As a child, Johnson was mesmerized by the blue of the letters on a board game called "Tugboat." Now his work is driven by color, and he finds new hues wherever he goes.
In other countries, for example, people often paint their houses or vehicles with colors that would be unusual in America. Instead of staring at the Eiffel Tower, he points out cars. "I'm always driving my wife crazy when we travel," he says.
Tones of color and light sometimes creep subtly into his paintings. In his airy, 1,000-square-foot space at Cubberley Studios in Palo Alto, Johnson points to one scene painted in France. It does look like the French countryside, but you'd be hard-pressed to say why.
"How much do you have to put in there before someone thinks it's France?" Johnson asks rhetorically. "Do you add a characteristic tree?"
But the painting's Continental feel is gentler than this: something about the angle of the morning sunlight, perhaps, or the glow of the pasture.
Johnson, who lives in Menlo Park with his wife and young son, spends time living and painting in Europe every year, most often gravitating to the Tuscan town of Buonconvento and the French village of Meyreuil, near Aix-en-Provence.
In Italy, Johnson made a fortuitous connection: He got to know Marilena Pasquali, who ran a museum in Bologna devoted to the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. Out of their conversations grew the new book "Doppio Binario," which includes a Pasquali essay on Johnson's work along with numerous color plates of his art.
The book is now on sale at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, and next door at Cafe Borrone there's a new exhibit of Johnson's paintings, running through June 10.
The title ("double track" in Italian) refers to the two paths that Johnson takes with his paintings: abstract and figurative. A full-time artist, Johnson has become known for his landscapes of Europe and California, which include sprawling houses, window frames and barns; he chooses scenes "full of geometry and activity." But he also pursues abstract painting.
Recently, his abstract oils have moved away from his earlier organic, soft-edged approach. Current works feature patterns of rectangles and squares painted with a deliberate hand -- sometimes with the help of a tape measure.
While some people can find abstract work less accessible, Pasquali says Johnson's abstract paintings are a natural complement to the figurative, especially when they're exhibited next to landscapes and viewers can see the similarities, she wrote in "Doppio Binario."
"Skies, water, fields, trees and houses have become surfaces, physical areas of paint distilled from ripe yellow wheat, fertile red earth and boundless blue space -- all of this to affirm that the abstractions and landscapes are kin," she wrote.
Pasquali also believes that each of Johnson's painting paths informs the other.
"One could claim that the abstract research has contributed to the clarity and simplicity we now find in his landscapes, while the contemplation of nature has perhaps added something to the rigor of the geometric compositions -- perhaps a shudder of subtle pleasure, or a whisper of an even subtler restlessness," she wrote.
Johnson's process could also be described as restive. Rarely content to focus on a single painting, he jumps from canvas to canvas, sometimes working on 10 in a week. Paints and brushes are kept on a cart so he can swiftly wheel them across the studio. The slow-drying nature of oil paint appeals to him; he can mix a perfect hue in a blob of paint, leave it for a while and later use it in another painting.
In fact, Johnson has always been a traveler. As his father was an Army chaplain, the family moved around a lot while Johnson was growing up. Johnson earned a master's of fine arts from the graduate painting program at Parsons School of Design in New York City in 1990, and has been exhibiting in the States and Europe since 1989.
In his studio, where abstracts and landscapes mingle on the walls, Johnson demurs when asked about his creative process. He says he paints simply by instinct, blending or juxtaposing colors until they feel right.
"I'm always looking at how colors play against each other, and some sections draw the eye more than others," he says, gesturing to a grouping of small abstract paintings. "It's like music: Everything's working together, but something's playing the lead."
For instance, in "Palo Alto n. 11 (Winter)," the eye may be caught by the burnt-orange rectangle sandwiched between pastels, or the bands of gray and yellow-green. With "Palo Alto n. 18," a viewer might see the lush, grassy green rectangles as dominant.
"Water Towers" trips between abstract and figurative. The 2005 painting shows a pair of water towers, but there's something dreamlike, too. The red-and-white-striped towers stand tall against a secretive black background. Both have light-green stripes at the bottom, and a Weekly photographer says he likes the green because it gives his eyes a place to rest.
Johnson often includes a block of solid color on the side of a figurative painting. This can add contrast, emphasizing other colors. For instance, the vertical band of blue-purple on the side of "Cadiere D'Azur" makes the salmon tones in a house roof leap out.
That's part of the enjoyment of color: pairing up tones and seeing how one affects the other, Johnson says. He often uses "slippery" colors, pale hues that shift easily.
"Put pale green next to yellow, and it becomes strong green. Put it next to strong green, and it becomes yellow," he says. "The qualities of color are like people, more or less affected by what's around them."
What: An exhibit of new abstract and figurative paintings by Mitchell Johnson
Where: Cafe Borrone, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Through June 10. The cafe is open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fridays from 7 a.m. to midnight; Saturdays from 8 a.m. to midnight; and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Info: Call 650-327-0830. "Doppio Binario," a new book of Johnson's work, is at Kepler's Books next door to Cafe Borrone; go to http://www.mitchelljohnson.com for more information.
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