isn’t fun anymore then there isn’t much point, so keeping it all exciting and enjoyable is really key. It’s not going to be fun constantly at all times, and there are going to be periods of adversity, but I think that with an original aesthetic, a routine, a good network, and consistent growth it can consistently be the best job out there.