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Artist switches from midnight oils to coffee

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Keith W. Johnson's midnight oil was not the type in a lamp, but the kind used for painting.

The 37-year-old Charleston native spent many a late night painting with oils and drinking java to keep focused. Now, he's switched careers to full-time artist and switched to coffee as his art medium of choice.

Johnson graduated from DuPont High School and joined the Air Force, where he was a security policeman. He earned the Air Force Achievement Medal while serving in Cuba and worked at the Air Combat Command Headquarters in Virginia. Following his military stint, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 10 years.

"Most of the time I boxed mail or worked the window at the main office downtown in Charleston. At the Post Office is where I started painting with oils. When I first was hired I was on midnights and to keep on schedule, I would stay up on my days off. To keep me busy, I started painting."

At the time, he was focusing on oils, but for health reasons had to make a switch.

"I did switch to acrylics because I needed to get away from the chemicals of the oils. I am messy and always had paint all over me and after painting with them for years, I think it got to my body and I started having reactions to them.

"I thought the switch would be hard. It really wasn't. After about a week or two painting with them it was second nature. I really love the quick drying time. I can finish paintings quicker then with oils. I still use a variation of the old master technique that I learned called the Flemish technique. I build the painting up in layers starting with a drawing, then I do a black-and-white painting, then I add color."

Then there's the newest, well, medium that Johnson is using in his art: coffee.

"Well, I was in a rut painting. Trying to paint things that I would think would sell, etc. Or trying to box myself in as a landscape painter or flower painter, etc., and I got tired of it. It bothered me and hindered my artistic expression.

"That's when I just freed myself and decided to paint what I want and not worry about what others think. I was brainstorming about art ideas and it came to me. Using oils I have made underpaintings with the brown burnt umber color, and I have always loved the feel of just that part of the painting. Coffee is very close to that in color, so I just gave it a try and it worked for me."

While he says he's self-taught, he readily divulges that he bought a Bob Ross painting kit that helped him grow as an artist.

As a child, he loved art.

"I remember drawing He-Man figures as a kid," Johnson said with a laugh. "Art was my favorite class in school. I even got in a show at the Culture Center my senior year."

Johnson has been married for 18 years and has four daughters ages 17, 13 and 8-year-old twins. His paintings can be viewed and purchased on his website, www.keithjohnsonpaintings.com. But it's his email address, draggingsticks@aol.com that describes what he does.

"It's about art. I am trying to word it right, but it's like the brush is the stick and you are dragging it across the canvas," Johnson said. "I just thought it was a cool name too."

As for his switch to coffee, he's using regular for now, but plans to experiment with new and different flavors.

"I love it. It's crazy that I love it so much that I want to focus on it with my art. Basically you are painting in values, but I love the warm coffee feel the painting has -- and the smell too."

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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