Jason Horton’s paintings of animals are vibrant, luscious and sensual for the viewer to behold. One night last Spring, I saw them through a gallery window on Magazine Street and almost wrecked my car straining to catch a better look. His paintings attract a viewer’s attention from great distances and can make a common animal, bird, or insect look like the most exquisite creature you ever laid eyes on. I had to meet Jason and learn his story.
NCM: Where are you originally from?
Jason: I’m from Jackson, Mississippi. I actually grew up in Brandon, Mississippi on the reservoir, which is 20 minutes East of Jackson. I moved to New Orleans when I was 17 and then moved to Atlanta when I was 19. I didn’t move back to New Orleans until I was 33.
NCM: Did you go to art school?
Jason: I took one semester at Hinds Junior College. I just took basic art classes: Color and Design, Drawing 1, and Drawing 2. I wanted to leave Jackson because I was a restless soul. I did well that semester and had a 3.8 GPA. I should have stuck with it. I was a wild child and wanted to go to the big city.
NCM: How long have you been a professional artist?
Jason: I started in Atlanta in 1991 when I got a job at Deljou Art Group. It’s one of the largest fine arts publication companies in the Western hemisphere. It has 78,000 square feet and 50 in-house working artists at all times. It is basically a fine art factory. That was where I learned to be an artist.
I started in the frame department and learned quite quickly. I was young, hungry and a prolific worker at the time. I would custom color, mold and carve the profiles to match the artwork. That went on until about 2005.
I got to the point where I wanted to get into painting because I kept seeing all of this beautiful artwork come through. I knew I could paint like that too. One day it just clicked that I should be doing that. What was I waiting for?
I would study other artists and after work I taught myself how to paint. I started bringing stuff in to work. And I got shot down four or five times by the managers and the owners. They were very critical of me because they had seen a lot of artwork. But I appreciate their toughness now.
Finally I got into painting these very watery landscapes that were oils over silver and gold leaf. I took some of the same concepts that I had learned in framing and applied it to wood or board. They were kind of like scenes that I remember from growing up on the reservoir. Moody, yummy sunsets, dusk and dawn images.
I did landscapes for about three or four years. We had to make about 15 paintings a week. They had me on a treadmill. It was tough! But it taught me a lot about time management, taught me about the materials, and kept me focused.
Artwork is hard enough to sell, so you better get busy and make a lot of it! We had big accounts with the Sheraton and Ethan Allen. And they didn’t buy just two or three paintings. They bought two or three thousand paintings. It was good training for me.
I slowly got out of landscapes and I started painting these idealistic animals. We had this client that wanted a mockingbird from a worm’s eye view. And I just fell in love with the concept of painting birds. That was probably around 2006 or 2007. It just took off from there and I am still with it.
NCM: What led you to want to be a professional artist as opposed to just having it as a hobby?
Jason: My job was already in framing. So I was already in that world. I didn’t really have to change jobs. I just moved within the company. So it was a really easy transition. I was already familiar with all of the people that were there, all of the clients, everything.
NCM: But when you were a kid, did you draw? Were you a natural artist?
Jason: Absolutely! My parents were both big influences. My dad was an illustrator for UGA in college. He does very realistic and detailed drawings. My mother is more like a palette knife artist. It’s a little looser and painterly. I am somewhere in the middle. I got both of their traits.
Lynn Greenroot was a very famous artist in Mississippi. My mother studied painting under Lynn’s mother. I remember going to painting lessons as a little boy. I would be stone quiet so that I would be allowed to sit there and watch them.
NCM: Has any other artist inspired your work?
Jason: I really love mid 18th century portraits for color inspirations. When I first started painting, I had a lot of opportunities from other artists that wanted to teach me lessons. For the most part I rejected that because whoever trains you has a lasting effect on your work. You can see that other artist’s effect on your work. I think it is critical for artist’s to come up with their own concepts and their own look. It would really bother me if someone said, “Oh your work looks just like so and so’s!”
I really kind of stuck to my guns and didn’t take lessons. I was really hard on myself to come up with something unique. I want my work to be unmistakably my work. I think that has paid off.
I force myself to come up with my own techniques. It is kind of hard-wired in there when you are self-taught. Your work is not naturally going to look conventional.
NCM: It looks like you focus primarily on oil paint as your chosen medium?
Jason: Yes, these are traditional oils and I have a studio where I paint. I also have a woodshop on Terpsichore Street. That is where I get really dirty and messy. It is where the sawdust flies around. I make the panels on birch and solid poplar by hand. That way I can make any size I want.
Sometimes I put a resin coat on them with a two-part epoxy. You have to be careful with the coating because some of them fade or turn yellow. The brands that you buy in bulk in the two-gallon jugs are more for water craft and bar tops. It is important to stick to the artist’s grade, which is expensive.
NCM: That is a tremendous gamble putting a resin coat on such a beautiful oil painting. There is so much room for error.
Jason: Oh, I have had a couple of nervous breakdowns! I had one piece that was a soldier on a 30”x60” wood panel. I had already sold it before I had finished it. It was actually a pair of soldiers on two panels.The disaster happened when I was living between 7th and 8th Streets on Annunciation Street.
The house was built in 1841, and my partner at the time had kept it true to form. (Even my oven was a 1929 jewel.) It was really historic and really cool. The original owner had been a butcher for the neighborhood. So we converted the slaughter house and the smokehouse in the back into an art studio/ chicken coop.
We had the art studio and the chicken coop blocked off. I was in the old office, which had been built in 1860 or 1870. It even had the original electrical wiring from the teens or early 1920s. It was a brass push button switch, with two button. One button was the on switch and the other one was the off switch. The buttons had mother-of-pearl in them.
Anyway, I was working late to get these pieces done. It was very late at night in July or August. I had very bright lights in the studio and the bugs were attracted to it. I left the room briefly with the door cracked open and when I came back in the room there was a swarm of insects.
The resin was about half-dry, which means it had the consistency of cold honey or a beautician’s wax. It was just real goopy. And I looked down and there was a huge bug in the resin. It was a beetle that was trying to get out. It was making a huge mess on the surface of the resin. And I panicked. I got a tongue depressor and a cotton swab to try to push him out. I then tried to pull him out and a resin string came up with him. I was like, “Oh dear GOD!”
So I cranked up the blow torch because I thought that if I heated it up just right it would turn back into a liquid. I eventually got it down to like a soft serve ice cream loop which I lobbed off with a razor. All of this took an hour and I was sweating profusely. This was a $6500 piece that also had a mate to it.
What happened in the end was that I had gotten the resin too hot and it had yellowed. There was a huge yellow mark that eventually showed up. It didn’t happen immediately, but I had definitely overcooked it. I ended up having a full blown nervous breakdown. I picked up the piece and broke it in half. I was so angry.
NCM: Every artist that we have talked to has had their moments like that. There have been pieces that have been disasters or near disasters. And customers often don’t understand the labor that goes into many pieces of art. If they knew the time and intensity that an artist puts into these pieces, they would understand why original art costs as much as it does.
Jason: Not to mention the therapy we need afterwards! I had a nervous breakdown. My partner at the time was like, “Oh dear god! What is happening?”
I was crazy! I learned a hard lesson. I lost the sale. I have only had that happen to me two or three times in my career.
Another time I had a customer who went bankrupt and I kept the piece for seven or eight years. I just gave it to him recently after I bumped into him at the grocery store. It was a huge 48” x 60” painting of his Doberman Pinscher. It was a stunning painting. And I gave it to him because he had had a really rough time due to a car accident and a bankruptcy he had that year. I didn’t sell it because it was such a custom piece. I ended up just using it as an example for potential customers to show them what I could do, and I wasn’t going to sell it.
It felt really good to give it to him. He was so grateful. There can be positive outcomes in unfortunate situations too. It’s kind of like a canoe trip down the river. Sometimes the voyage is easy and sometimes there are rocks that you have to figure out how to navigate. You learn from each experience.
NCM: Do you have a lot of clients that want resin?
Jason: I find people love it or hate it. I tend not to use it because I personally prefer more of a satin finish. Mainly because a lot of people think it is a print when it is covered by resin. They can’t see the brushstroke or the craftsmanship. There are galleries that have tried to fool people by making prints and covering them with resin.
NCM: Since art is so subjective in nature, how do you deal with negative criticism?
Jason: I am very critical of myself. When someone says something negative to me, I have usually already said that to myself in a much rougher tone. By the time it gets around, its already old news to me. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really like any of my pieces. I know I can do better.
That is how I keep the wheels turning. I know it is a real crime to get complacent or comfortable. It becomes boring. It’s like going to the gym and doing the exact same routine over and over again.
NCM: Why did you decide to make New Orleans your base?
Jason: The economy made its mind up for me when it crashed in 2008. There was a mass exodus out of Atlanta. When the housing market crashed artists were some of the first to feel the pain along with builders and homeowners. This is because artwork goes on the walls that are being built and renovated. When people are upside down on their mortgages, they are not thinking about buying more art.
I regrouped and went back to Jackson for a few months to get my head together. I painted a few paintings there and came up with some new stuff. Then I met a clothier named Henry Torrence who made bespoke suits in Jackson. I also met John Grafe who sold European antiques. The three of us got together and created Appartique, which stands for Apparel, Art, and Antiques. It is a three part business with a bespoke clothier, antiques around the circumference of the shop and my art on the walls.
I was familiar with New Orleans and I saw this spot on Magazine Street right next to Aiden Gill’s shop. The bar scene from the movie Angel Heart was filmed there. That is where we opened the shop.
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your art?
Jason: Some paintings take a lot longer than others. I usually try not to get too attached to the work because I don’t want to keep it. Just like when you rescue an animal. Love it, but don’t get too attached.
Originally, I tried to base it on time spent making the piece. But that offended some of my buyers. They wanted to know why I hadn’t worked as hard on their piece. But some pieces almost paint themselves. Some of the palettes roll right off. Some of the pigments are thicker. Some paintings take more coats or layers.
So finally I just priced my work on size. So now I have a pretty good price sheet that I go by. There is no question anymore as to why this one is more than that one.
NCM: Did you have a mentor that really helped guide you?
Jason: In Atlanta I had 50 or so International artists that I worked with for 9 years on a daily basis. I got a lot of critiques from them. They became friends so they were quite honest.
NCM: Do you think that you could pick a favorite of all of your work?
Jason: During the financial crisis of 2008, I had started on a 48” x 60” Pufferfish on a black background. It took me 6 months to finish the piece. I was 33 and it was a chaotic time in my life. That painting was my rock. The pufferfish had 500 spines on it that I had to go over and over again. It was a labor of love that got me through that Summer.
I took that piece to Fischer Gallery in Jackson, Mississippi. I told them, “I need a job! This is what I do! If you like it, please carry me!”
I was frank and up front. They gave me the job and it was a real turning point.
NCM: Did you keep the painting or did you sell it?
Jason: I sold it. I didn’t want to. Another big lesson on not getting attached! I’m a professional artist and I need to make a living. And my artwork should be out there making other people happy.
NCM: Where can customers see more of your work?
Jason: I’m being represented by Gallery Orange in the French Quarter. They can also go to jasonhortonarts.com or jasonhortonarts on Instagram.