Talking Shop with Australian Artist Timothy John

This article is from the WatchTime Archives and was originally published in June 2022.

The world of watches is far richer than just brands and clients. Its fabric is made of remarkable people who all express their passion for the topic in their own unique way. Recently I had the privilege of talking with Timothy John, a renowned artist from Australia whose exceptional work hangs on the walls of houses all around the world, including that of legendary producer Quincy Jones. He has collaborated with various watch brands and the luxury Italian penmaker Montegrappa. In our latest interview with the artist, we discuss where his sustained passion comes from, and how a diagnosis of Parkinson has effected his work.

WT: How does one become a renowned artist?

TJ: I once heard that someone referred to me as a’ quiet achiever’, and I am happy with that, but to answer your question, I think hard work and dedication go a long way to success as an artist. A passion for creating and a deep desire to commit to that passion are also needed. The life of an artist is not easy, well, for me, it hasn’t been, with many financial ups and downs, but I know deep in my soul I cannot do anything else.

If you had asked me 20 years ago, I would have said, a renowned artist is respected, strives for excellence, and explores their chosen medium(s) to the fullest. Of course, they would have gallery exposure internationally and be highly sought after by collectors, but times change, not always for the better.

Nowadays, I think it is more spin than skill that dictates success. Now, a huge social media following, a good publicist and mass media exposure are the tools of the trade. There is a desire to achieve celebrity these days, that seems to be the ultimate goal of many, and as a result there is a great deal of mediocre art receiving accolades…..The emperor is an NFT wandering naked while the masses applaud.

WT: Where does your passion for watches come from?

TJ: My first real watch memory was as a really young child, spending lots of time with my maternal Grandfather. Sitting on his lap, listening to his stories, helping him pack his pipe with tobacco. Then that precious moment when he would let me examine his gold hunter-style pocket watch. It was so beautiful, so heavy in my little hand, and its guilloché’d case so tactile and mesmerizing the way it caught the light. I used to hold it close to my ear and hear the tick, and I truly felt it echo deep within me. Then when I was about ten years old, my Dad gave me a Seiko 5 Stainless Steel automatic and it was magic. I loved my Dad and my Grandfather very much.

WT: In the past you have worked with various watch brands, particularly painting skulls. What is your fascination with this topic, and how does the process of creating go? 

TJ: The skull watches are “Memento Mori” pieces; A reminder of the inevitability of death, the passing of time, a reminder to live life while it is there is life to be lived.

Currently I am creating pieces for my friend Paul Fazio / Dark Triumph Watches in the U.S. As for the process, the watch dials are created on either blank metal discs or actual existing watch dials, I hand prepare each disc differently either by sanding back entirely and cleaning (or working within the parameters of an existing dial) over a period of several hours, then depending on the imagery I want to paint, I will lay down several layers of colored oil paint pigments, then burnish and sand back with ultra-fine wet sandpaper, these layers need to be thoroughly dry before I proceed to the next stage, I do this until I get the desired depth of color and surface texture. It is a labor intensive process, but it is required to give myself the best’ ground’ to work upon.

I then concentrate on the featured painted image for the dial. I use oil pigments, the same that I use in my works on canvas, as I am comfortable with them and their permanence is unquestionable, I use small sable brushes, but I have also been known to use my fingers and other instruments, to get the desired results…it is very similar to how I create my large works on canvas. In the case of my skull dials, I under paint the skull structure, slowly building up the image with consecutive layering of oil paint, until I have reached the desired effects I want. Again, each of these painted layers needs to be thoroughly dry before I proceed to the next stage.

After I have completed the image, I leave it to dry for several days, I then hand burnish the entire dial by gently rubbing it by hand with a soft wooden burnishing tool with glassine paper between the tool and the paint surface and finally with a pure silk cloth, then I leave for a few more days to “settle”, and then I seal the image with either a gloss or matte spray lacquer. The finishing process can take anywhere between 7-14 days, and a completed dial takes approximately 1 month from concept to completion. At the end of the process I want to be able to hold the dial in my hand and feel a sense of beauty while at the same time a preciousness and a strength.

WT: You have also worked with renowned (fountain) pen watch manufacturer Montegrappa; how did this collaboration come about and how did the different designs come to life? 

TJ: Connecting with Montegrappa was somehow written in the stars, it was meant to be. As a pen lover, I had long been an admirer of Montegrappa, their story and their attention to the art of pen making, and I had the desire to create something with them.

I had the idea of hand painting pens, of course this was nothing new, many pen companies have created hand painted pieces, but I wanted my pens to have the passion and the vision of my large studio paintings. I am in no way a miniaturist, I do not have the skills for the work of these artisans, that I hold in the highest regard. I just wanted to paint and create unique pieces.

So, I wrote to Giuseppe Aquila, CEO of Montegrappa, introduced myself, and told him of my idea to create for him. As I say, the stars must have been in alignment, because he completely understood my rather awkward unsolicited proposal, embraced it and said yes, “let’s give it a try”.

From that day we connected in a wonderful friendship, I was truly blessed. Getting a foot in the door of any company is very difficult, even more so in the rarified world of luxury goods, but with Montegrappa and Giuseppe, it was as though it was meant to be. There was no set briefing for designs, I suggested that they send me a few pen ‘blanks’ and I could play with them. As I said, there was no defined brief or expectations, in fact I actually didn’t know if I had the skills to fulfil this desire I had for so long.

So, to fast forward, four pen blanks arrived from Bassano del Grappa and I was committed to making my vision a reality. It took a lot of trial and error, painting on a small, curved, smooth surface was difficult but I desperately wanted to keep the promise I made to myself that I would approach this work on pens, as I would a large canvas…and by that I mean, I wanted to keep the passion and the poetry alive and not feel constrained or’ tight’ in anyway, it was definitely a mental attitude thing. As a result I created my first pens “Le Quattro Stagioni / The Four Seasons”, each pen was an impressionistic interpretation of a season a boxed set of four pens. I then went on to create the “White Heron” pens, a box set of two, and recently I have created a selection of individual pieces, but unfortunately, the release of these was held up due to COVID and the knock on effects on production. Hopefully they will be released in 2022.

WT: A couple of years ago you have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. How does this influence your life and work?

TJ: Well, therein lies a story… After being diagnosed by my family doctor with suspicions of PD, I was clinically diagnosed by a Neurologist, I was then put on Parkinson’s medications. At first these were very successful in ‘quietening down’ my body tremors and other symptoms, but over time the medication’s effectiveness diminished, and started causing me bad side effects. 

I also developed new symptoms, that didn’t fit the Parkinson’s ‘profile’, this made me seek out another opinion, and after the same scans and the same tests that were performed by Neurologist Number 1, Neurologist Number 2 said, he didn’t think I had Parkinson’s! 

I and my partner Lorraine were so happy! But I was still experiencing these Parkinson-like symptoms. I then saw a Neuro / Biologist who is tested my brain chemistry and he put me on a course of amino acids to try and facilitate neuro synthesis of various neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. It is helping, although there are days when I get the Parkinson like tremors and have a feeling of being unwell, but I am not getting worse, which is the best thing.

The thought of me not degenerating with Parkinson’s is so wonderful, and the chance that whatever neurological damage/problems I do have may be treatable and possibly repaired is amazing.

Whatever the outcome, whether I do have Parkinson’s or whether I have been misdiagnosed I will always want to contribute in any way I can to find the cure for Parkinson’s, and I will do what I can to raise money and awareness for the cause. I created the pen for Team Fox in collaboration with Montegrappa, with proceeds of sales going to the Michael J Fox Foundation for Research into Parkinson’s Disease. I am really proud of that project.

I have met so many people with the disease, and no matter what my ultimate diagnosis is, I feel I am still part of that community and I want to do all I can to help.

As a result of this and other health issues— I have an upcoming hip replacement, due to osteoarthritis— I am working smaller in my studio work. I have not done a large canvas for a few years, and I am more comfortable, physically and mentally, working on smaller scale; in fact, I am really enjoying the intimacy of my new studio works, rediscovering the beauty of the landscape.

WT: You have created a series of designs for watches that have yet to be made. What inspired you to do so and what is the story behind them?

TJ: My inspiration is simply to create beauty, whenever I can and in whatever form I can.

I have always had a love of beautiful things, objects, watches, pens, jewelry, and my mind wanders and I draw things I would love to see produced.

I do this knowing in my heart, that the probability of the drawings / ideas ever being made is unlikely… but I love it.

Perhaps one day when I am dead and gone, my notebooks will be discovered by one of the great jewelry houses, and I will become one of those renowned artists we spoke of earlier… I live in hope… I am good at that, living in hope, I think it is my strongest character trait. I do not have to sleep to dream.

WT: With which watch brand would you still love to collaborate?

TJ: There really are so many, that I have thought about, I have even approached a few over the years hoping that something may happen, but in so many instances, there is a closed door policy, that doesn’t allow for ‘outside’ collaborations, which I completely understand. So rather than offering you a direct answer of a specific brand, I would have to say, that I would consider it a wonderful opportunity to work with a brand, that thought collaborating with me was a wonderful opportunity!

You must remember that I am not a designer, I do not have the skills to use the technology needed to design in such specialized fields as watches and jewelry… I am purely a dreamer, I let the line that connects my head and heart wander and I follow it’s path and enjoy the journey. Sometimes that journey leads to the creation of beauty, in whatever form or medium it requires, sometimes it doesn’t…. but there are always new lines to make and new journeys to take.

WT: And a few questions I am asking all the people participating in a interview:

Favorite food?

I am very spoilt because my darling partner Lorraine is a (retired) chef and everything we eat at home is wonderful, every cuisine imaginable.

My favorite food when dining out is relaxed… maybe Greek, a selection of Meze, fish, octopus, salad, grilled meat,…. ice-cold beer or wine or both.

…and an ocean view, yes, that would do nicely thank you.

WT: Favorite place?

A peaceful, tolerant, healthy planet, I hope and pray that will happen….soon.

WT: Favorite watch?

A favorite watch that I own is a ‘project’ watch I put together using a 47mm Radiomir style case, domed Plexiglas, white enamel pocket watch style dial, and UNITAS 6497. It is a lovely looking watch and has great wrist presence. As for one that I don’t own; I love the Grönefeld Parallax tourbillon, preferably in red gold.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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