A nude figure in white, high-heeled boots holds a plant. A tattooed woman stares serenely forward with a cockatiel perched on her shoulder. A man and a cat draped in fine clothing share a cigarette. These are only a few of the surreal paintings created by Barbara Johansen Newman (@johansennewman).
The Needham-based artist used to work as a book illustrator but began painting full time in 2017. The Globe interviewed Newman on the phone about her love for the human figure and the value of Instagram as a platform for art.
Q. You have a very specific style. How would you define that style and how did you develop it?
A. My artwork has been about portraiture my entire career. I’m just drawn to portraiture in one form or another. When I was an illustrator, I did everything, of course, books and editorials, but even a lot of my editorial work was portraiture. I did celebrities, and I did illustrated articles or essays or fiction pieces. It always ended up being people. I think my work has evolved and gone back and forth. Obviously, when I was doing children’s books, it was softer and gentler. Now, I’m just painting, and people comment that they can see the same hand in the work no matter what I’m doing.
Q. Why do you think you are so drawn to portraits?
A. I’m drawn to people, and I’m drawn to the figure. I’m drawn to capturing the essence of a character or of a person. I’m basically a storyteller. To me, portrait can convey a story, in a way. I love that. Even when I was doing sculpture, they were portraits. I’m especially drawn to the details that convey that story — clothing, the way they wear their hair. I love painting those kinds of things.
Q. How do you come up with the people you paint?
A. When I was in college, a professor I had gave me the best advice of my life. He said “Barbara, draw from your head.” The characters I create, I create out of my head, unless I’m doing a specific person. I usually start with a sketch. I have a studio, another separate studio, in my house where I do clean work. I sketch, and I listen to podcasts or audio books. I just let what emerges emerge on the paper. And then that will go through several steps until it eventually ends up as a painting. There’s only a couple of pieces on my website where the person is actually smiling. That’s because that person in the painting just seemed to want to smile. For some reason, these pieces that I’ve been doing lately, these pieces are more pensive. The people are thinking, they’re wondering, they’re looking back at me. I’m not opposed to doing a smiling face, but generally, the people that emerge in the sketchbook and on the canvas are more serious. I don’t know why. I let the painting lead me.
Q. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A. I have a son that lives in Brooklyn and another son that just moved to New York. We have the opportunity now and more time to get to New York. I’ve been trying to catch as many galleries and shows that I wasn’t able to get to for years when my kids were younger. I was busy, and there was no time. That’s always inspirational to me. I enjoy looking at Instagram. I find I love looking at the work of other artists. That’s the best thing about Instagram. I would encourage artists to use Instagram. I’m an older artist whose been doing it a lot. I enjoy it because it’s a lovely way to share your work.