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How Painter Ben Johnson Takes Architectural Representation to Incredible Levels of Realism

How Painter Ben Johnson Takes Architectural Representation to Incredible Levels of Realism
How Painter Ben Johnson Takes Architectural Representation to Incredible Levels of Realism, 'Approaching the Mirador' (2013, acrylic on canvas, 89 x 59in / 225 x 150cm). Image © Ben Johnson
'Approaching the Mirador' (2013, acrylic on canvas, 89 x 59in / 225 x 150cm). Image © Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson is a painter preoccupied by realism – especially when it comes to the two-dimensional representation of architectural space. A British artist practicing in London, Johnson has been working professionally since the mid-1960s. In that time his extensive œuvre has encompassed painted cityscapes and prints to depictions of rooms designed—among others—by Norman Foster, John Pawson, I. M. Pei, and David Chipperfield.

'Room of the Niobids II' (2011, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 99in / 180 x 252cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson 'Fatherland Room' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 93in / 180 x 237cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson 'Roman Room' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 93in / 180 x 237cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson 'Room of the Niobids' (2011, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 99in / 180 x 252cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson + 19

'Room of the Revolutionary' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 89 x 59in / 225 x 150cm). Image © Ben Johnson
'Room of the Revolutionary' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 89 x 59in / 225 x 150cm). Image © Ben Johnson
Studio setting: 'Room of the Revolutionary' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 89 x 59in / 225 x 150cm). Image © Ben Johnson
Studio setting: 'Room of the Revolutionary' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 89 x 59in / 225 x 150cm). Image © Ben Johnson

When viewed in the canon of artistic Realism, Johnson's work is almost unparalleled in its accuracy and attention to detail. The closest comparison that could be made might be to Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait of 1434, a picture of the 15th century Flemish school which also harnesses the technique of using a geometrically constructed perspective to depict nested space. It also employs a similar level of detail and 'truth to reality' – albeit, by its nature as an interpretive piece, representative of a suspended reality.

Over the last decade, Johnson has turned his attention to the great palatial complex of the Alhambra de Granada by producing a series of exquisitely worked canvases in devotion to its sculptural and spatial eccentricities. From the façade of the Sala de la Barca to the Patio de los Arrayanes and the Mirador de Lindaraja, Johnson's work embodies a capacity to re-present strictly controlled, dimensionless architectural space which is atmospherically dense and makes use—in a non-figurative sense—of chiaroscuro. His work balances on the threshold between the false perfection of the perspective view, and the abstracted depiction of an imperfect reality.

Ben Johnson's London studio. Image © Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson's London studio. Image © Ben Johnson
Aligning stencils to the canvas. Image © Ben Johnson
Aligning stencils to the canvas. Image © Ben Johnson

Building the paintings in stages, as one would a collage, Johnson primarily works from photography. Rather than apply paint by brush, he tends to spray it onto the canvas or use sponge to create texture. On a typical painting, he might spend nine months drawing stencils and six months turning these drawings into coloured areas, which then may take a vinyl cutter a further three months to create. Two months might then be spent on colour mixing before Johnson will actually begin painting, which could take between nine and twelve months. He is not alone in this process: "each painting is a collaboration that is more important than me as an artist, or me as an individual," he says. Each work "is a byproduct of collaboration."

'Facade of Sala de la Barca' (2015, acrylic on canvas, 163 x 202cm). Image © Ben Johnson
'Facade of Sala de la Barca' (2015, acrylic on canvas, 163 x 202cm). Image © Ben Johnson
Detail of 'Facade of Sala de la Barca' (2015, acrylic on canvas, 163 x 202cm). Image © Ben Johnson
Detail of 'Facade of Sala de la Barca' (2015, acrylic on canvas, 163 x 202cm). Image © Ben Johnson
'Mirador de Lindaraja' (2013, acrylic on canvas, 87 x 87in / 220 x 220cm). Image © Ben Johnson
'Mirador de Lindaraja' (2013, acrylic on canvas, 87 x 87in / 220 x 220cm). Image © Ben Johnson
Painting 'Mirador de Lindaraja' (2013, acrylic on canvas, 87 x 87in / 220 x 220cm). Image © Ben Johnson
Painting 'Mirador de Lindaraja' (2013, acrylic on canvas, 87 x 87in / 220 x 220cm). Image © Ben Johnson
'Patio de los Arrayanes' (2015, acrylic on canvas, 220 x 220cm). Image © Ben Johnson
'Patio de los Arrayanes' (2015, acrylic on canvas, 220 x 220cm). Image © Ben Johnson

'Roman Room' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 93in / 180 x 237cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson
'Roman Room' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 93in / 180 x 237cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson
'Room of the Niobids II' (2011, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 99in / 180 x 252cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson
'Room of the Niobids II' (2011, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 99in / 180 x 252cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson
'Room of the Niobids' (2011, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 99in / 180 x 252cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson
'Room of the Niobids' (2011, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 99in / 180 x 252cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson
'Fatherland Room' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 93in / 180 x 237cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson
'Fatherland Room' (2014, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 93in / 180 x 237cm): depiction of the Neues Museum (Berlin) by David Chipperfield Architects & Julian Harrap. Image © Ben Johnson
'Looking Back to Richmond House' (2011, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 108in / 183 x 274cm). Image © Ben Johnson
'Looking Back to Richmond House' (2011, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 108in / 183 x 274cm). Image © Ben Johnson

A major retrospective of Johnson's work, Spirit of Place: Paintings 1967-2015, is currently on display in Southampton City Art Gallery (UK) until the 23rd January 2016.

View the complete gallery

About this author
James Taylor-Foster
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Cite: James Taylor-Foster. "How Painter Ben Johnson Takes Architectural Representation to Incredible Levels of Realism" 08 Dec 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/778391/the-artist-who-suspends-reality-to-take-architectural-representation-to-incredible-levels-of-realism/> ISSN 0719-8884
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