John Johnstone was born in Forfar in 1941. As a child he was always drawing and, with his two elder brothers, would copy cartoons of footballers. He says “I was interested in how the human body worked.” He was particularly influenced by the illustrative work of Dudley D Watkins, who is better known for his famous comic strips for the publishers D C Thompson. At 13 John was sent to Edinburgh Academy boarding school, an event which he found traumatic but his sanctuary was the art room and the remarkable art master John Frith who took him under his wing and nurtured his artistic ability.
After school John attended Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art from 1959 to 1964 and studied under David McClure and Alberto Morrocco. He experimented with different styles of painting under their tutelage and found his own vigorous, direct expressionist style. He won a travel scholarship and spent 6 months visiting galleries across Europe and had 2 exhibitions in a gallery in London’s Mayfair in 1966 and 1967. He then spent six months in Jamaica with his close friend, supporter, and fellow Duncan of Jordanstone graduate, Judy Ann Macmillan, now a preeminent artist in Jamaica. She organised John’s first solo exhibition of his career, in Kingston.
On his return from Jamaica John was uncertain of his next steps. He spent six months in Liverpool with friend and artist Joe McIntyre, sketching the city during the day and selling household goods door to door in the evenings. Back in Scotland he returned to Duncan of Jordanstone to teach part-time life classes, passing on his knowledge to a new generation of artists who have gone on to forge their own careers. He settled back in Forfar and abandoned his previous expressionist style in favour of the more detailed, illustrative one that we are so familiar with today.
In the mid 1970s, John discovered etching when a printmakers’ workshop was set up in Dundee, managed by his friend Donald McKenzie. John took to the technique and added to their appeal by hand-colouring them with watercolours. Joe McIntyre has said: “Etching was a very natural thing for John because of his line drawing, also his sense of composition and his wonderful imagination.”
John’s narrative style has continued to develop, he has introduced much humour as well as satirising topics of the day. His subject matter is wide ranging and includes many local scenes as well as those taken from literature such as Alice in Wonderland. Throughout his work he introduces famous characters who just happen to be walking down his Dundee streets, especially Bob Dylan, who is on of John’s obsessions!
John continues to teach art classes in Dundee and Fife. He has works in public and private collections at home and aboard including HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Carnegie Trust’s Art Collection, Angus Council Collection, Dundee City Collection, The McManus Galleries Collection and Fife Council Museums West Collection.