Plein Air Gallery artist Susan Johnson has always been enthralled with Europe, especially France. After visiting the country in the ‘80s, she fell in love with the colors and landscapes to the point where she made several return visits, earned her master’s degree in French and gained a long career as a French teacher.
Inspired by the works of great French painters like Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, Johnson has painted many French and Italian landscapes, and they are the subject of her new show at Plein Air Gallery, “Room with a View.”
“I looked at the places these painters had painted, and I went traveling to them and found them to be the most exquisite places,” she said.
The idea to do this show came when Johnson was sitting at a cafe in Portofino, Italy and noticed a familiar landmark: the house from the 1985 British film “A Room with a View,” based on the 1908 novel by E.M. Forster.
“I didn’t realize they had shot it in Portofino,” she said. “One of my paintings is the view that you would get from that room.”
Many of the paintings on display are from places Johnson has stayed in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in France and Santa Margherita Ligure in Italy, particularly the water views from villas she stayed in.
“Each window had a whole different view, so I painted those,” she said.
The Santa Margherita paintings were inspired by an Andrea Boccelli concert from Portofino that Johnson watched on KQED.
“I went to my computer right away and booked a hotel there and went right over and painted,” she said.
Johnson has a different style from a lot of painters. She uses a palette knife instead of a brush and paints very fast, giving her paintings a thicker texture.
“I think it was Matisse who said ‘I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I feel,’” Johnson said. “That’s kind of what happens to me. I don’t think about it at all, and pretty soon I have a painting.”
Johnson says she is drawn to Southern France and Italy because of the colors.
“They’re pastels and warm colors, and I often have turquoise and pink in my paintings because you see those colors so much,” she said.
She eventually developed a knack for painting small European towns.
“I think that’s why I enjoy living in Benicia,” she said. “It’s intimate, people are walking down the street, it’s not vast quantities of parking lots or anything- just the towns and their architecture and their color.”
Johnson hopes that people will view her paintings with a sense of joy and positivity.
“I hope they take away a sense of joyfulness at the beauty of the scenes,” she said. “I think they’re happy positive paintings, they’re colorful and have a nice thick texture. You almost want to touch them.”
“When I’m painting, it’s almost like frosting a cake,” she added. “I just load up that palette knife and spread the colors, one on top of the other.”
“Room with a View” will be on display at Plein Air Gallery from Tuesday, Jan. 5 to Sunday Jan. 31. A reception will be held 5 to 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 9., and refreshments will be served. Plein Air Gallery is located at 307 First St. and is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.