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In the Studio: Brendan Johnston and Katie Whipple

by Allison Malafronte

Johnston, Whipple and Theo in their Southampton studio

Brendan Johnston and Katie Whipple are two young, talented artists who met while students at The Grand Central Atelier (GCA) and who recently married and relocated to Long Island City, where they continue to contribute to the GCA community as instructors. Johnston, who grew up in both New York City and Southampton, and Whipple, who was raised in the suburbs of Indianapolis, decided to move to Southampton during the summer months, where they now share a beautiful studio on the property of the Johnston residence. I had a chance to catch up with Johnston and Whipple in early September and spent a day in their Southampton studio learning more about their training, a recent sojourn to Italy, current paintings and ideas and how they are handling the post-atelier transition to professional artist. 

Four north-facing windows and a skylight allow plenty of natural light into the studio

The Hamptons are a beautiful place for an artist to hang his or her hat, and certainly Johnston and Whipple are not the first to be enchanted by the distinctive light, cultivated farmlands, and coastal charms of this historical artist haven. Although Johnston grew up in Southampton, it was not until 2006, when his parents moved into their current home and helped Johnston remodel a studio, that he began spending the summers painting on the East End. When Johnston and Whipple married in 2014, she joined him in Southampton from June through early September, but the couple maintain separate studios the rest of the year in Long Island City: Whipple has her studio in their apartment while Johnston’s studio is on-site at the nearby Grand Central Atelier. During our visit, Johnston explained how their Southampton studio evolved and the support he received from his family in remodeling it. The studio—which is a separate structure, in between the house and the pool—was built by the previous owner, who was an abstract artist. Johnston and his parents renovated it to add more north-facing windows, a skylight and a large woodshop, where Johnston works on various projects and stretches canvases.  

BRENDAN JOHNSTON

Brendan Johnston surrounded by his paintings After viewing the house and studio, I began my interview with Johnston, while Whipple worked on a current painting at her easel. Although there were several of Johnston’s portrait and figure works hanging on the walls, the majority of the paintings on and surrounding the easel—and filling the woodshop—were landscapes, which Johnston has been working on more and more lately. “I really enjoy working in different media and on various subject matter—drawing, painting, sculpting; portrait, figure, still life, landscape—and I feel I’m still learning so much about each one,” the 32-year-old artist admitted. “Each subject and medium edifies and informs the other, so I don’t see myself working solely on one any time soon. But landscape is relatively new for me, and I’m devoting more time to it, especially when I’m out here in the summer. As a student, you live in the world of figure and portrait every day, so it has been both a pleasure and a challenge to discover and explore this new genre.”

Johnston told of his first landscape-painting experience as a student at the GCA, when he participated in the month-long Hudson River Fellowship—and how it threw him for a major loop. “I was totally lost,” he laughed. “I didn’t have an ease of paint application yet. I had only maybe done one or two oil paintings prior to the trip, and there were so many new challenges to contend with being outdoors. But that experience really helped me become a better painter. By the end of the month, I had a certain level of comfort with mixing and applying paint, and it forced me to get paint on the canvas and make decisions quickly, which helped me quite a bit with my studio work. Now as a teacher, when I see students struggling early on with applying paint, I tell them to go landscape painting because I know how helpful it can be.”

Choosing landscape painting certainly makes more sense in an environment that offers plenty of paintable vistas, clear light and a community of fellow artists. Having seen the Hamptons evolve over time, Johnston discussed how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the kind of untouched views he wishes to paint. He explained, for example, how his current painting on the easel, Dune Pass, Meadow Lane, required editing out the enormous house just to the left of what’s pictured in the foreground in order to focus on the natural view. Meadow Lane, once a meandering stretch of land and dunes between Shinnecock Bay and the ocean, is now known as “Billionaire Lane,” where wealthy Wall Street executives, tech and media tycoons and celebrities have built extravagant homes. The five-mile road is also replete with a private helipad to transport residents to Manhattan in under 30 minutes—not exactly the East End William Merritt Chase or even Jackson Pollock used to know. Although much of this and other areas throughout the Hamptons have been maintained by the Peconic Land Trust—and have been visually documented for more than a decade by Plein Air Peconic and other plein-air painters—there’s only so much that can be done to prevent the increasing demand for development.

Several of Johnston’s landscape studies line the walls of his woodshop  A sketch of one of the many beautiful farms on the East End

“Every artist who has lived here for some time or who comes here regularly knows the landscape is changing very quickly,” Johnston said. “William Merritt Chase used to teach landscape workshops a half-mile from here, his house was in Shinnecock Hills. If you look at the paintings from that time, there was nothing there. It was wide-open land. A friend and I were able to find the area pretty close to where he painted Idle Hours, and it’s amazing how different it looks. I also remember certain scenes or characteristic views from my childhood that are now virtually gone. I spend a good amount of time just searching for what I want to paint, the places that feel like it used to be. It’s important for me to document and preserve the beauty I see while it is still available to be enjoyed.” The artist then showed me another current painting he is working on: a scene of the last remaining potato field in the Hamptons, just down the street from where he lives. 

Two of the artist’s finished paintings and their respective plein-air studiesAs we talked further, I learned that another medium Johnston has been devoting significant time to lately is sculpture. As part of the GCA’s curriculum, all drawing and painting students are required to take sculpture in the first year—and encouraged to continue to do so in the years that follow—to help them draw and paint with three-dimensional understanding. While Johnston was a student at the GCA, he took several sculpture classes and eventually devoted his entire fifth and final year to it. Now, as a resident artist and core instructor at the GCA, he finds himself often working on portrait painting and sculpture simultaneously. One such recent project was of the model Devin. “There was a night class at the GCA and Devin was sitting,” the artist said. “His face is too good to pass up, with all of these great structural landmarks—wildly pronounced cheekbones, strong jawline—so I joined the students and painted his portrait. At the time I was also sculpting in the afternoons with Jacob Collins and Charlie Mostow, so we decided to sculpt Devin as well. It was a revelation to paint and sculpt the same head at the same time because you get to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each medium in direct comparison. The head is extraordinarily expressive, but it’s only expressive if you understand the structure underneath, the skull. Sculpting helps you paint with structural understanding, and we notice that when students start taking the sculpture classes, their drawings advance exponentially.”

The sculpture program at the GCA—which is a supplement to the drawing and painting program, not necessarily a separate track—bases its curriculum on the same technical principles as the drawing and painting programs. For instance, for measurement, the draftsmen and painters at the GCA use comparative measurement, and the sculptors use 1-to-1 measurement based on the classical canon of ideal human proportion. As both Johnston and Whipple explained to me, whether drawing, painting or sculpting, the GCA artist begins with getting all of the fundamental measurements down, the main structural points. In sculpture, you can find those points using calipers, in drawing or painting using a plumb line or string. The scale for the drawing, painting or sculpture is determined by the artist, and once you make your first major marks (usually the top of head, the Great Trochanter as the halfway point and the bottom of the feet), you are basing everything off of those marks in comparative measurement. After the basic outline is established, you work inward, slowly developing the structure, anatomy and volume, while carefully modeling form part by part. 

Dune Pass, Meadow Lane, 2016, oil on panel, 12 x 20 in

The GCA’s way of approaching the figure and processing visual information is precisely what initially attracted Johnston to the school. Prior to enrolling at the GCA, the artist’s education began with a childhood love of art history that took shape while frequenting The Metropolitan Museums of Art (MET), which was only five blocks from his home. After learning more about art history in his AP high-school classes, he enrolled at McGill University, in Montreal, where he received a B.A. in art history and the humanities. Upon graduating in 2006, the artist began to search for a school where he could learn how to paint in the style he had encountered in the wings of the MET and in his college classrooms. “I had spent so much time studying art, looking at it, writing about it—I was really curious to see what it would be like to actually create it,” the artist remembers. Through his father—George Sim Johnston, an investment banker turned scholarly writer, whose reviews and essays regularly appear in The New Criterion and other publications—Johnston was introduced to the artist Judith Kudlow, and she recommended the Harlem Studio of Art for Johnston to begin his studies.  

<i>Portrait of Devin</i>, 2016, oil on linen, 17 x 19 in  <i>Sculpture of Devin</i>, 2016, terra cotta, 24 h x 16w x 13 ins

Johnston attended The Harlem Studio part-time for two years, and as much as he appreciated the approaches and techniques taught by the skilled instructors, it wasn’t until he discovered Jacob Collin’s Water Street Atelier—right as it was moving from Brooklyn to New York City and becoming The Grand Central Atelier—that he knew he had found the school he was searching for. “As soon as I walked through the door and heard Jacob and some of the young instructors teaching, I knew it was the school for me,” he remembers. “Everything at the GCA is concerned with thinking about moving around form and space. It’s very factual and unbiased: this is the way light behaves, this is how color works and this is how your eye and mind perceive the three-dimensional world. What drew me to the GCA was the way in which these ideas and the accompanying techniques were being discussed and taught: with clarity and precision.”

One of Johnston’s drawings (detail) from his student days, which shows how the GCA artist blocks in the figure  Another figure drawing from his student sketchbook

Since graduating from the GCA in 2013, Johnston has been transitioning to the next phase of a professional career by continuing his self-education—including a year spent in Italy with Whipple, where he studied and copied Old Master drawings, paintings and sculpture—and through practicing and painting every day. He still maintains the energy and excitement of a student by challenging himself with new subject matter and painting what he finds important and meaningful, such as the changing landscapes of his hometown. He is also taking steps toward selling his art and has been working on several commissions over the last year. Johnston and Whipple have both recently started working with Williams Fine Art Dealers, owned by the director of the Academy of Realist Art Boston, Ginny Williams. “I’m at the early stage of my career, so in many ways the possibilities are endless,” Johnston said, speaking of his plans for the next few years. “I’m still searching, in a way, but I’m okay with that. I don’t know which direction it’s all going to go, I just know I’m going to keep practicing and painting—and enjoying the process.” 

A recent landscape painting on display in the studio 

KATIE WHIPPLE 

Katie Whipple at her easel working on a current commission Although my interview with Johnston also involved conversation with Whipple, after a break for lunch and a tour of the house, the floor was fully hers, and she was eager to share stories from her summer months in the studio, as well as some recent formative experiences that have shaped her growth as an artist. I was also happy to finally have a chance to sit down with Whipple after hearing about her for some time from fellow artists in the community. I remember conversations at the first Weekend With the Master event in 2009, when artists such as Michelle Dunaway, Jeremy Lipking, Susan Lyon and Scott Burdick—who knew Katie and her mother, the artist Libby Whipple, personally and had seen Katie paint in workshops—talked of a young, 18-year-old artist to keep an eye on because she was already exhibiting extraordinary skill and ability. At that time, Whipple had just decided where to attend art school. She explained during our interview that she began the search as a junior in high school, and became disappointed after visiting some of the well-known art schools and universities. Three years prior, while Katie and her mother were visiting New York, they stopped at an art-supply store and spoke to an artist who told them to look up Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier. A few months later, Libby saw an ad in an art magazine for The Grand Central Atelier, which was just opening in New York City. She saved the ad for when it came time for Katie to look into art schools. Although the artist was hesitant to move to Manhattan, Libby thought it was a good idea to at least visit the school and see how she responded. Similar to Brendan, Katie knew right away that she had found the school for her. “I remember not even wanting to finish high school after visiting the GCA,” she said. “It was literally love at first sight. When I saw the drawings and paintings in person and how hard the students were working, how dedicated they were, I knew how seriously they were taking their training. I was so relieved that this respect for art education still existed.”

Katie spoke of her childhood growing up in the Midwest, and how her mother and father recognized and fostered her interest in and love of art. She drew from the time she was a child—in fact, she said her sheets were often streaked with charcoal because she would wake up in the middle of the night to sketch—and her mother began painting with her and taking her to museums when she was only four years old. Being a self-taught artist, Libby started taking workshops with and collecting the work of such artists as Richard Schmid and the young artists who trained with him. Katie would join her mother at exhibitions and events, and that is when she realized there were people painting professionally in a realist manner, and that she too could dedicate her life to this pursuit. The artist says she actually never had an interest in studying nineteenth-century academic painting—she always gravitated more toward the grand brushwork and portrait-painting style of Sargent—but there was something about the GCA that spoke to her, and once she became immersed in the training she never wanted to leave. After spending four years at the school and graduating in 2013, Katie was fortunate to segue right into an experience that furthered her education while allowing for a period of freedom and discovery: she was the winner of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s 2013 Alma Shaprio Prize, a three-month fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, which is a center for independent study and research in the fine arts and humanities. It proved to be a great way to ease the passage from student to independent artist and open her mind to new influences.

Praiano Lemons, Leaf Study, 2014, oil on linen

Whipple and Johnston decided to extend the trip and do a Grand Tour of Italy, ultimately spending four months in Rome, three months in Florence, and one month in Naples. The eight months abroad were instrumental in the artist’s development and planted seeds of inspiration that are still producing fruit. “The residency was on a beautiful compound with all of these lovely gardens,” the artist said. “We had an amazing apartment and studio, and they handle everything for the artist, including meals, so that you can concentrate on your art and what Rome has to offer. We made appointments every day to do master copies in the museums and galleries. I assumed I would be copying Raphaels and Titians the whole time, but I ended up copying Filippo Lippi and discovering other profound influences. After studying in the museums all day, I would spend the weekends doing studies of fruit and fruit trees in the gardens. 

During the last week we were there, I had made appointments in the museums to do master copies, but I cancelled them so I could concentrate on the gardens. It was the same situation in Florence—we were living on top of a hill, so we had an amazing view of the city from our apartment. Brendan would go to the museums to copy Michelangelo sculptures, and I would stay home to paint out the window. And then in Naples, I pretty much painted lemons the whole time.” 

The Villa di Livia book Whipple bought in Rome with <i>The Painted Garden</i> image While in Rome, Whipple was especially impressed by the ancient wall paintings, particularly the mural from the Villa Livia, which she had full access to through her fellowship with the American Academy. Showing me the book with the story and illustrations of this mural, she proclaimed, “This is my favorite painting in the world right now, The Painted Garden, from about 30 to 20 B.C. It’s an entire room that was frescoed in the Villa Livia, who was the second wife of the Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome.” Whipple explained that the mural was in the dining room of the villa, which was partially underground, and that Livia had commissioned an artist to paint the walls to look like a garden. The room was discovered around 1863, and the mural was moved to the Palazzo Massimo, a nearby museum of antiquities. “There are many other Roman frescoes in this museum, but this was the best preserved, and occupied an entire room,” she said. “It is just spectacular.” Whipple also mentioned how inspiring it was to be surrounded by the artwork in person and to visit the space it was originally designed for. “Early Renaissance paintings and Roman wall paintings don’t reproduce well in images,” the artist explained. “It’s an all-encompassing and altogether more visually gripping experience to see them in the historical and conceptual context in which they were created.”

It was this and other Renaissance art she discovered throughout her travels in Italy—including Fra Angelico’s paintings in Florence—as well as the study of botanical illustration that ushered in Whipple’s current period of painting large-scale mural and fresco-like imagery full of flowers and fruit, with gold-leaf gilding. One of the first undertakings of this nature was the Annunciation painting she worked on and completed throughout 2015, which was a commission for the C.S. Lewis Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. The 30-x-50 inch diptych brought together all of her observations and visions from Rome, Florence and Naples. “That painting was basically my thesis statement from my travels—a love letter to Italy, if you will,” the artist said. “And the majority of it is from my imagination. I’m not that familiar with Catholic imagery, I grew up Quaker, but there was something about seeing all those frescoes and iconic paintings in Italy that really sparked my imagination and inspired this piece.” 

Michelangelo Bearded Slave 1536, 2014, red and white chalk on watercolor toned paper  <i>Michelangelo’s Nicodemus, 1553</i>, 2014, brown and white chalk on watercolor toned paper

After completing this major work, Whipple began painting individual florals and designing her own compositions, flower by flower. Around this time she was asked to teach a class at the GCA that was related to landscape, and since she does not consider herself a landscape painter, she instead came up with an idea for a class called “Designing Nature.” During these classes, Whipple takes flowers, fruit, or garden items and composes them into her own arrangements. The class and her resulting demos began gaining attention, especially her peony paintings, and pretty soon Whipple was receiving requests for floral commissions. The large, four-feet-wide peony painting currently on the easel, in fact, is a commission from the Indianapolis Library System. Peonies are the state flower of Indiana, and one of the artists who had worked for the library had seen Whipple’s recent peony paintings online. “I have had a lot of interest in and requests for the peony paintings,” the artist said. “I actually have pretty much spent the whole summer doing just those, even though I had intended to work on this one particular painting I had been thinking about since March.”

<i>The Annunciation</i>, 2015, oil on panel, 50 x 31, 9 x 14 1/2

Whipple is not currently working on figures or portraits, but she continues to take figure-drawing classes at the GCA at night to keep her skills sharp—even though she claims her drawings are not nearly as good as they were when she was drawing and painting every day as student. She talked about the pressure she would sometimes put on herself in portraits or figures, but what a relief it has been to paint flowers. The artist employs a slow, methodical technique and puts a lot of thought and finesse into each brushstroke and petal. It’s this meditative, focused approach that suits Whipple best, and at the same time, the pleasant subject matter consistently puts a smile on her face. “I used to get a bit weighed down with figure and portrait work because I attached so much emotion and expectation to it,” she admits. “I now love the process of conveying a mood and personality through objects that aren’t people. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re painting these huge, puffy peonies all day.”

Whipple has been thoroughly enjoying the process of taking her work in new directions and learning what excites and motivates her most. “Right now I’m a flower painter,” the artist said, “and maybe I’ll even become known for that for a while. That doesn’t bother me because that is what I am moved by at the moment. I’m only 25, so I’m sure I won’t be a flower painter forever. I am really inspired to keep working toward the goal of making paintings in the same vein as The Painted Garden I saw in Rome.” She then pointed to six panels in the corner of the studio, six-feet high by two-feet wide, upon which she plans to do just that as soon as she’s done with her commissions and gallery work. “It’s all about finding a balance,” she said of juggling the many ideas she has for future paintings with her other professional commitments. “I’m in a really exciting stage right now. I can pursue whatever I find interesting and inspiring and immerse myself in it—there is total freedom and many choices in front of me.”

Some current peony paintings and studies on the easel   Dried flowers and one of Whipple’s drawings in the corner of the studio

MUTUAL STUDIO SUPPORT

Six months after returning from their trip to Italy in 2014, Johnston and Whipple got married at Sacred Heart Church in Southampton, followed by a reception on the property of the Johnston home. Whipple said it was a small, intimate ceremony with their three families in attendance: the Johnstons, the Whipples and their closest friends and mentors from the GCA. During the ceremony, Johnston and Whipple opened their studio to the attendees and exhibited the studies, sketches and paintings that resulted from their trip to Italy. Their artist-friends, teachers and families had not yet seen the work, and they thought this was a great way to share what they had been working on and also celebrate this new chapter in their lives and careers.

Knowing that Johnston and Whipple were both newlyweds and new summertime studiomates, I asked them how sharing their creative space is going so far. They talked about the initial adjustment of letting someone into your artistic routine, even if it is your spouse. (Whipple likes to light candles, talk while painting and listen to audiobooks. Johnston likes to paint in the zone, doesn’t necessarily want to talk too much and also likes audiobooks.) Once they got into a groove, they found that the motivation, inspiration and balance they brought each other was extremely beneficial. They also both shared how having a studio companion can buffer the sometimes brutal experience of working for hours in isolation. The shared studio experience is at its best, they said, when they each have an engaging project on the easel and a great audio book to listen to. Steadfast to the end in this studio environment is their beautiful Samoyed dog Theo, named after none other than Vincent Van Gogh’s eternally supportive and loyal brother.

The ideal shared-studio situation they described is actually how the two artists spent the majority of this summer: Johnston working on his landscapes, Whipple painting her peonies, Ron Chernow’s biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton playing on audiobook—and the nearby reassuring presence of Theo, looking on in approval while the two young artists continue to face their easels and futures with excitement, curiosity and committed focus. 

Johnston and Theo Whipple and Theo