Colouring with Water

Local watercolour artist John Lovett comes from an artistic family. Raised in Cooma, NSW, he attended Newcastle’s National Art School in the early seventies, before starting a family of his own. John is now based in Currumbin on the Gold Coast and makes a living painting and teaching others at workshops in his studio, as well as in Europe and America.

Interview by Christopher King

How did you first become involved with watercolours?
I first became involved with watercolour about 30 years ago. I used it more as a way of recording information – pen and wash sketches and quick little location paintings. Now I guess you’d call it an addiction rather than an involvement. Once I learned to stop trying to control and master watercolour, and to work along with the unpredictable accidents that occur, I was hooked. I love not being in complete control of the paintings outcome – starting with a rough plan, encouraging accidents to happen then working with the unpredictable things unfolding in front of me.

Who is your role model?
I don’t really have a role model, but I guess if I was to choose someone, it would be Franz Kline. The way he worked so hard throughout his life, reducing his work to simple, calligraphic marks that were so beautifully executed and perfectly proportioned, is an inspiring feat.

How long would you spend on a typical painting?
Actual painting time varies a lot. Sometimes a painting will be quick and spontaneous and finished in a few hours. Sometimes it will take days. I like to get a painting 90% finished then put it aside for a few days. Coming back with fresh eyes will often reveal problems not initially noticed. I also like to sit down with a beer, listen to some music and scribble down what I think should be changed in paintings I’m working on. I’ll come back in a couple of days, look at the work, read the notes and, if I still think the changes need to be made, go ahead and make them. For me, this solves the problem of being over enthusiastic and creating problems in the final stages of a painting.
Do you ever pass on your knowledge through workshops and classes?
I run workshops a couple of times a year here in my studio at Currumbin and I also do workshops in Europe each year. Every couple of years we also go to the US to conduct workshops. The workshops are a lot of fun but also a lot of work. We work pretty hard doing 2 sometimes 3 paintings a day, then critique sessions thrown in every couple of days. Everyone tends to be worn out by the end of each day. The European workshops run for a couple of weeks which is great for the students. People really get to know one another and become more relaxed about their painting. This, combined with the amount of painting we do, really accelerates their progress.

Where do you look for inspiration?
I get a lot of inspiration traveling to different places. The contrast in landscape, architecture and culture always seems to trigger ideas. My last Sydney Exhibition was called “Tall Tales” and was inspired by the misinterpreted stories, cultural differences and underworld shadows that pervade daily life in Sicily and Southern Italy. I like to visit galleries and see what other artists are doing. Books, magazines and contact with other artists via the internet also provide a lot of inspiration.

What influence has the internet had on your brand?
The internet has made a huge difference to the way my name is promoted, both as an artist and as a tutor. We have a website (, a blog ( and, recently, a Facebook page. These have generated a large mailing list for exhibitions and workshops and also provide a marketplace for my books and DVD’s. I write regularly for International Artist Magazine and can do this from anywhere with mobile data coverage. I once wrote and illustrated an article on painting in Venice while camped on the banks of a river in far North Queensland. The finished article and half a dozen hi-res images were uploaded to the publishers via my mobile phone.

How much of a perfectionist are you?
I think to produce good work you have to be a perfectionist. If I’m not 100% happy with what I do, it won’t leave the studio. That might seem funny when I like my paintings to look almost as if they have evolved by accident, but woven into all those accidents is an underlying structure and balance that I am neurotically fussy about.

What has been the biggest highlight of the last decade?
Being a big fan of the abstract expressionists and the New York painters of the 1940s and 50s, it was a real treat to spend time in East Village, New York. Visiting the galleries, bars and restaurants and wandering the streets where these artists had their studios made that whole exciting era come to life.

What do you love about your job?
I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to make a living doing something I enjoy so much. It’s not really like a job; it becomes a way of life. Work can become pretty intense when I’m in the studio working on an exhibition. There are ups and downs, some paintings work, some don’t, but in the end it’s very satisfying to see 35-40 paintings I’m really happy with hanging on the gallery walls. The other enjoyable part of my work is the chance to do a lot of traveling. We usually spend 2 or 3 months overseas and about the same amount of time traveling to remote parts of Australia.

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