The Artist: Jon Gamel’s Paintings Are a Window to His and His Subjects’ Souls

The Artist is a series of occasional profiles of interesting and creative artists who live in West Hollywood or whose work focuses on West Hollywood.

Are the eyes the window to Jon Gamel‘s soul?

Gamel, a West Hollywood artist who has focused on eyes in some of his paintings, sees truth in that oft-quoted statement by William Shakespeare.

“I know it’s a cliché, but eyes are sort of the window to the soul,” he said. “I have always loved eyes. I still love eyes.”

Jon Gamel (Photo by Joseph Daniels, www.josephdaniels.com)

But the eyes are complex windows, often hard to really see through. And perhaps that is how the eyes in his art best reflect who Jon Gamel really is.

Gamel grew up in Ridgecrest in a religious and politically conservative family. While his family’s views don’t match his, he took some inspiration from them. “When I was younger I would watch my mom paint,” he said. “That was how I learned a lot of my initial style and creativity. Of course she paints things even now that are a lot different than what I would paint.

“My grandfather used to make a lot of models, train models. He was very into that. We sort of have a gene for that in my family.”

Gamel, now 41, studied art and design at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Since 1996 his most lucrative creative work has been in tech. “I’ve been doing web pages and mobile apps, and I know how to program,” he said. That work has included serving as an art director for AOL in New York, a senior designer for Reuters and for R/GA, the digital ad agency, and, until recently, as a mobile designer for Townsquare Media, where Gamel was involved in developing mobile web sites and event apps and the template for the company’s national and local websites.

“Even though I loved to paint more, I got pushed into this direction of corporate America,” he said. “2001 was the first time I got laid off,” Gamel said. “That was right before 9 /11. I remember thinking immediately that I didn’t want to do the work I was doing as a graphic designer. You basically have to do the work like they tell you to.

“I ended up going back for financial reasons … I figured graphic design was a way for me to be creative and also made money.”

In 2004, Gamel moved to New York City to get into the advertising business and to explore his passion for art in the art capital of the United States. Gamel sold three large paintings while in New York City, but he didn’t feel as though that work really was an expression of himself, which is a crucial element of what he creates. And he wasn’t able to paint much because of the long hours he worked in advertising. “I am the type of person who can get distracted,” he said. “… It was about being stressed out, thinking about what I’m going to do the next day at work.”

Jon Gamel self-portrait in progress (Photo by Joseph Daniels, josephdanielsphotography)

But Gamel, who essentially is a self-taught artist, did learn a few things on his own. “At the time I was doing reverse painting on Plexiglas, which is where you actually paint backwards, and you do the details first and then you go to the back,” he said, a technique he uses in his art today. “I was focusing on trying to do something totally new and different. Even though the finished product didn’t have the soul I wanted it to have, I do feel the finished product had a lot more soul.”

Gamel didn’t really get to immerse himself into what he loved so he moved from New York to Miami, looking for fun as well as inspiration. “I got nothing done there,” he said of his two years in Miami. “I had a lot of fun there and nothing really got done. Then, after a bad relationship, I ended up coming back to California. I ended up in L.A. because I felt like there were actually opportunities here.”

When he moved to Southern California at the end of 2013, Gamel spent six months in Marina del Rey before settling in West Hollywood. Now he does his tech work and his art out of his home in a classic building in the Courtyard Thematic District on Fountain Avenue.

Gamel continued his work as a designer. But while he is talented at it, he doesn’t have a passion for that work. “I don’t like the process of designing,” he said. “I like the creativity behind it. But I start thinking too much about what I’m doing … In the past one of my clients was a major credit card company, and all I could thing about is that I’m just working to get people into debt. There is a bank behind all of that with people who are shareholders and they make money off of this pretty package you are putting together to make people have a emotional feeling about spending money on the card.”

Still, it took Gamel time to reignite his passion for art. “Initially I kind of zoned out,” he said. “At the same time I think I went through a little bit of a depression. Sort of a lot of self-doubting thoughts going through my head.”

After spending some time exploring West Hollywood’s vibrant gay culture, Gamel turned his attention back to his art, creating some pieces that were shown in a gallery on Melrose Avenue. Now he’s on it.

“I think it’s been within the last year and a half that I’ve actually had the ability to continually focus on that as something I wanted to do,” he said. “I started with this idea with the eyes. But I had some difficulty, I felt like I wasn’t putting myself on the canvas and I wasn’t expressing what’s inside of me.”

To do that, Gamel shifted to his current series of paintings, which he is calling “The Gays.” With these paintings, Gamel is exploring the contrast between how people look and how they are expected to look, a real, if unspoken, concern in West Hollywood, a city stereotyped somewhat accurately for its focus on good looks. Each painting is a detailed portrait of a real person reflecting Gamel’s fascination with photo realism. But each work also has an element of mystery about it, leading the viewer to wonder who subject really is. Consider it a window to a complex soul.

“I am more focused on getting the mood right now,” Gamel said. “Though people say that I’m quite technically skilled, I don’t feel like I’ve always been as skilled on the emotional part. That’s something I keep coming back to because that’s always been an issue with me.”

Gamel confesses that that has been a personal issue as well as a creative issue. “I do feel that people sometimes think that I’m this standoffish, colder person, but I’m really not. I do feel like I feel a lot. I’m looking to take that and put it into my art instead of driving a way from it.”

“I feel like with this series … I finally got to that point where I am doing what I want to do. I feel much more confident about it. I feel like it’s something that takes everything that I’ve learned in the past 10 or 12 years and combines it into one series.”

“This is definitely something that is making me much more inspired. Whatever I’m feeling I’m feeling like it is coming across.”

This series may well be the window into Jon Gamel’s complex soul.

Jon Gamel: @artdaddyjon, www.jongamelart.com

A work from Jon Gamel’s series of portraits of gay men (Photo by Joseph Daniels, www.josephdaniels.com)
jon gamel
A Jon Gamel work in progress, with details first. (Photo by Joseph Daniels, www.josephdaniels.com)