Chester-based Artist Talks Inspiration, Method, and More

By Alexander Rivero

Staff Writer


According to family lore, during church service one Sunday morning in 1973, Jon Collins—then a restless three-year-old—was being a little more difficult than his usual self. He refused to sit still and was testing the limits of his mother’s patience. Running out of ideas, she reached down into her purse and pulled out a pencil and some paper for Jonathan to doodle, and about an hour later, she was startled at what he managed to do.


“I don’t exactly know what I drew but she was very, very impressed,” says Collins, now 52, living in Chester, and hard at work adding to his already impressive collection of stunning watercolors. “From that day on I started drawing each day, and I still haven’t stopped.” 


By ten, Collins was painting, and by fifteen he was committed to being the best painter he could be. Years of studying his craft helped him develop a more sensitive eye for the things in his daily surroundings that would later serve as the subjects of his paintings: nature, faces, light, and the games that light played with color. 


“From my earliest days, I didn’t necessarily see painting as a difficulty,” says Collins. “But if I did have an obstacle early on, it was in taking on a medium [watercolors] that people don’t always see as a fine art outside of some of the greats, like Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, and Albrecht Durer.” 


Through daily discipline, steady travel, a gradual refinement of his touch, and his voracious reading of the lives of the great masters, Collins began to see genuine progress not only in his own work, but in his belief in the things that brought him inspiration. Now more secure in his vision for what he sought to accomplish as artist, his eye became the portal through he sifted his daily reality. He grew comfortable with drinking up the beauty of his encounters in the real-world and recasting them on his canvas. 


“As an artist, you have to remain fully open to the world, to the things that catch your eye and make the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” says Collins. “And as a painter, I have to contend with the questions of: how can I place this image that has inspired me into a blank rectangle? How do I condense it and keep the pearl?”


To help him in his preparation for painting, he carries a camera and sketchbook everywhere he goes and photographs whatever it is he sees that inspires him from a variety of different angles and positions. 


“I do this all the time,” says Collins, “and especially when I’m working on a portrait. I’ll draw, say, the back of the head from all angles.”


His leave-no-stone-unturned approach to his prep-work is Collins’ way of getting to the very truth of his subject. 


“A lot of people think of art as a beautiful scene on a canvas, pretty,” says Collins. “But when I do a portrait, for example, I’m trying to find the very essence of my subject. It’s simply not enough to paint their likeness. I want to capture what they’re all about, their dreams, their fears. I try to get that in the layer upon layer I apply, and with each layer, you realize that what you’re doing is filtering that subject out through your own consciousness.” 


Collins’ portraits are, indeed, striking. Rich in color and detail, and with dramatic renderings of light and shadow, each is an extraordinary testament to his pursuit of his subject’s deeper essence. Given his layering approach, in which the final portrait is not one but several versions of the subject distilled into one final meta-representation, one might say that these portraits are truer renditions of the subjects than a photograph. 


Among the subjects in Collins’ portraits are Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, a former work colleague, a rabbi, a young girl, and infant, a mother and child. This is not to mention the painting of pines before a fading pastel dusk, a view of a home during a snowstorm, a detailed glimpse of a side of the cathedral in Amiens, France, and a host of others. Out of all his works, however, it is the portrait which is Collins’ favorite genre.

“I really do prefer the portraits,” he says. “I love meeting different people that speak to me with their face. Not just someone that’s unusual, or pretty or handsome. What I’m looking for is whether I can—how do I say this?—whether I can see their soul in their face, you know? I want to catch eternity in the moment. I echo Van Gogh’s hopes that my portraits could serve as apparitions of their subjects a hundred years from now.” 


For more information on Jonathan Collins and his artwork, please visit his website:, or find him on Facebook at Jonathan Collins Paintings. 


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