Capturing the essence

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2004 at 11:56 p.m.
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Local artist Carolyn Johnston has been keeping busy painting some of the area's most notable, including the inventor of Gatorade, Dr. J. Robert Cade (the two portraits at right), and former UF presidents Charles Young (top left) and John Lombardi (not shown). Johnston has also begun a series of Gator-themed paintings, including "Dinner at the Swamp," pictured at bottom left.

ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun
Painting a portrait is like writing a biography. Imagine distilling a person's essence - their very personality - down to a single drop, then brushing that drop over a canvas until you've captured a person's physical bearing as well.
This is the work of Gainesville artist Carolyn Johnston - whose portraits include those of University of Florida presidents John Lombardi and Charles Young. Johnston's most recent portraits, two of Gatorade inventor J. Robert Cade, will be unveiled today.
"The most important quality in a portrait artist is her ability to capture the personality . . . of the person, what the subject is all about. Carolyn does this perfectly," said Martha Copeland, whose husband is among those Johnston has painted.
When Dr. Edward Copeland stepped down in 2002 as chairman of the Department of Surgery at UF's College of Medicine and had his portrait painted, Martha admired it so much that she commissioned Johnston to paint another for the couple's living room.
"When I pass his portrait, I have a real sense of his presence," said Martha. "She captured his essence down to the minutest detail."
For 18 years, Johnston worked in photography, taking studio portraits. She watched how light fell across the planes of a person's face, tilted people's chins just so until their faces were balanced. In essence, she developed her eye and learned the qualities of light. She said it was a natural progression to start painting those same faces.
Natural, that is, if you're an artist at heart.

A photographer first

As a young woman Carolyn came from Fort Lauderdale to study fashion design at the University of Florida, but she left college to marry and start a family.
When her pilot husband, Sam Johnston, left the Air Force and began his studies at UF in 1960, the Johnstons opened a photography studio to support their family while he was in school. (They had two sons, 10 years apart.) The business took off and quickly became their life work.
Johnston began hand-coloring some of their photos. Eventually, she left more and more paint on the photos, until they were more like paintings than photographs. One day Sam said to her, "When are you going to do that without a photograph underneath?" She eventually got up the nerve to give it a try.
In 1978, when a prominent local businessman came into their studio for a photographic portrait, she painted an oil portrait of him, too. When she unveiled it, he bought it on the spot. "He offered me a handsome price for it," she recalled, "and I thought I'm in business." Since then, she's become the portrait painter de riguer for the University of Florida, recently painting UF presidents Young and Lombardi. For the past 15 years, Dr. Copeland has commissioned her to paint portraits for the Department of Surgery.
Paul Robell, vice president for development and alumni affairs at the UF Alumni Association, calls her work "outstanding."
Today she'll unveil two portraits she did of Dr. Cade, the former chief of Nephrology at the UF College of Medicine who invented Gatorade. "We still get a lot of money from Gatorade to support the division," said the department's office manager, Jenny Leap.
Johnston painted an informal portrait of Cade in front of his restored Studebaker, dressed casually in his favorite cardigan.
The formal portrait, the one that will hang in the department, is a collaged image. Laboratory beakers fill the background, acknowledging his work in the lab designing his products. In front of Cade, who is dressed in Gator sportswear, sit bottles of Go! and Cholesterade, both products of his invention. Next to them sit the first Gatorade bottle, manufactured as "Stokely's Van Camp Finest Gatorade Thirst Quencher," and a modern bottle of Gatorade.
In painting the collage of Cade, Johnston first created the image she would eventually paint by merging photos in Photoshop, a software program. It's a fantastic tool, she said. In the past, she sketched her ideas for clients. Now using Photoshop, she can give them a clearer approximation of what the finished image will look like. If things need to be "dropped out" and replaced with something else, Photoshop comes to the rescue. She paints from photographs as well, which saves time for both her and her subjects, who don't have to repeatedly visit her studio for sittings.

In her studio

In her home studio, she paints with celebrities silently keeping her company: E.T. and Vam York look out from one wall; Sen. Rod Smith is propped on a tabletop.
A large, vibrant painting, a close-up of red, yellow and orange gerbera daisies, hangs on one wall. Purple lilies and a painting of a water garden hang on others.
There's none of the strong odor characteristic of oil paint. That's because she uses synthetic oils produced by Genesis Paints. No more worrying about allergic reactions to the chemicals in traditional oils, and the Genesis paint doesn't dry until it's set, using heat, so it's more convenient to work with, Johnston said.
Stored in flower vases surrounding her large wooden easel are more than 150 brushes. "I am the Imelda Marcos of the brush factories. I haven't met a brush that I don't like," she jokes. Johnston paints listening to Yanni and George Winston, preferring instrumental New Age and mood music.
"After I painted that first painting, I got serious about educating myself," she says. On her studio bookcase are just a tiny percentage of her art books, including such titles as "Brushwork Essentials," "Seeing the Light: An Artist's Guide," "Painting in Portraits" and "Portraits in Oil, the Van Dyke Way."
Painting is a creative process, not something she does eight hours a day, five days a week. She might paint a little one day and a lot the next. It typically takes months to complete a portrait, she says. Her prices range from $2,500 for a small, simple painting of someone's head and shoulders, up to $25,000 for a huge, complex work. Last year was her busiest year. "A lot of people retired," she explained.
Johnston likes best when a person brings in an old snapshot of someone they love who has passed on. She gets so much joy out of recreating an image that brings that person "back" to their loved one.
"I really get the greatest satisfaction when I can produce something of their loved one that they can hang on the wall," she said.
One man who had received a heart transplant brought in a photo of the girl whose gift gave him life. As a thank you, he gave Johnston's portrait to the girl's parentsu.
"You get some heart-tugging stories, I'll tell you," Johnston said.

'Swamp' portraits

At 69, Johnston is branching into other projects. She recently wrote a children's story that she plans to illustrate, and she is working on a series of Gator-themed paintings.
"Dinner in the Swamp" portrays a satisfied-looking Gator picking his teeth. "He's just finished off a Seminole," explains Johnston, pointing to the tomahawk and feathers lying on the swamp bottom. "It's Electric in the Swamp" shows a Gator powered by a bolt of lightning.
Her "Secret of the Swamp" will portray turtles surfacing through a swamp. In Native American lore, turtles hold up the earth, and in Johnston's mind, the fans hold up the players: "He can get through the swamp because the fans are there to hold him up."
"Dog Days in the Swamp," "Gators Rule in the Swamp" and "A Tiger by the Tail in the Swamp" are in production.
All her work is licensed, but marketing the images is something she doesn't have time for. She gives copies of her Gator paintings, printed on canvas, to charities for their fund-raisers. They've brought in as much as $600 each, she said.
To this day, Johnston said, she sits in restaurants and watches how the light falls on people's faces. There's no escape.
"I'll eat lunch watching the light on someone's hair," she said. "It didn't take much to transfer it to the brush. It was already imprinted."

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