Emmett Johns

Mention the name Emmett Johns and folks might respond, “He’s the guy who paints portraits of people, right?”

And, while the answer to that question would be “yes” – as Johns is probably best known around Door County for his detail-rich, realistic portraits – there is much more to his collection of work.

In fact, when Johns and his wife soon head to New Mexico for the winter, he will take advantage of the opportunity to focus on two of his favorite artistic genres – plein air painting and abstracts – in addition to his portrait work and annual garden party picture.

While splitting his time between the two studios has helped with the variety in his artwork, there are logistical issues that Johns has had to overcome.

“It’s problematic living in two places because I have an inventory in New Mexico and inventory up here,” he said. “Someone will see something they want on my Web site, but I can’t get it to them because its down there or vice versa.”

Nevertheless, Johns continues to travel between the two locales, recognizing the benefits it has on his artwork outweigh the deterrents.

This past summer, Johns participated in The Peninsula School of Art’s Plein Air Festival for the first time, and the experience has motivated him to increase his plein air collection.

“The Plein Air Festival has really fired me up and has made me interested in getting more involved with plein air painting,” said Johns. He joined a plein air group in New Mexico and hopes to go out with them quite a bit over the course of the winter.

In New Mexico, Johns lives only 15 minutes from the mountains and is presented with the opportunity to paint the vistas of the Southwest.

“The landscape painting is where the big-time difference is between [Door County] and New Mexico,” Johns said. But despite their differences, he said they are equally breathtaking.

In addition to the landscape being a dramatic change from Door County, the culture in New Mexico, according to Johns, is conducive to his abstract paintings. While there, he has the opportunities to go to various galleries and museums to see abstract work.

He says, “It is a great environment for me to get involved with that aspect of my painting.”

Johns would like to finish a series of abstracts this winter. To create a series such as this, he usually sets up various canvases around his studio and just goes at it. By having all of the canvases set up at the same time, he is able to move back and forth from one abstract to another. In turn, there sometimes are similar elements in a series since they were worked on during the same time and sometimes with the same palette.

Of the process, Johns said, “This allows for one to build on the other and so on.”

Another endeavor that Johns will focus on while in New Mexico is his garden party scene. Each year, Johns spends much of his early winter creating this painting, which is different from year to year but contains many similar aspects. Typically, the scene will portray a band and people dancing in a garden setting.

Johns sees this painting as a composition exercise and draws upon those that came before him.

“I am inspired by the old masters when I paint the garden party scene,” said Johns, “particularly by the Dutch that used to paint tavern paintings.”

This winter Johns will also be working on a portrait for a portrait invitational that will be held next summer in Door County and a commissioned abstract for a family in Madison.

With all that is on his agenda for the winter, one might question if Johns is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis.

Johns himself questioned, “Am I a portrait painter? Am I a landscape painter? Am I an abstract painter? Am I from New Mexico? Am I from Wisconsin? It’s like who are you?”

One thing is clear, he continued, “First and foremost, I’m an artist, and I love art – all sorts of art!”

According to Johns, no matter what kind of art he is doing, whether it is an abstract, a plein air piece, or a portrait, he devotes his time and effort to make it the best it can be.

Which is, perhaps, the best piece of advice a working artist could provide those who would like to follow in his footsteps. Johns however, has a bit more advice.

“Go to Milwaukee and Chicago to get an idea of what kind of art is out there – go to museums and galleries.” And, if you want to make a living by creating art, he said, “You have to have a large body of cohesive work.”

To see more of Johns’ work, visit

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