By Darla McCammon and Darlene Romano
John Mellencamp is a Grammy-winning musician, singer, and songwriter, known for his catchy brand of heartland rock.
Did you know he is also a respected painter? We are going to explore his painting style and philosophy this week.
John Mellencamp was born Oct.7, 1951, in Seymour. By the age of 10, he was experimenting with oil paints. His painting took a back seat as his music career skyrocketed him to stardom in the 80s. In 1988, he joined the Arts Students League of New York and had his first formal training with portrait painter David Leffel, who taught him the technique of painting dark to light. Mellencamp was of German ancestry and said that it was significant to him when he discovered the work of German Expressionist artists Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, as they greatly influenced his style.
When asked why he paints, Mellencamp stated that he has ideas in him that he has to express and they come out in the form of making music, writing songs, or painting. He is down to earth and isn’t an artist who feels the need to tie his work to a deep philosophical meaning as some artists do, instead letting his work speak for itself. Portraiture makes up the bulk of his artwork and the influence from Dix and Beckmann is obvious in his melancholy and slightly haunting style. His subjects present an introspective expression that is left open to interpretation by the viewer.
When asked about his inspiration for his work, Mellencamp said that his head is full of ideas that manifest themselves through his songs, lyrics, or paintings. In an Artist Talk facilitated by the director of the Deland Museum of Art (Florida), Mellencamp made the comment that he will never live up to his full potential as a human being in this lifetime with the talent he has been given. He said that he will never create a painting or write a song that is as good as he thinks it should be.
This doesn’t mean that he lacks confidence; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It means that he is always striving for improvement, looking for ways to make changes that advance his work. He said that he can find things in every one of his finished paintings that he would change, and his words are inspiring to all artists who think their work isn’t good enough to exhibit.
During the pandemic, Mellencamp had a lot of time on his hands since he wasn’t touring, and created three interesting self-portraits that are worth exploring. The first self-portrait has a dark background with Mellencamp’s likeness outlined in white, and looks the most like a traditional portrait. The next self-portrait is much different from the first, with a white background and contains a lot of contrast between black/brown and white. Mellencamp’s figure seems to jump off the page at the viewer in this painting. The thoughtful expression on Mellencamp’s face is similar in the first two self-portraits.
However, in the third self-portrait, Mellencamp has a dour expression on his face and the color palette is mostly neutral brown, and this portrait has a somewhat abstract background. All three self-portraits are meritorious on their own but it’s interesting to compare the different styles because it speaks to Mellencamp’s ability to interpret the same thing differently, which is a sign of a great artist.