From the Studio of… John Tierney

Photo courtesy of Robin Humphrey

Favorite material to work with?

I paint in oils, on canvas. Most of my work takes the urban landscape of Los Angeles (and to some extent that of New York, Helsinki and Las Vegas) and the desert landscape of Joshua Tree national Park in California as its subject matter.

I work from photographs. None are from the public domain; rather, they are taken by family, friends or myself. My paintings are highly detailed and aim to capture fleeting moments, and communicate a strong sense of place – what it felt like to be there at that time. I suppose that a further dimension to this is that I visit these various locations as, in a sense, an ‘outsider’ (being an Englishman) who is fascinated by the differences between them and, say, the urban landscape of an English City. For example, as a painter I am attracted to Los Angeles because of the juxtaposition of light and architecture. The light has an intense luminosity, creating strong shadows and sharp outlines between buildings and sky. The architecture is, to put it mildly, seductively eclectic, taking in old and new iconic buildings and a whole range of small-scale quirky establishments – as one finds along Melrose Avenue, for instance. One (large) store I been drawn back to on a number of occasions is the Paul Smith store on Melrose (Paul Smith used one of these paintings as the image on a limited edition silk scarf). It is not my intention to slavishly reproduce a photographic image, rather, the photographs represent the raw material, a resource to be worked on and interpreted, in the process creating a new representation drawing on technique, use of colour and composition. It’s a bit of a cliché, but there is a difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’.

Photo courtesy of Robin Humphrey

What themes do you pursue?
The American artist Edward Hopper spoke of grasping the ‘surprises and accidents of nature.’ My position is congruent with his, though I am also interested in grasping the surprises and accidents of photographs: light and shade, movement, placement of people, etc. Photographs provide a sort of serendipity: unexpected, accidental details within the photographic image.

Photo courtesy of Robin Humphrey

How many years as an artist?
Although I have been interested in art and painting since I was a teenager at school in the 1960s, only recently have I considered myself to be an ‘artist’. Until I retired three years ago, the amount of time I was able to devote to painting (along with other activities) was severely constrained by the demands of full time employment. This, of course, describes the classic so called ‘Sunday painter’, though a lack of time often prevented getting the paints out even on Sundays.

From age eleven I attended what was known in England as a Secondary Modern school. Such establishments were basically designed for children who were considered to lack academic ability. Thus pupils were, in effect, being prepared for various manual occupations. I was fortunate in being given the rare opportunity in such schools to stay on for an extra year in order to take what were then called ‘O’ level examinations. As a result, I left school at sixteen with a few ‘O’ levels under my belt and became an apprentice engineering draughtsman.

In my early twenties I decided to apply for a place at university to study for a degree in sociology. While I lacked the standard qualifications for entry, I was accepted on the strength of my engineering qualifications (and probably my enthusiasm at the interview). After graduating I spent a number of years teaching in further education, then, after acquiring post-graduate qualifications, I eventually returned to the university sector as a lecturer in Criminology. Retirement from the world of academia provided the opportunity to pursue my interest in art on a full time basis. However, throughout the earlier, and lengthy, period I continued to paint and draw, experiment with various media, read books on art and anguish over the issue of ‘style’. Only now, though, would I consider myself to be, in the loosest sense, an artist. My studio is in my house in the north east of England.

Photo courtesy of Robin Humphrey

What was the best advice given to you as an artist?
Who can say whether or not the following was the best or the worst advice given to me? What I can say is that I have no regrets whatsoever in taking a career path that led me to become an academic criminologist. During my final year at the school referred to above, I attended a parent-teacher evening with my mother. The head teacher approached us and asked me what I wanted to do when I left school. I said I was interested in going to art school. The head teacher was clearly appalled, as if I’d said I wanted to be a film star. He looked pleadingly at my mother, while mumbling about a lack of security and pies in the sky. In defense I mentioned a schoolmate who was going to art school (also called John and still a friend of mine). The head teacher’s response was: ‘But he’s a better artist than you are’. I expect that a few months later he was pleased to learn that I had become an apprentice in engineering, rather than in art. In truth, I wasn’t as good as John, who went on to become an art teacher. He did, however, have a bumpy ride at art school, where the staff saw it as their mission to divert him from developing his representational and highly realist approach to painting in favour of a looser, more impressionistic approach.

“Paul Smith, Melrose Ave, LA, Late Afternoon” ($5,750)

Prefer to work with music or in silence?
I always work with music in the background. This covers a broad range, taking in country, rock and classical. An indication of the sort of music I listen to will be found under my name on a website devoted to artists and their music:

Favorite artist?
I particularly admire – and have been influenced by – the work of David Hockney (especially his paintings of LA in the 1960s) and Peter Blake. More recently, I have been impressed by the lithographs produced by the LA-based artist Ryan Graeff. In fact, one of his images (known as ‘Bandit’) was used as the cover for one of my criminology books. In the context of favourite artists, I should also mention (again) Edward Hopper, whose paintings of the American urban landscape have had an especial influence on my own work. If I could have any one piece of art (in the sense that it would hang on a wall in my house), I would choose Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’.

“Johnny Rockets, Melrose Ave, LA” ($1,650)

Interests other than art?
I sing and play the guitar, and occasionally write songs. My ‘Silence and the Stars’ EP can be heard at my personal site.

Just a few years ago I was asked to play live at The Hotel Café in Hollywood, CA with other musicians such as Tom Morello, Perry Farrell, and Ben Harper. That was an evening I will never forget. Incredible.

I also travel quite a bit. As the earlier discussion of the themes of my paintings suggests, my three main ports of call are Los Angeles, New York and Helsinki.

“Man of Steel over Oki Dog, LA” ($6,200)

Favorite Brush?
The Pro Art, Prolene Series round 101000. As all those zeros indicate, this is a tiny brush that allows me to carry out the detailed work in a painting, as well ensure sharp straight lines between, for example, buildings and sky.

“Shades of Blue, Paul Smith, LA” ($4,200)

Is painting dead?
This was one of the questions asked as part of this question and answer piece. The short answer is no. The long answer will have to be put to one side for another time.

Photo courtesy of Robin Humphrey

Bonus: John Tierney with his son, fellow Saatchi Online artist Ben Tierney.

Father-son artists John and Ben Tierney in Death Valley, California, 2013.


  1. Hermit says:

    Some well thought out answers in this one and a good read :)

    People do seem to think that it’s wrong for artists to work from photographs, buit I’ve always thought that if the old masters had access to photography, they would’ve used it as a tool like any other. Like you say, it’s really how you use those photo references that matters, and I can see the influences you have within the works that you do.

    I also understand the reactions you got when you were at school. I remember that if you ever told anyone you wanted to be an artist in the north of england, you were pretty much regarded as some sort of weirdo with no grasp on reality, regardless of whether you were good or not. It was if they were thinking: “Just a passing phase, he’ll probably grow out of it.” or even madder, they’d think you were gay! – LOL!

    But your work is good, so keep on going! :)

  2. Jennejay says:

    I resonate deeply with you journey into the arts, I was born in the 50’s and had exactly the same experience. My father was an Engineer and so being an artist seemed to fly in the face of nature, I even tried for graphic design but that was also beneath us! So I was, not gently, pushed into drafting and am just now co pleting my Fine Arts Degree, on line, as I am located in an isolated area of South West of Western Australia.
    I have to say that even though I was shoved into drafting it has stood me in good stead and given me an advantage of a good eye for balance and harmony in arts and most things in life. I think I have been left with a good appreciation for text and the line but swing from black and white to colour emotionally and in actual drawings. It seems the regime of right or wrong and the need for accuracy fight with the ideas of completely rebelling into abstract are constantly at wars in my thoughts. Makes it hard to find my niche/genre but it is still my passion.
    I love your work but when I think of doing something like this my head say” no don’t just paint line, never draw another line again” and impatience sets in.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Joy Moore says:

    Although my work is completely different to yours (more expressionist) I love your work. It is the colour and composition that attract me most. Great to see that you have pursued your ambition despite having to do something else for a living. I have the same experience even though I went to art school I still needed to earn a living. Am now retired in Italy (Am also english) and free to paint.
    I like your interview and the straight answers, you obviously have a passion for art and articulate it without all the art speak. Re using photos, we use whatever we want. It’s what we do with it that’s important. Also, referring to the comment above and David Hockney. He presented a programme on TV showing that it was extremely likely that many old masters including Vermeer and Canaletto used the camera obscura. As I said – it’s what you do with it that counts!
    Great work, thanks for the opportunity to hear what you think as well.

  4. Shehla Anjum says:

    When I perused your work two artists immediately came to mind–Hockney and Hopper. And when I read this interview and discovered that you are, in fact, an admirer of both. I enjoyed viewing your work and hope to see more of it on this site.

  5. Jean Johnson says:

    Your skill and vision are admirable. The everyday through the painter’s eye is an experience that gives it a different reality. Your enthusiasm in reinterpreting Hopper and Hackney is considered worthwhile due to the personalized outcome.

  6. I just would like to say John, that in so few words you have articulated my own feelings about art, the world I view, and the tools that help me to create it.
    I often read artists ‘statements’ and am baffled by the art-speak ‘I feel that the juxtaposition of light and value create the substance.. ‘ blah blah blah.
    It’s so refreshing to see your beautiful art, the colors, the contrast between light and bold darks and the history.. your story that brought you there.


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