J K Reed – “My Ideal Job”
By PETE JAMES
“What are we going to do with all these paintings?” John Keith Reed’s father asked in 1961... so an exhibition of sixty of the talented 16-year old’s works was held at the Dunedin Library and it was no surprise to those that knew him that more than three quarters of the displayed paintings sold.
Keith had immigrated to Dunedin from Manchester in the UK with his family in 1954, and his artist father (a school principal) encouraged his obvious talent. Keith honed his ability to draw on renditions of military aircraft and battleships. As with many post World War Two English children he also had the related experience of his Dad’s military service as an Air Force tail gunner to inspire him, and he was driven to improve on the pictures of aircraft and battle scenes on the boxes of the models he would assemble on the kitchen table. Thinking “I could do better than that”, he did. However, he soon realized that in order to really introduce elements of drama and atmosphere he was going to have to produce skies and seas. So, he developed his watercolor painting style, to produce fogs for his destroyers to navigate, skies for his aircraft to fly in and flames, smoke, and explosions for them to be destroyed in. He found watercolors convenient and cheap, and the effects of controlled transparent washes suited his purposes rather than the results from the opaque poster paints available at school.
Moving to New Zealand, and specifically the Otago Peninsula, young Keith was drawn to the panoramas and vignettes of the harbor and surrounds and having now a grounding in watercolor painting he started to produce paintings of sheds, boats, and low tide reflections. The theme of the water as a mirror has been an enduring hallmark of his work. Puddles in lanes, reflections of dramatic skies in lakes, stormy skies abound. The 1961 exhibition was no fluke, and the young artist, having entered schools’ exhibitions, was approached by Fisher & Son, a Christchurch Gallery, who advised Keith “We could certainly get you quite a bit more than the prices on the back of the ones I saw.” So, the successful, paying, career as an artist began, Keith stating in interview at the time “My ideal job would be to tour the world painting different places and increasing my field and experience at the same time.”
Art school at the University of Canterbury School Of Fine Arts followed, with Keith attaining his Diploma of Fine Arts in 1968. Studying the Cubist movement and Abstract Expressionism, he developed an interest in oil painting, but more importantly he found himself surrounded by, and influenced by fellow artists, and today he recommends that connecting with your fellow sufferers is one of the most positive things you can do to improve your abilities, encourage you and really question where you are going with your art.
After Art School Keith moved to Marlborough to take up a teaching position at Marlborough Boys College, and he has remained happily in the district ever since. “Moved here for the boating, fizz boats and the like.”
Camera and sketch pad go with him everywhere and he states, “I’m fortunate in that I’ve always had an ability to see a painting.” The Marlborough Sounds have provided many opportunities to build on the seeing skills developed in Otago. Buying a piece of land in a rural area, he and his wife Veronica built their first home, and still live in it. He added a purpose-built studio in the 1980s to work from and to show his works in because “My wife got sick of having to tidy up the house every time someone called to see the art!
Keith has exhibited extensively for many years. His relationship with Fishers continued with them sponsoring him in 1996 on a study and painting trip to Europe. Press releases of Keith sketching and painting in various European locations whetted the appetite of potential purchasers and interested parties, resulting in a near sell out exhibition on his return. A Grand Tour from New Zealand brought home that market scenes, classic buildings and vertical “slices of scenes” sold well, and Keith has now travelled widely and brought many parts of the world back to explore on paper in his Spring Creek studio. He is also well known for his calendars featuring iconic New Zealand buildings and street scenes which were produced from 1999 onward for several years.
Keith retired from 42 years of teaching “four or five years ago” but enjoyed his time instructing boys “how to draw a military airplane and then showing them that what you had actually done was draw a cylinder in perspective!” he says with a twinkle in his eye. You can see that he takes just as much pleasure from that as he does from his letter of thanks from Bill Clinton. Keith’s work is held and collected world-wide.
Keith regards himself as an “Expressionistic Watercolor artist with contemporary influences, amongst them Cubism and American Expressionism.” He paints primarily with watercolor because “it’s fast, lightning fast.” He’s not bothered about brands or even grades of paint, but uses heavy papers and recommends big, springy brushes. He’s generally producing what most watercolorists would regard as very large paintings, often so large that matts cannot be made for them and framing them is daunting. However, he is a great advocate for experimentation saying “the worst thing you can do (in painting), is just repeat what you know you can do.”
Although he has painted outdoors extensively, he now prefers to paint in his studio. Reference photographs are essential, but not to paint directly from “Photos... they just tell you what to do, whereas you really want to just pinch from nature.” And if he really wants a shot of atmosphere to transport himself to where he wants to paint from, he uses a photo or even a still from a video he has taken, displayed, frozen, on a giant TV screen conveniently mounted in the studio. From this he can “feel the wind, smell the sea.” A keen musician himself, he requires silence to paint, no distractions to disrupt the thinking creative process which he maintains is a complete experience on its own.
He encourages other to go “full speed” with watercolors. “You need a good set up and you need to paint every day, make the brush do things. “Don’t think “I’m going to do a painting on Sunday” - it’s like a car engine, and it goes best when it’s warmed up.” Keith is proud of the fact that he has had his own style since he was 16 and believes that others should develop their own methods and ideas and not be a slave to a particular taught method of watercolor painting. He’s run workshops in the past but feels that perhaps this leads students to follow his patterns too closely. He now prefers to see painters do their own thing.
Keith is an energetic man, full of life, enthusiastic and fun to be with. He is generous with his time and happy to show his studio and work. I’m sure that any passing watercolorist would be welcomed at his studio in Marlborough, and all would be inspired. He’s got a great sense of humor too... next time you see one of his harbor scenes, or a painting of a city scenes with road signs, look carefully. You will probably spot a boat or boats, or a street, named for one, or all, of his three children.