Jonjo Elliott on forging a career as an artist, the importance of colour, and how to exhibit in galleries
From leaving school with no qualifications to exhibiting worldwide, we talk to Jonjo Elliott about his remarkable career and what he's learned so far.
Being an artist is a dream job for many people, but it can often feel like an impossible aspiration. Should aspiring creatives go to university? What should they study? Would they be better off taking a more hands-on approach with an apprenticeship? For Leicester lad and artist Jonjo Elliott, it seems like every route has its merits. Skilfully navigating them, he now finds himself exhibiting all over the world and appearing in the Netflix series.
Primarily a painter who makes large-scale works on canvas with oils, acrylics and inks, Jonjo also likes to explore installations as part of his exhibitions. These include working in skate parks which channel his childhood passions alongside his paintings in gallery spaces, plus oversized artworks which can be walked into and films that he's made himself.
"My paintings explore the spaces we live in, and I'm trying to create a world full of vibrant colours and images with story-based narratives," he tells Creative Boom. "I also like to make ceramic pots which I see as 3D paintings." To learn more about his work and hear the story behind his creative journey, we caught up with Jonjo to get the inside story.
When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?
I've made art since I was a kid but didn't know that you could be a real artist and actually make it into a career. I grew up on surf and skate graphics and comics, which I'd copy and make stickers out of, and that led me into a screen printing career I loved. Alongside that, I became a photographer and built my own darkroom at home, where I'd print skate pics, local bands, wedding pics and many street photography images.
I was always making paintings and eventually decided to enrol at uni to study fine art, which was definitely a good decision. I spent a lot of time in the uni library, and I think I read every book in the art section at least twice. The workshops, meanwhile, were like a second home to me, where I learned to stretch canvases and build stuff. That was really the point where I decided to try and make it as an artist.
I ended up working for the uni for a couple of years, where I created art projects for communities, hospitals and recovery centres, including personally delivering free art clubs in areas where there was no real affordable access to arts. These clubs were fantastic, with over 120 people coming every week to have a go at different creative practises, but unfortunately, Covid put an end to them.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
My main influences come from just looking at stuff constantly: colours, the structure of things like furniture and architecture, music and some of the older artists like Picasso and his ceramics, Hockney's LA stuff, Warhol's prints and Basquiat's abstract approach I'm also really interested in how artists live and work in their studios. If you look at one of my bookshelf paintings, you'll see the things I really like in the titles of the books. I recently visited Laurel Canyon in LA and made a piece based on the musicians who lived there in the '60s and '70s, so influences can come from anywhere.
Tell us about how you use colour in your work
Colour is essential to me. I want my work to jump off the wall when you see it and be a focal point in a room. I think the saturated skate graphics I still love, my screen print career and TV have left a lasting impression on my brain. Part of my job as a printer was to mix colours which was a fundamental skill in that trade as everything had to be perfect, and I think that plays a part in how I combine my colours now.
You say you left school with no qualifications. Do you think qualifications are more important now and do artists need them to succeed in the industry?
I actually left school before I was supposed to and went straight into a print room which was a good choice for me and gave me the option of learning to print at night school, which suited me better than a classroom, and I got paid which meant new skateboards and surf trips regularly.
I do think qualifications are good for some people but maybe not for others, and depending on which career path you want to take, it can help, but I know painters who are doing really well with no qualifications, just awesome work.
University is so expensive these days, too, so give it some serious thought before signing up because maybe time spent in your own studio space or travelling might actually teach you more if you're considering being an artist. It all depends on the individual.
It'd be great to just paint and ship work off all over the place, but you need to constantly work, communicate, share and let people know you're out there.
Your work has appeared on Netflix. Did you know this was going to happen beforehand, and how did you react when you found out?
My work appeared in Dirty John with Christian Slater on Netflix, which was pretty cool and not something I knew would happen. We'd just got back from a holiday, and I got a few messages from people who'd seen it in the show, so it was great that it was being recognised. I've since had a few collectors get in touch, which saw the work and decided to see what I had available, and it was really a massive buzz to see my work on screen.
Why do plants play such a large role in your work?
My botanical influence came originally from a holiday in Crete where a huge potted palm plant was next to the pool, which I was just amazed by. The colours and the shape fascinated me, so I took some images and then painted it when we got home. Since then, I've tried to always put plants in my images to add life and growth to the painting. I'm a bit of a plant geek and have numerous tropical plants in my house which end up featuring in my work.
How did you go from graduating to exhibiting worldwide?
After graduation, I was offered a solo exhibition in Leicester, which allowed me to make some really big paintings and a life-size 3D walk-in painting. The photographs of the show got shared online through websites and social media and were spotted by galleries in LA, who then asked me if I could send them some work which eventually led to my solo show in LA which was just amazing.
The galleries have helped me a lot and grown my collector base out there, which means I get to go over every few years for shows. It all goes back to that thing of making the most of every opportunity and doing everything you can to get your work seen. I've been lucky enough to exhibit work in Palm Springs, NYC, Florida, Switzerland, Brisbane and London.
What's one thing you wish people knew about being an artist that they currently don't?
That being an artist is bloody hard work but worth it. It'd be great to just paint and ship work off all over the place, but you need to constantly work, communicate, share and let people know you're out there. I thoroughly enjoy all that stuff and the challenges that come with it all.
What advice would you give aspiring artists to follow in your footsteps?
I advise upcoming artists to work as hard as possible and then work some more. Never give up trying new stuff until you find the thing that suits you the most, and don't get hung up on things like social media. If you're struggling to get an exhibition in a gallery, go make one somewhere else and create a buzz around it, and don't forget to share the images as far as you can. You never know who'll see them.