Painting Patterns in Nature: Interview with Kelly Johnston

Kelly Johnston earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the University of Washington in 2000. In addition to painting, she has worked in the interior design industry and created a line of handmade jewelry. Kelly returned to painting in 2013 and has exhibited her work throughout the Pacific Northwest. She was recently featured in Luxe Interiors + Design Magazine, HGTV Magazine, and Her work can also be found in three collections of limited edition prints available on, McGaw Graphics and through Sebastian Foster. 

Kelly lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington with her husband and two children. 

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Tell us about your journey as an artist. 

I like that this question references a journey. That’s exactly what it is. A twisty, winding path through life and experiences. So many starts and stops along the way. I’ve always felt the most stimulated when making things and have painted on and off since I was a kid. I went to art school and graduated with a BFA in Painting. After college, I got a desk job and barely made time for painting, which made me kind of miserable, but I was also mystified as to how to actually become a working artist – because that definitely wasn’t covered in school! After a few years I got married and with the encouragement of my husband I finally decided to quit my job and try to paint full time. But we started a family shortly thereafter and caring for young children definitely took precedence in my life for a good ten years. Finally, when our second child began full day Kindergarten I rented a little studio space near our house and just jumped back in. That was five years ago and I’ve been working steadily ever since. I’ve come to realize that art feeds more art and I’m just following along, going where it leads me.


How do you feel your work has evolved since you started painting?

It’s become more complex and there’s more depth. I often feel that I’m a little all over the place with lots of ideas and I always want to follow all these different tangents, but I’m slowly figuring out what my work is about over time. And I’m always searching and learning. I can’t imagine painting the same thing over and over for the rest of my career. I’m ok with the work changing because it’s a reflection of my growth as an artist and a person.

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What inspires your current work? Tell us about your process and references. Where do the landscape images come from?

I’ve always painted landscapes and abstract landscapes with a focus on color and light but lately I’ve become fascinated with the patterns I see repeated in nature. Organic ovoid shapes found in the reflections in my water paintings, in wood grain patterns, topographic maps, rocks and minerals, seashells, clouds in the wind, riverbeds, the whorls on my fingertips, the list goes on and on and I’m drawn to the similarities inherent in all of this natural growth. In terms of process, I take a lot of photos and use them for reference. I’ve also tried painting from other peoples’ photos in the past but I find I’m not as connected to the image if I didn’t experience it firsthand and the resulting painting is more of a struggle. So, I’m thankful for my iPhone in that I almost always have it nearby. Now I have a basket of photos in my studio that I often sift through and use as starting points.

What do you love to do outside of the studio? 

Spend time with my husband, our two kids and our dog. Go outside. Travel and explore new places. Practice yoga. Enjoy my friends and family. 

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Are you part of your local creative community? Tell us what the art scene in Washington is like. 

I try to make it to art galleries and museums when possible. I enjoy meeting other artists and feel lucky to live on an island with a small town community where art is really valued and celebrated. I’ve always lived in Washington state, so it’s my only experience, but I’ve heard we have a much more supportive and cooperative art community in comparison with other places. I’m grateful for that open mindset and try to foster it by spreading the word about artists who I admire or inspire me. And I actually just signed the lease on a new studio space in our town and I’m excited to host some open studio events in the coming year.


What do you hope the viewer experiences through your paintings? 

I always want my paintings to be a treat for the eyes – to be optically exciting – there’s a visual buzz or vibration that I’m after. I think that spark opens the door for escapism and then I hope the viewer feels a moment of peace. Reflection. And a connection to the bigger picture.

You received some notable recognition in magazines and publications. What advice would you give other creatives looking to get some press?

Put yourself out there. Submit lots of applications to open calls. And just keep working!