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Interview with Josh Tiessen: Natural Prodigy Artist

Interview with Josh Tiessen: Natural Prodigy Artist

Apr 30th 2019

Josh Tiessen has a fascinating and unusual story. As a child he was considered one of the world's top ten prodigy artists and the only known male art prodigy in North America. He is primarily self taught and has now grown into an articulate young man who is maintaining his passion, drive, devotion and unbelievable work ethic with his art. He's been featured in over 90 exhibitions and has recieved over 60 prestigious awards and has been asked to speak and give interviews throughout his life. Unfortunately some surprising health issues and his concern for the environment shifted his ways of painting a few years ago and he was drawn to Natural Earth Paint's idea of truly non-toxic painting. This is a sneak peak into the unique life of Josh Tiessen.

Welcome Josh! Can you start by telling us a little bit about your personal history - where you grew up and how did that place or landscape affect your life as an artist?

I was born in Moscow, Russia, to Canadian parents working as professors and humanitarians. I had a Russian nanny who did lots of arts and crafts with me, and from the age of three she would teach me how to paint my stuffed animals with shading and perspective. Her two daughters were ballerinas so we went to the ballet often, as well as the circus, both of which had symphony orchestras. We also visited art galleries and outdoor art markets. A rich culture of the arts definitely had an effect on me early in life.

What art training did you recieve?
I am primarily self-taught, but have been mentored under master artists, such as acclaimed wildlife artist Robert Bateman when I was 15 years old. I have travelled throughout Europe and North America, visiting museums and doing studies of notable masterpieces, and have also built a sizeable personal library of art history, the European masters, and artistic technique.

In your art training, were you ever taught about art supplies safety - How to protect yourself from toxic supplies and which supplies were toxic?
In my high school art classes we used water-soluble oils, which were safer due to not having to use any mediums or solvents, but there wasn't any discussion about the heavy metals in the pigments, which are toxic. After high school I did a year-long mentorship under master artist and head professor of the School of the Arts at McMaster University. I don’t remember ever discussing the toxic hazards in an artists’ studio and the proper precautions to take. Even talking with older professional artists throughout my formative years, I may have occasionally been told not to use Turpentine, but that was pretty much the extent of advice about protection.

What types of paint and supplies did/do you primarily use and what were/are your safety precautions (if any)?

When I was nine years old I was discovered by an animal portrait artist who took me under her wing and passed on her skills in chalk pastel realism. While I am sure the pastel dust may have been toxic to inhale, our styles were very controlled so there weren't clouds of pastel dust in the air or anything like that. As an animal lover with many pets she was conscious of keeping her studio free from fumes, as she rarely painted with acrylics or oils and did not use thinners.

Did you have any adverse health issues from using these supplies?

Due to my desire of wanting to cover larger surfaces, I switched from chalk pastel to heavy body acrylics. Many aspiring wildlife artists paint with acrylic (following after their hero, Bateman) since there is a perception that acrylics are not as toxic as oils, and are friendlier for the environment. By the time I was sixteen, I began branching out from the wildlife art world in Canada, incorporating old architecture and getting juried into the international Guild of Realism. When I realized that many of these seasoned realist painters (most double to triple my age) were using oils to achieve soft gradients, I began to transition. I began with Alkyd Oils and Odourless Mineral Spirits, as an easier transition from faster drying acrylics. I remember a commissioned painting that I was under pressure to complete by Christmas, and I was getting really sick from working on it. The stress, combined with the solvent-based Alkyd

Oils, and even the OMS, caused sneezing, runny nose, headache, etc.


Did you have concerns about safe disposal of toxic supplies?

Before I became aware of the toxicity of my supplies, I did not think about safe disposal. Granted, as a hyperrealist artist, I am very efficient with paint and quite fastidious in my studio, so very little gets thrown into the garbage. When an artist friend down in Florida, Beth Sistrunk, told me about how she takes her waste to a safe disposal it got me thinking, as no other artist I knew kept a special can for toxic waste. Since then I have had a separate garbage can that I can take to the local toxic waste centre in my town.

You have shared that you are transitioning to a "non-toxic studio". How did this process start and what have you been doing as part of this transition?

Growing up in Russia we had a guard dog whose owner used to take it hunting, and it would return with ticks in its fur. My dad carefully removed them, but was unaware of being infected by Lyme bacteria. He fell ill first, then my mom, and eventually (after being misdiagnosed for over a decade) our whole family developed Chronic Lyme Disease. While Lyme bacteria had laid dormant in my body for many years, our integrative medical specialist noticed that my brother and I were breaking bones easily, often fatigued, and experiencing brain fog in spite of being discovered as prodigies by a global child prodigy expert. In addition to treatment and major dietary changes to help with symptoms, this doctor told me about the book Artist Beware by Michael McCann Ph.D., and I was shocked at what I discovered! I didn’t realize that an artist’s career could be fraught with so many environmental hazards. It made sense that artists throughout history have been known to die young or go mentally insane (i.e. Vincent van Gogh) due to high levels of toxicity in their art supplies. Artist Beware helped me realize that it wasn’t just solvents that were the problem, but the actual pigments themselves (i.e. cadmiums, cobalts, manganese, zinc, etc.) which are known carcinogens when inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Despite this new knowledge I couldn’t just throw out all my paint supplies (since I’m not independently wealthy LOL) but I started making small changes. Knowing I have a compromised immune-system due to Lyme, I needed to do something different if I wanted longevity in my career. At the advice of Dr. Rick Sponaugle (a Florida doctor who treated my family for Lyme in 2015) I got a hepa filter mask, as I was still using some toxic paint supplies. Even today, if I am ever using toxic materials, like varnish sprays, I wear this mask. As for my paints, as I ran out I replaced the toxic pigments with healthier pigments… gravitating to paint brands that were transparent with their pigments. I also stopped using Liquin (a popular modern medium) after finding out that it was made of petroleum distillates. I replaced this with Walnut Oil, which I ended up liking better due to its thin viscosity, allowing for fine detailed work.

How do you incorporate Natural Earth Paint products into your practice?

During this transition, I was trying to find a healthier solvent alternative for cleaning my brushes. Through scouring the internet, I came across Natural Earth Paint, and was thrilled to discover an affordable and natural solvent, Eco-Solve. I put the Eco-solve in a Sillicoil jar, which has a metal coil to clean my brushes on during a painting session and afterward. Occasionally, for a faster drying time, I mix the Eco-Solve with Walnut oil. I also use the Eco-Gesso kit, as it can be mixed into a thin formula and used to prime my Baltic birch panels with an air compressor and spray gun. This past year I have started using the natural pigments, which I admit was a bigger risk not knowing what the difference would be in comparison to the conventional pre-mixed paint brands I was used to. Leah, you were so helpful in honestly answering my questions about the pigments ahead of time, before I jumped in. Since I had already been pre-mixing custom paints and storing them in aluminum tubes, it wasn’t actually that much of a change to mix pigment with walnut oil. I am glad that the paints are keeping long-term, and I look forward to trying more pigments in the future :)

Do you have any tips for artists who also want to de-toxify their studio? Were there any challenges? What made the process easier? What have the benefits been?

One of the things I see many other artists doing is wearing thin rubber gloves. If you can’t change your paints, or don’t have time to mix raw pigment, I would suggest getting Green Country biodegradable natural rubber gloves, which I use on a regular basis. When I was treated for Lyme, blood tests revealed that I had the highest levels of the toxins benzene and toluene in my family, presumably from being an artist. It was crucial that I went through a detox regimen, which included high-dose IV Glutathione and Vitamin C, plus colon hydrotherapy and upwards to 100 supplements a day. I recommend looking into detox treatment if you’ve been painting for a long time with toxic paint supplies. One of the blessings in disguise through the process of being sick, is that’s it’s forced me to become more aware of my health, and also how my philosophy of environmental stewardship needs to be holistic throughout all areas of my life, including my studio. I try not to be paranoid or judge other artists. You also can’t live in a bubble, realizing that there are going to be times when you might have to compromise, due to time and money, but as long as you're moving in the right direction that’s what matters.

Why do you think it's important to detoxify your studio?

You may be healthy now, as your body can mask the toxins like mine did for years until my immunity was compromised. But if or when you have health struggles, a toxic studio will only exacerbate your symptoms. It will also have harmful effects on others who come into your studio, like your children and pets who may be more susceptible. A toxic studio also contributes to global pollution. As a Christian I am a firm believer in the sanctity of our bodies and the intrinsic value of the natural world created by God, so having a healthy non-toxic studio is ideal for me, and maybe even a spiritual calling. Instead of an unbiblical philosophy of 'trashing this world’ in favour of a heavenly escape, I believe a more accurate depiction of Jesus’ teaching was for the redemption (restoration) of the earth, which includes all facets of life, including the art world. We have been given these amazing natural resources, raw pigments, allowing us to develop a vast array of colours. Instead of evaluating success by economic gain, which ultimately leads to exploitation, we need to prioritize ethical and responsible decisions in the art supply industry.

Which artists throughout time inspire you the most?

Some of my favourite artists include, in the pinnacle of German Romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich, for his incredibly symbolic and existential landscapes with lone figures. I am also drawn to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 19th century English painters, enchanted with medieval art and natural imagery, combined with modern realist sensibilities. I love van Gogh for his colour palette and resonate with his mystical faith, as seen in his extensive letters. In addition to visual art I love reading, and have always been enthralled by the fiction of C.S. Lewis, especially The Chronicles of Narnia which have inspired some of my works. For wildlife artists, Robert Bateman is still my favourite, and I look to him for his intriguing compositional structure. He also personally encouraged me to get involved in conservation, and after being mentored by him I joined a local conservation group, donating prints to raise funds which saved a portion of conservation land not far from where I live.

What is the main inspiration for your work?

The main theme behind my work is the interaction between the natural world and man-made structures. Through my studies in liberal arts, i draw upon history, philosophy, and religious studies, which can be seen in the stories I write to go with my paintings. My extensive travels also greatly inform my work. I have been fortunate to travel overseas from a young age, and have been on numerous road trips across North America, taking my camera and sketch book and compiling reference material for future paintings.


How do you find balance and stay connected to the natural world in the typically disconnected, busy-ness of todays world?

While my studio is located halfway between Toronto and Niagara Falls, it faces the Niagara Escarpment in the Golden Horseshoe Region, which is home to some of the most beautiful sights in Ontario including many waterfalls and hiking trails. Also, a mile down the road is Lake Ontario, where I enjoy walking along the waterfront trail. It takes intentionality to get outdoors, as I paint 6-10 hours a day and don’t always find the right balance, but I’m always working on it :)

One of the things I’ve tried to be more intentional about is taking one day a week away from my studio, following the Judeo-Christian practice of sabbath, which was a tradition that permeated society through to the last century. While painting I listen to audio books, lectures and podcasts, and recently was challenged by pastors in Portland, A.J. Swoboda and John Mark Comer, who encourage their congregations to stop working for one day of the week in order to spend time with family, go out in nature, and do things that are life-giving. I find this practice, literally, a breath of fresh air! Along with this I’ve been trying to limit screens on my day off, especially getting away from social media. I’m thankful my parents limited TV and video games during my childhood. This, along with homeschooling, freed me up to spend time outdoors and develop my art. Sure, I’m not always up on the latest TV shows or movies like other 20-somethings, but it's worth the peace and joy of being more unplugged.

How would you describe your artistic style?

The way I describe my style is narrative hyperrealism. My process always begins with imaginative sketches, and only after that do I source photographic references, usually taken by me. For the last five years I have painted on non-quadrilateral shaped birch panels, allowing the shape of the subject matter to dictate the shape of the painting. While my style does not neatly fit into any genre, much of my recent work has been embraced by the New Contemporary movement that shares in common values such as craftsmanship and juxtaposition, eschewing the unnecessary distinction between high and low brow art. Wildlife art has traditionally been marginalized to low brow, but I am encouraged to see these contemporary movements being so amenable to my subject matter, which most often includes animals. Earlier this year I was approached by the owners of Antler Gallery in Portland to exhibit in their Talon Gallery anniversary show. I was happy to contribute my work Defending the Paint, and be surrounded by other artists also innovating with nature and animal art.

Your paintings are incredibly detailed, how long do you spend on each one?

Each painting takes 300-1200 hours to complete, so it’s a long process from the inception of an idea to finished painting. It usually takes a couple years for a painting idea and concept sketch to develop before it makes it onto the panel, which then takes 2-8 months.

We at Natural Earth Paint are hoping to inspire a "Slow Art Movement" and encourage artists to slow down their process and take the time to hone their craft, create their own art materials like the Old Masters, and develop a real connection with their process - allowing the inspiration to come at it's own time and taking the time needed to create it. This reminds me of your work, does this resonate with you at all?

Most definitely! While I’m not opposed to using the best of technology to my advantage (i.e. Photoshop for composing paintings and choosing palette) you’re right about some of the benefits of returning to traditional Old Masters techniques. I’ve been designated as the youngest Associate Living Master by Art Renewal Center, the world's largest organization for championing representational living artists. Some artists gravitate to more immediate and intuitive artistic styles, but for me, since I care about highlighting the particularity and complexity of the natural world, a slower approach is necessary in the studio, and outdoors where careful observation is so important.

I really respect what you’re doing at Natural Earth Paint, as it definitely does coincide with the relatively recent return to Old Masters’ techniques, as seen in the burgeoning growth of art atelier academies.

Tell us about your upcoming show and how can we see more of your art?

Four years ago I began working on a series of paintings inspired by prophetic poetry in the book of Isaiah in the Bible: “The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland … yet you have not called on me, Israel” (Isa. 43:20-22). I have applied these prophecies, which contrast the nations’ lack of honour for their Creator, disregarding the environment, with animals taking up residence in abandoned human civilizations. Through my work I hope to offer streams of hope within the post-apocalyptic wasteland, highlighting the God-given mandate of caring for animals and the environment, which is also a relevant theme for today.

This series of paintings will be unveiled at my debut international solo exhibition Streams in the Wasteland, featuring twelve paintings at Jonathan LeVine Projects, a New York based gallery now located in Jersey City. The exhibition opening is on May 4th from 6-8pm. You can find more of my work on my website: www.joshtiessen.com and on Instagram and Facebook (@joshtiessen).