Justin Armstrong, born in 1988, Birmingham, Alabama, received his BFA (June 2016) and MFA (March 2020) in painting from Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). He has shown work in Washington DC, SCAD at Design Miami, and Gutstein Gallery in Savannah, GA. He currently lives and works in Leeds, Alabama.
Armstrong uses technology, colors, layers and experimental mediums to create paintings that stimulate an intense and immersive experience for the viewer. His geometric, textured and dense surfaces come together to create a sense of ‘visual explosion’.
I interviewed him about his practice and philosophy.
Manasvi Jerath: When did you start painting?
Justin Armstrong: I started with a Bob Ross painting kit that had brushes, paints, a palette knife, and a book with instructions when I was around 10, but painting really didn’t capture me until about a year or two before I started my BFA at SCAD. Drawing was my go-to media before painting took its place.
What is your professional journey as an artist?
I was a janitor at a daycare and worked at GameStop before attending SCAD. It’s still hard to believe that I actually get to make paintings and sell them to people that love them. Having a full-time studio practice is a reality, and it almost doesn’t seem real. 2020 was a difficult year for a lot of reasons, which is certainly an understatement for many, but I got through it with the hope that by making paintings with preposterous amounts of colors, hundreds of lines, and through hundreds of feet of 1/8” masking tape I can afford to live a fulfilling life. Art pretty much is my life now and I love it.
Your paintings illuminate with radiant colors and textures. What is your process of picking colors and textures? Which are few of your favorite mediums and paints to work with?
The primary decision factor for color choices tends to be what causes the most visual excitement/intrigue, or what color really contrasts with another to cause optical vibrations. Generally this is achieved either by using complementary colors together, or using any two hues that are identical values (light/dark scale). There are times I deviate from these rules by throwing in something unexpected. That’s generally where texture comes in as a framing effect, or as a sort of foregrounding element that’s hard to read because it is spray-painted at odd angles to perplex the viewer’s eye. I can’t help but see the paintings with textured thick paste as super abstract landscapes.
Your colorful geometric paintings are familiar yet unconventional and new. Which artists did you grow up idolizing? Have they changed since you were a kid? Who are they now?
They’ve definitely accumulated and further contextualized as I grow and learn. Ironically I haven’t grown to dislike any of the earlier artists I admired. Bob Ross (TV painter), Yoshitaka Amano (Final Fantasy games), Tetsuya Nomura (Final Fantasy games), Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball Z), and Shigeru Miyamoto (Nintendo) were some of the earlier influences. Video games and anime have been a large part of my life – video games especially. Pixelation, color schemes used in games, etc. My influences now are far more varied and some come from outside of the painting sphere.
What is your relationship with art? What does art mean to you?
Throughout my life art and art-making have compounded in meaning from expression, necessity, to greater understanding. As a small child drawing was purely done out of naïve expression – can I draw the Titanic? Can I draw Dragon Ball Z characters? Art then shifted towards necessity once drawing became how I escaped the bullying that occurred between 4th and 11th grade. At that point it became my means of validation and sense of self-worth. Technical prowess replaced the physical strength and oozing masculinity I didn’t have (nor wanted). That experience cemented art as integral to who I was and would always be. The next step of understanding art and myself in relation to it came from the pursuit of higher education.
You work with various colors, mediums. I’ve noticed vinyls being very common in your pieces. What attracts you to use them and what new qualities did you discover about them? Would you say vinyls are an ‘Armstrong’ signature other than colors and mediums?
An Armstrong signature, I like that! Collage has been something I’ve used since my junior or senior year of undergrad. I think and apply vinyl to compositions.
Collage for me began as a somewhat aloof subject material – celebrity references placed in abstract(ed) settings that didn’t really make sense. A big thing for me at that time was kind of a parody of celebrity in how it fit under the broader umbrella of identity. Some have an absurd sense of creepiness that I tried to negate through whimsy manipulation or additional content, like fried chicken behind Jack Nicholson, or a smiling, granulated Tim Allen behind an eyeless creepy stock photo of a female. She’s easier to see, but he’s famous and recognizable. Who has the power there? Each image was an odd tug of war.
Who all knows who these people are? Who are they to me? Who are these people, really? Why use images of celebrities? Why not use self-portraiture instead? Why use subject matter at all if I don’t know? It was difficult to answer anyone’s questions about the celebrity references because I was in an identity battle myself, having shifted from Christianity to agnostic atheism, and having my worldview reconfigure frequently because of exposure to a lot of philosophy and political conflict in the US.
What took me two or three years to realize was that it was all projection on my part: I was asking myself the questions anyone insecure would be afraid to acknowledge. Who the hell am I, really? Who do people think I am? The celebrity images were just a strange mirror of my developing but uncertain self. Some peers were blunt in telling me that it appeared that I was insecure about my masculinity. I’m glad they did, because they were correct and it took them suggesting that to really bring about the ‘aha’ moment. Once this all came full circle I quit using celebrity collage because it wasn’t needed anymore. It served its purpose in forcing myself to acknowledge that ‘I’, the Self, was less concrete than previously thought. That’s part of the power of art: making it to communicate with ourselves as artists.
What came next was the holographic vinyl. Once I gained clarity on that personal conflict, collage material could serve a purpose more fitting to the abstraction and aesthetic overload that my nonobjective paintings were fostering. It’s still a strange component in itself, because it’s alive. You move, and it moves too. It uses the spectrum to tell you that you’re there, present and in the moment.
My paintings are wholly solid objects and simultaneously a portal in flux to light and color seemingly autonomous to their setting. There doesn’t have to be red in the room for the painting to abruptly turn red. Put them anywhere with light and they’ll show you nearly the entire additive color spectrum. The vinyl is kind of like the effective goal and dynamic soul of whatever painting its in. The paint that’s around or over it brings a balancing act of structure and the visual intrigue that comes from using additive and subtractive blending methods in the same painting.
What is your experimentation process? What are your thoughts on experimentation and why is it important?
Experimentation is a major part of my practice. The studio is littered with test panels, test patches of oils/watercolors on Yupo (synthetic paper), test patches of pigments on Dura-Lar (a clear film), test patches of textured paint on Dura-Lar, sheets of Dura-Lar with repetitive lines like those seen in my work, and RendR sketchbooks with color pairings. Notice I said Dura-Lar a lot. It’s amazing.
Ironically the idea of using it came from using Photoshop to edit and make alternate versions of paintings. In Photoshop, it’s easy to work in layers in a non-destructive way, so that you can always change the contents of layers or move them around at will. Why not make a system to mimic that in real life? Dura-Lar lets me work on many sheets at a time, and once they dry I can stack them to see how different layers of lines interact, or see how a particular pigment looks overtop holographic vinyl. The sheets are almost 100% transparent, and they generally don’t warp once paint dries on them.
I use Grafix Ultra-Clear .005”. Crescent RendR paper is nice because wet media doesn’t bleed through to the backside of sheets, though it does warp and well up with a lot of paint application. Yupo is a waterproof synthetic paper that doesn’t warp with heavy paint load, though acrylic doesn’t bond permanently to it, so masking is a no no.
Digital variants are important to find interesting color interactions, and sometimes look for unpredictable results. Recently I’ve started using an app called Affinity Designer on iPad, which is basically an alternative to Illustrator. Working this way is awesome because the image you’re working on can be scaled to any resolution – it’s amazing for mockups and such. It’s absolutely going to affect the work I make moving forward because I can nail down closer representations of a finished piece before ever physically starting it.
What keeps it from getting too mechanical and paint-by-numbers is the fact that I don’t measure pretty much anything – the lines you see in any of my paintings are done by hand and by eye measuring. Imperfection is a desirable trait to me. Sometimes I’ll also deviate from the digital mockup simply because of an unexpected reaction to something about the physical work in progress.
What are your hobbies?
Music is really important – it’s as important as the visual arts are to me. I’ve played guitar for about 16 years, and recently started learning piano about two months ago. Next is learning to finger drum on drum machines like an MPC or Maschine. I’d love to eventually write music! It’s easiest to describe the genres and sub-genres I like as ‘everything but American Country’. My favorite is the metal genre, especially instrumental guitar-focused bands.
Video gaming is another hobby, though it often gets neglected depending on how busy I am with commissions or other things in life. I love reading philosophy, art theory, art history, and other academic topics but they get pushed to the side when my workload increases.
How did Savannah College of Art and Design contribute to you and your art practice? Which have been your most valuable lessons?
My SCAD education changed everything. The work I make now is very, very different than the photo realism I was obsessed with as a freshman in 2012. As I mentioned earlier, technical prowess was important as something to work towards when I was struggling with bullying. It was easily recognized by others (especially in a city where more contemporary art was nonexistent) and granted validation. The issue was the tunnel vision it caused: I knew nothing about art on a large scale, and actually vehemently disliked abstraction – from childhood up to the end of my first year at SCAD. Abstraction (seemingly) played by different rules and as such felt like a cheat compared to the system of rules, means, and ends I was comfortable in (realism). Naivety.
It took time – years – but my education simultaneously broke down the ‘why’ behind my previous tastes/interests/needs while opening many new doors, directions, and perspectives. Once my teen ‘why’ became apparent in itself I didn’t need to cling to that ‘why’ anymore. It was limiting what I was capable of. I still love realism in art, but I don’t need it as I did in my teens. My practice now dives selectively into lifelong interests/needs/tastes, and, most importantly, into the deeply personal territory of my problematic eyesight.
Here’s a big lesson I learned. I felt frequently lost throughout undergrad, all the way up to the year before graduating with my Masters. What I understand now is that it is completely normal in the academic setting. It’s ironically ideal. When you’re in a constant state of learning and critical thinking it’s hard to gauge where you are because every few days you’re further than the few days before. Constantly expanding boundaries of knowledge and contextualization do that. There are paradigm shifts in an academic setting that come naturally because you might learn something about an artist or period that reshapes a worldview or perspective you held prior.
The reality is one is growing the whole time – compiling and sorting information, developing more sophisticated preferences, and finding what resonates with them in terms of meaning and interests. The journey reveals its meaning over time and things don’t always make sense as they happen. Trust that it’s working and that you aren’t failing – you’re growing.
SCAD has helped me so much in terms of exposure and support for potential commissions. They invited me to help work on SCAD at Design Miami back in late November/early December of 2019. I got to help design and then paint nearly every square inch of their booth! SO much holographic vinyl. The experience was unreal – a lot of people’s first impression of the college, its image, partially came from experiencing that space… I’m infinitely grateful and appreciative for that opportunity!
How was your artistic experience in BFA compared to MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design? Were both equally important for your growth? Or is doing BFA enough?
Regardless of BFA or MFA, the SCAD Painting studio element fundamentally works in three layers: teaching the power of more critical personal intention/discretion, breaking down formal design and honing the instincts to recognize/use design, and helps one develop a range of skills/tools in search of the ones that stick.
The SCAD Painting lecture element intertwines art history and art theory for greater understanding of oneself and art. The education model promotes many different pathways with those components at the core. The MFA mostly ramps up the sophistication of content and workload, while also giving you experience with teaching assistant courses.
I’m very happy that I pursued an MFA, but that is something that is very personal. It genuinely was a best-case-scenario in terms of personal growth and potential gains. By the end of my junior year in undergrad I knew I’d be applying for grad school immediately after receiving my BFA: by that point the academic lifestyle was natural and there was so much more I wanted to get from education. It wasn’t that the BFA lacked anything – it was that I was on fire for more, and desired the potential to teach college level in the future.
What is your philosophy as an artist? What is your ultimate desire? What do you want the audience to experience?
Ideally, when someone enters a room with one of my paintings, they rapidly realize that it’s in the room. Each painting is supposed to seem alien to everything in its surroundings, and they’ll fight over your attention. My work is explosive visually, which might read as random choices or an abandonment of balance, but neither of those are the case. Personally, balance in my work has the whole piece screaming for attention. Every square inch. Seen in that way, a lack of balance would be a painting with areas that are boring and/or lack some kind of energy or charm. It’s kind of a ‘too much isn’t enough’, ‘more is more’ perspective filtered through an object that is ultimately a rectangular, basic shape or set of shapes. That’s part of the beauty to me – so much energy on what is essentially a box. That’s why I work on panels. They’re so uniform but the visual information is so dynamic.
I want people to see. To look harder. To refine their color perception. To reveal the cracks they may not have noticed in their sensory perception. To be faced with something that rewards them for being present.
Do you have any messages for emerging artists?
1. Make art all the time, whether it’s for real, or in your head. If it’s a chore, then something’s missing or needs to be sought out and resolved. Take a break sometimes if you need one. You’ll function better if you do.
2. Some people have a planned cerebral approach, and some are instinctual and reactionary. Some people are a bit of both. Any of those are good. However, tend to your weak spots in them because everyone has hidden potential.
3. Prepare yourself for excitement and for disappointment knowing that both of those can come unpredictably. An artist’s life is a roller coaster. Resiliency is huge, and please have patience. Wrong decisions happen sometimes. It’s ok. Learn from them.
4. Remember to show appreciation for support. The art world, regardless of the sphere you’re in based on the medium or content of your work, has a lot of moving parts (people) that get under-appreciated for their efforts. People want to work with those who care and are easy to get along with.
5. Your audience finds you A.K.A. make your work for yourself first. That isn’t a call for selfishness/narcissism, but self-authenticity and healthy fulfillment: even work clearly based around empathy and social issues comes fundamentally from within out of self-respect. Inauthenticity is not healthy or sustainable.
6. Speaking of health, remember to take care of yourself!