Interview with Portrait Painter Stephen Janton

Stephen Janton Photo by Erica Mueller

Interviewed by Dennis Ray

Rapid River Magazine: Tell us a little about what it is like being an artist in Asheville.

Stephen Janton: Being an artist in Asheville is a really exciting and fulfilling experience. Asheville’s unique vibe draws artists from all over the country. I owe most of my Asheville experience to my wonderful clients. Joining the River Arts District Artists (RADA), an association of 180 or so artists has also had significant impact. RADA is a group of artists that volunteer their time to organize and promote art events like Studio Stroll and Second Saturday.

RADA also focuses on helping artists to become better at business. It is very obvious to me that the arts community here cares about the city and really wants to help keep the uniqueness that is Asheville. I also find the Asheville arts community to be very giving, donating their time and artwork to many important causes in the area.

RRM: How did you get into becoming a professional painter?

SJ: I have been taught by a handful of accomplished art teachers who were also professional artists. My primary education is in the human sciences (Physical Therapy) and art was always a second interest. My education in the sciences, chemistry and anatomy prepared me for becoming an oil portrait painter.

20 years ago, I had the opportunity and the time to further my art education through a mentor and also at the Fort Lauderdale Art Museum’s studio fine arts program. I was always drawn to paintings of the human figure and portraiture and wanted to try my best to become a recognized portrait painter. I am also a member of the Portrait Society of America and that has helped me in developing my professional career as a portrait painter.

RRM: What inspires you to create?

SJ: The challenge, the joy of painting and getting lost in the process of painting is very addicting. Also, the reaction of others to my work inspires. An expressed emotion in response to something that you have created is a very strong motivator to keep going and strive to become better. My studio is relatively small and is basically a work space. However, during Studio Stroll, many people (800 or so on a weekend) come in and view my work.

In the beginning, it was a bit uncomfortable sitting close by and hearing unsolicited comments from perfect strangers. Over time I’ve learned to really appreciate and enjoy hearing and seeing viewer’s comments and reactions.

RRM: What makes for a great portrait painting?

SJ: 1) Technically: Inherent artistic quality. A portrait that demonstrates the traditional attributes of truth and beauty through sound draftsmanship, realistic and appealing color, creative and intelligent design of the composition, and exciting execution (brushwork).

2) Evoking the reality of the portrait’s subject: a portrait should transmit, to the maximum degree, the character and human qualities of the subject. A great portrait vibrates with the living aura at a specific moment in time.

3) The amount of time a viewer spends looking at, absorbing and reacting to the painting is a true measure of greatness. Greatness is something you just cannot take your eyes off. If it doesn’t stir something they may say ‘That’s nice’ and move on, and wouldn’t walk 10 steps to look at it again. To qualify as great it has to create a substantial amount of activity in the viewer’s mind or heart.

RRM: Which two contemporary artists work do you feel personally drawn towards?

SJ: The first is my mentor and friend George Weymouth (American born 1936) known better as “Frolic” Weymouth. Frolic is a Yale art school graduate and was quite close to Andrew Wyeth and his family through his artistry.

Frolic is the founder of the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA where many of the Wyeth paintings are displayed. Weymouth has painted portraits of Luciano Pavarotti (1982), several members of the British Royal family including Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1995), Queen Elizabeth’s husband, which hangs in Windsor Castle. I actually modeled for this portrait where my thumb was painted into the composition while holding the plans for the Windsor Castle fire restoration. His skill as an artist and his passion for the arts are inspiring.

Lucian Michael Freud, (1922 –2011) was a German-born British painter. Known chiefly for his thickly impastoed portrait and figure paintings, he was widely considered the pre-eminent British artist of his time. His works are noted for their psychological penetration, and for their often discomforting examination of the relationship between artist and model.

RRM: Tell us a little about your painting process. Is everything already created and put together at least in your mind before the brush ever touches the canvas, or do you create and change things as you go along?

SJ: I do spend a lot of time and effort on the composition so that there are minimal, if any, changes made during the painting process. Typically color values will be changed in the process but not the composition itself. Ideally the process would involve having the client sit for a photo session so they can then pick the best pose for the composition.

The client would then sit for me for usually four sessions of about two hours each. Working from a live model always gives the best outcome. However, I have done posthumous portraits where the composition is created from a series of photographs.

RRM: How long usually does it take you to do a typical painting?

SJ: I work primarily in oils and a portrait typically takes about two months. That can vary based on the size of the panel, if it is only head and shoulders, half the body or full body and if it is a single person vs. more than one. The amount of background detail also adds time to the process. I joke with fellow artists about productivity as I see some artists producing works measured sometimes in minutes or days to my months.

I am a realist painter and fine detail is a hallmark of my work. I chose Lucian Freud as someone whose work I am drawn towards because he is a realist but uses an intense concentration of the texture and color of flesh, and much thicker paint, including impasto. He tended to clean his brush between every stroke. In 2007 it took Freud sixteen months to complete a single painting. That makes my two months seem very doable.

RRM: What are you currently working on?

SJ: I am currently working on a human figurative piece that is 30” x 40” oil on gesso panel. The painting has a heavy tension in the composition created by the position of seven dancers. The dancers are connected in a pulling motion. One dancer is alone being pulled by the others. There is a line created by the dancer’s arms, dividing the painting. There is primarily a single light source which helps create depth and dimension. The composition was inspired by the dance choreographer Travis Wall.

Janton Art Studio
191 Lyman St Suite 211, Asheville, NC 28801
(305) 588-4564,