Josh Tiessen has had the desire to create his own art since the time he could hold a crayon in his hand.
He first exhibited his art at the young age of 11, and has since shown his art is 20 exhibitions, sold over 60 original works of art, has been featured in over 50 publications, and has garnered over 20 awards honoring his talent and generosity.
Alyice: When you were a toddler, you had the rare opportunity to study art with you Russian nanny, Lena Zhuk. . . who would often show you how to draw and paint using perspective and shading. Do you recall any of those lessons?
Josh: Yes, I still remember our playroom off the kitchen, and our little round red table and small plastic chairs in primary colors, where we would spend afternoons, with my mom close by in the large kitchen—which also doubled as her office.
She would pop her head in to see my creations, making sure Lena understood that the North American way is to let the child do it without correcting it as the Russians were inclined to do!
Lena was a very artistic and keen kindergarten teacher who had also been a plastic design engineer. She noticed my advanced fine motor skills and ability to work at a project often all afternoon, even at 3-4 years old so she focused on this.
She gave up on the coloring books that were sent by well-meaning grandmas from Canada and brought me tempera paints, brushes, large heavy paper, and other raw materials to work with.
Alyice: Later, while in middle school, a local artist named Valerie Jones, took you under her wing. What sort of things did she teach you?
Josh: Since she was not a professionally trained artist, she insisted that I not call her teacher. . . so I called her my mentor and was mentored under her for two years. On a side note, after a couple years, when one of my grandmas died, she became my surrogate grandma.
She was primarily a chalk pastel artist, so that’s what she started me with.
I was inspired to draw in chalk pastels. I drew Aslan, the lion, from C.S. Lewis’ books The Chronicles of Narnia, which became my first official piece. . . a piece that I would later frame and exhibit.
She would never touch my picture, only do little studies on the side, like showing me how to do eyes, and she was amazed at how quickly I caught onto things. People could hardly believe I had done the work myself, so she was always quick to say she never touched my work. . . and she never did.
I did a few chalk pastels under her guidance, then she introduced me to acrylic paint and bought me my first canvas. We painted side-by-side for a couple pieces to get me going. Then one day we spread out all our photos of flowers and small insects and animals that we’d each taken in our yards, and we painted like Monet in the sunshine!
It was just supposed to be a practice piece, with no attention to perspective, but later I pulled it out in what was then my basement studio (she’d picked me up an easel at a garage sale to use at home) and I finished the painting, much to the delight of my mom and several others who wanted to purchase it!
Alyice: At 11 years of age, you held your first public art exhibition at Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital. How did this come about?
Josh: After a few months of going to Val’s studio, she phoned my mom and asked if she could book a show for me the next year. I was still 10 at the time.
My mom said, “Val, he’s 10!” and in her British accent she said, “So what? The world needs to see this child’s work!”
She must have submitted the proposal, as the hospital had two art gallery areas that booked 1 to 2 years in advance. She helped us plan it and set it all up with labels and all. By then, I had purchased my own camera and Photoshop program with money from my paper route so I did my own posters, invitations and signs. Right from the start my parents had me use my own money for everything (printing, framing, etc.).
I displayed 7 fine art pieces in chalk pastel and acrylic, 6 photographs, and 6 graphic designs. I sold a chalk pastel, a few photos, and a couple graphic designs and the money was all mine to keep.
I was particularly thrilled when a nurse—a complete stranger—purchased a photo! Apparently it was all the buzz among the doctors and nurses, and someone phoned the newspaper and they came and did a big article about me. I also got my first commission around that time. I felt so amazed when I saw she had it professionally matted and framed, and hung it in a prominent place in her home!
Alyice: Shortly after, you caught the attention of wildlife artist Robert Bateman, who agreed to mentor you with the help of other artists at the Hollyhock Educational Centre on Cortes Island, BC. That had to be an amazing experience. What was your favorite part about being mentored?
Josh: When he critiqued one of my paintings, of a Nesting Trumpeter Swan, he did it anonymously. . . meaning he did not know which image belonged to which artist; there were about 35 artists.
I was SO NERVOUS because I was with mostly professional artists, artists who were 3 to 4 times my age and I was the youngest one there. I got even more nervous when he said he would do “gentle critiques” but was surprisingly brutal!
But I breathed a big sigh of relief when he gave my painting a very good critique, calling it “an amazing piece.” Later when he found out who had done it he announced to the whole group that it was done by “Josh, the precocious 15 year old.”
Since then, I am known to him as “the precocious one” which he explained to me is like a bird that learns to fly at an early age.
A collector in Calgary, who found out about the critique, purchased this painting right afterwards. . . sight unseen from my website and even though I had to double my prices since Bateman told me I was selling for way too low. (I thought no one would ever pay that much for one of my paintings!)
Since then, I have raised my prices several times more, but I am still only selling for half of what art of my caliber is selling for. I want to be reasonable, as I’m only 17 years old.
Alyice: You’re quite the young protégé, with a talent that surpasses that of many artists with years of experience, with many awards and accolades that acknowledge such a feat. Yet, you remain humble, kind, and teachable. How do you not allow it all to get to your head?
Josh: I think it’s because I give God credit for this gift he has given me. People have nurtured that gift, but even they agree that it is a God-given gift.
Also, because I am a Christian I have the Spirit of Jesus Christ living in me, which gives me the capacity beyond my own to be humble, gentle, generous, etc.
My faith is integral to my art, as I delight in showing the beauty and diversity of God’s Creation and the image of God in human creativity. I hope that people looking at my art will feel a sense of joy and wonder that is in the natural world all around us.
I want to use my art to make a difference in the world, to do “art with a purpose,” which is why I make so many art donations and contribute a large portion of my sales to worthy charitable organizations. I do this not to gain recognition, but because of my love for God and the love he gives me for his creation (conservation efforts) and for people.
I was so shocked this week to find out that because of my contributions in the community as well as my artistic accomplishments, that the Governor General of Canada will be presenting me with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in a ceremony next week! I feel so unworthy in comparison to the other recipients, but the Member of Provincial Parliament who nominated me from our city assured me that I deserve it. This is a great honor and I’m very excited for next week!
Alyice: How does creating art make you feel?
Josh: I enjoy painting a lot, it is so relaxing and peaceful!
It’s hard to believe that it’s become a full-time job, as it doesn’t feel like work. It is pure joy to me. I do it really because I love it, and I hope I can always keep it that way. It’s a bonus that people also find joy and pleasure in my work, and the icing on the cake is that people actually want to purchase my art!
Alyice: What is your creative process like?
Josh: I don’t practice any techniques every day, other than a bit of weight-lifting to keep my back and arms strong.
I work at the piece I’m currently doing, one at a time. I take photos everywhere and I use 10 to 20 as references for each painting, creating a collage of them on my laptop as references, and I take different aspects from each photo.
I don’t copy photos, but rather create my own composition that sometimes forms as a picture in my mind beforehand or happens as I do sketches in preparation for the painting and then use photos for the needed accuracy that I can’t make up from my head.
After preliminary sketches and establishing the composition, I transfer the drawing onto the canvas/masonite generally using a grid system.
After it is roughly drawn, I block in large areas of color and then sketch in the subject matter with white or black charcoal over top and then tediously complete the painting with many hours of painting in the fine detail. It is a layered system working from background to foreground.
I usually pray as I begin a piece, asking God to guide and bless my work. I listen to music as I paint ranging from many genres, and lectures in faith and philosophy.
In the many hours it takes to complete my “high realism” genre (50 to 250 hours), in my mind I ponder the title and story/description to go with the piece (the stories for each painting can be read by clicking on the images on my website).
As for small studies, I once did a study piece of water to prepare for my Creation Longs painting as I’d never really done water before. I called the small piece “Deep Calls to Deep” and it sold the day after I had it framed! I was so surprised at all the positive responses to this humble little painting. . . so many people liked it that I started a limited edition giclee print series. That’s usually how those get started, and I’ve got at least 15 series going now in truly limited editions (50-100 prints). Other than the chalk pastels on pastel paper, my prints are giclees mounted on masonite with either canvas or satin texture finish.
Alyice: How has your style changed over the years?
Josh: I started out with animals because Val is primarily a pet portrait artist (I did a portrait of my grandparents’ cat early on) and secondarily a wildlife artist with a passion for animals. I did wildlife in those early days and people joked that I was the next Bateman! I guess Bateman saw some similarity too. . . so he invited me to be mentored by him, so naturally I did more wildlife since that’s what he does.
But on my own I had tried other genres (cubism, abstract, expressionism) and didn’t want to be just pigeon-holed as a wildlife artist, so I branched out to architecture, as I am fascinated by the effects of nature and the elements on structures.
I especially enjoy re-creating surface textures, and Professor and Master Artist from McMaster University School of the Arts Judy Major-Girardin who most recently mentored me for a year (at 15 to 16 years of age) stated that this is the strength and unifying force of my work. Over the past few years, I have grown by further refining my work in a genre that is called “contemporary high realism” and this past year I was juried in as the youngest member of the International Guild of Realism which features top realist artists from around the world.
Alyice: If someone were just learning to becoming an artist, what advice would you give them?
Josh: Follow your heart, live your passion, be teachable, learn as much as you can, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young to accomplish anything.
I live by this verse from Scripture: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.