The Face Behind 'Face of Malibu': Johanna SpinksThe British-born portrait artist started painting later in life, but she’s managed to captivate eyes from all over the country.

The Malibu Times

September 28, 2017

The British-born portrait artist started painting later in life, but she’s managed to captivate eyes from all over the country.

The Malibu Times’ readers will recognize the monthly portraits cast in shades of blue, purple and the occasional yellow in the “Face of Malibu” column. 

The portrait painter behind the art, Johanna Spinks, and the City of Malibu’s Cultural Arts Commission have come together to present The Face of Malibu Portrait Painting Exhibit, opening on Friday, Oct. 6. The event is co-sponsored by The Malibu Times.

Over the years, Spinks’ work has been featured in The New York Times, American Artist Magazine and Art Talk. In 2008, she won the Daler Rowney Award for Painting Excellence at the Oil Painters of America National Show. Her work is inspired by that of John Singer Sargent, Johannes Vermeer and Anders Zorn, according to her website.

The Malibu Times had the chance to flip the script, so to speak, and get the portrait artist’s story.

Spinks was born in Britain, but moved to New York at the age of 22. Originally, it was makeup that she used her talents for—Spinks was highly regarded as a Hollywood makeup artist. 

She suffered from a health issue—”some kind of virus,” she said—and took time off from the industry. While recuperating, she decided to take art classes, which set her on the path toward becoming a portrait artist. 

She described the transition as a “natural draw”—after all, she had been around clients and knew about facial structure from her previous job. 

“The biggest challenge for me has been drawing ... to really go off and make it right.,” Spinks said. “If you get an eye slightly off by a millimeter, it’s not going to look very good.”

She also pointed out another challenge: establishing a point of view as an artist. 

To approach the task, Spinks talks to her subjects throughout the live sketch sessions.

“It’s not a static experience for them. It’s not a static experience for me,” she emphasized. “...That’s something I enjoy. The sketches aren’t perfect but there’s a voice.” 

Before there was “Face of Malibu,” there was “Face of Ventura.” 

Spinks made 58 portraits, including one of actor Kevin Costner, over two years for The Ventura Breeze, a Ventura County community newspaper, as part of the series. At the newspaper, she would submit two portraits monthly. 

Those portraits were accepted into a permanent collection at The Museum of Ventura County. 

After she finished “Face of Ventura,” she approached Malibu Times publisher Arnold G. York with a similar idea here in Malibu. Since 2012, she has done a monthly portrait of a Malibuite. Notable subjects include California Senator Henry Stern and five Malibu mayors (including current mayor Lou La Monte) among others.

After having done so many portraits, Spinks said she gets many repeat clients. At the moment, Spinks has a client who, after having commissioned a portrait of her daughter 10 years ago, contacted her for a portrait of a younger daughter. 

Naturally, social media has played a role in her clientele. Clients hail from all over the world, but she pointed out that “the South and East Coast are more tuned in to classical portraiture.”

Once she gets a client, Spinks has the process behind each portrait to a loose science. 

“A big part of my discipline is painting from life,” she said. “I really do believe it’s important to do that. You can’t just work from photographs.”

The portraits—whether sketch or full-on painting—are a mix of photographs and live sketches.

If the commission is from out-of-state, the client usually flies Spinks in. She then conducts a photoshoot—taking up to 150 photos—and a live sketch; both usually occur over the span of one day.

Once she gets back to her studio, she creates the portrait. The final product can take anywhere from two hours to two months, depending on what the requirements are.

One of her clients, Christopher Forbes (yes, of Forbes magazine), said, “I couldn’t be more delighted [with the portrait] and look forward to finding a place for it at home,” according to a testimonial.

All this, according to Spinks, would not be possible without her mentor Everett Raymond Kinstler. Kinstler, who has painted seven portraits of sitting presidents, still counsels Spinks on her work.

Malibu residents can view the work at her gallery reception on Oct. 6 at Malibu City Hall.

“I do feel really good about that,” Spinks said about the gallery opening. “I thank the Malibu Arts Commission for sponsoring the show. It adds a sort of community acknowledgement and that’s been wonderful.”

Malibu Arts Commissioner Alan Roderick-Jones, a famed production designer who has worked on movies including “Star Wars,” said the commission worked with Spinks on the vision for the gallery.

“She approached us and [the Malibu Arts Commission] debated over it,” he recalled. 

Roderick-Jones, who had originally just seen the sketches, asked her if “she had any other larger portraits.” 

On seeing the work, especially the portrait done of Sir Paul McCartney (which will be on display at the exhibit), the commissioner was impressed. 

“It’d be really nice for people to see the ... portraits,” Roderick-Jones said, in reference to the larger scale works. “[Portraits] that you spend a lot more time on.”

After the commission came to an agreement, he worked with Spinks on the specific selection of portraits. He will also be supervising the layout of the exhibit.

“For all of us who have seen the portraits in the newspaper for years, it’s really exciting to be able to see all of the original paintings hanging in Malibu City Hall,” Maylor Skylar Peak said in an emailed statement from the city.

When asked about her five-year experience with “Face of Malibu” and why subjects are asked the same final question (“How was it having your portrait painted by Johanna Spinks?”), the portrait artist had this final thought: “It was important for [subjects] to be asked how they felt being painted ... In the age of the selfie and Instagram, it’s a unique experience when someone’s staring at you for two hours and then putting all that [the image] down on canvas.”

The Face of Malibu Portrait Painting Exhibit will be on display at the Malibu City Hall atrium (23825 Stuart Ranch Road) from Oct. 6 until Jan. 12. All are invited to an opening reception on Friday, Oct. 6 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the upstairs atrium at City Hall. Call 310.456.2489 ext. 337 or visit MalibuArtsandCulture.org/face for more information.