Q&A – Questions & Artists – Emmett Johns

Emmett Johns displays large-scale paintings at his Fish Creek studio. Photo by Len Villano.

Emmett Johns is an icon in the Door County art community. He and his wife, Jan, have come to Door County for over 30 years, with Johns creating his wonderfully expressive pastels and oil paintings. Our interview took place in his studio/gallery located in the Settlement Shops on Highway 42 just south of Sweetie Pies. You can see his work online at

Johns was born in Rockford, Illinois, and his art education includes graduation with honors from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He also studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Illinois. Johns studied figure drawing with Harry Carmean and he lists Carmean as one of his most important instructors.

Johns long career includes working as a freelance illustrator in New York in the early seventies. His awards are many and too numerous to list in this brief interview but he, in this writer’s opinion, typifies the best characteristic of a successful working artist – a friendly, great communicator who is willing to share his experiences and knowledge.

Randy Rasmussen (RR): Emmett, who provided you with the most encouragement in regard to your interest in art as you were growing up?

Emmett Johns (EJ): It is difficult to pick one or two individuals. I had a natural inclination for drawing but thinking back…maybe my grandparents. I spent summers with them and they enjoyed seeing my work.

RR: Do you remember your first drawing?

Abstract painting by Emmett Johns.

EJ: Maybe not the first, but I always enjoyed drawing people. The family tavern was a place that I first really started to draw. I remember being there with a family member, drinking a soda, and drawing.

RR: How old were you when you realized that you wanted art to be your career?

EJ: As I said, I always enjoyed drawing. I think it was a gradual realization but by the time I was in high school I think I knew that if possible, I would be doing something in art.

RR: Emmett, you worked as a freelance illustrator in New York in the late early seventies. What do you remember about living in New York at that time?

EJ: I had lived in New York in the early sixties and both my wife and I were excited about living in the “big city.” One of the main things I remember is how difficult it was to find an apartment. We stayed in New York for about a year and then moved to Chicago.

RR: What brought you to Door County?

EJ: I was living and working in Chicago and did a series of portraits for the owners of the Founder’s Square. They invited me to come to Door County and I really enjoyed the beauty of the area. I have been coming back in the summer since that time. To me Door County is an ideal place to create and the painting opportunities seem endless.

RR: Is there one instructor who had a great deal of influence on your work?

EJ: I had many fine instructors, but Harry Carmean taught me life drawing. From him I learned the techniques of the old masters in doing the human figure. I learned that drawing is the basis for all art.

Johns creates diverse works – abstract paintings as well as pastel landscapes and portraits.

RR: How would you describe your current work?

EJ: I am excited about what I am doing. I am doing a series of abstract paintings of Peninsula Park. As with all my abstract paintings they are done in acrylic. [We discuss the merits of various brands of acrylics in great detail.] I have five of the paintings completed and my goal is to have eight in the series. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from doing my abstract work; I think it emphasizes one’s creativity.

RR: I know that here and in New Mexico [Johns and his Jan’s winter home], you are known for your plein air work. You enjoy painting outside?

EJ: I have been painting plein air since high school. I find being outside and painting a fabulous experience. In New Mexico it is a “way of life” for artists.

RR: If you could paint for a day with any artist, living or passed away, who would it be and why?

Johns paints plein air, a practice he has enjoyed since high school.

EJ: I think it would be [Edouard] Vuillard. To be with him and seeing him use his incredible sense of color would be amazing.

RR: Which is more difficult to paint with, pastel or oil?

EJ: I started using pastels in my portrait work many years ago. The transition to doing landscapes with pastels as a result of my experience was an easy transition for me.

RR: I heard from a friend who knows you something that I found interesting. How many portraits do you think you have done in your career?

EJ: I would say the number would be 35,000.

RR: That is amazing. Can you finish this sentence: I think the future of fine art is ______.

EJ: Is bright. 15 or 20 years ago people were saying that easel painting was dead. It has never been stronger. I actually think the talent levels seen at shows with both professionals and amateurs is better than ever.

RR: Thank you.

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