Visual Arts

Painter Jonathan McAfee Puts His Best Faces Forward in Denver

You can find art all over town — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

Jonathan McAfee went from being “a relatively big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big lake” when he moved here from Indianapolis, he says. The painter, who trained at the Herron School of Art and Design, had spent most of his life in Indiana, and felt like he’d reached his full potential in his hometown. So he quit his marketing/PR job early in 2015, and when he and his wife visited Denver last March to check out a potential new home, the couple “fell in love,” McAfee says. A few months later, they packed up and flew their lives west.

McAfee is now working full-time as an artist, showing his colorful, surrealist paintings in as many venues as possible. So far, they've been displayed at Red Wolf Gallery, Black Shirt Brewing Co., WaterCourse Foods and Allure Hair Studio & Spa. On Friday, February 5, McAfee will show a whopping 25 paintings at Infinite Monkey Theorem on First Friday.

McAfee mostly paints faces — portraits that can’t help but catch a viewer’s eye. “A lot of my paintings are of people I know, or images I find interesting online or in magazines,” he says, adding that even when he knows the subject, he almost always paints from photographs. The artist doesn’t have any specific requirements for his muses: “It really just has to be a visually stimulating image." 

Once he’s found the right face, McAfee says he “gets a nice background going, and then attacks the portrait and the figure, building up on layers." The figurative pieces are anchored on abstract backgrounds that allow him “to focus more on the figure while dialing into expressionism through the layering and application of paint,” he explains.

“The one thing that’s interesting about my work,” continues McAfee, “is the application of the paint.” He uses brushes and palette knifes to create those layers with acrylic paint. “Standing far away from a painting like mine, it definitely looks like there is a lot of detail, which there is. But the closer you get, the more abstract it looks, because of the expressive brush strokes,” he adds. 

“Depending on how the day goes, a larger painting could get developed in four to five hours,” he continues. “Other days, it’s hard to get the process going.”  And if he doesn't see a good painting coming in a few hours, McAfee will cut his losses and scrap the whole idea. “I’ll paint over it, and start something knew,” he admits. “It’s easy to spend countless hours on a piece that’s going nowhere, but my experience has shown that it is best to abandon it.” 

The discarded painting doesn’t end up being a complete waste of time, though: The painted-over canvas provides plenty of texture as the basis for the next piece.

As he gets accustomed to this bigger pond, McAfee is pushing himself to go deeper. “Right now, when people first look at my work, it is obvious that I’m painting portraits,” he says. “Since moving here, I’ve wanted to distance myself as being labeled as a portrait artist, only because I’m trying to break these paintings down into something a little bit deeper. And I’m constantly trying to improve my skill and craft with each painting.”

For more information on his work, visit Jonathan McAfee's website.  
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Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer, and author of the forthcoming Falcon Guide Hiking Wth Kids, Colorado: 52 Great Hikes for Families.
Contact: Jamie Siebrase