Lee's Summit Journal

‘Painting is my passion.’ LS artist draws inspiration from travels

Ken Downs’ acrylic painting, “On the River,” was inspired by a scene he photographed near the Mekong Delta during his travels to Vietnam.
Ken Downs’ acrylic painting, “On the River,” was inspired by a scene he photographed near the Mekong Delta during his travels to Vietnam. Courtesy image

Five years ago, Ken Downs received a present that changed his life.

“In 2014, my nephew, Bruce, gave me some watercolor paints,” said the longtime Lee’s Summit resident. “They were the greatest gift I ever received and they got me started on an art journey.”

Bruce Downs credits his listening skills for his gift-giving ability.

“Years ago, we were on the way to an art show in Lawrence and my uncle mentioned an exhibit he’d seen in college,” Bruce Downs said. “He made the comment that he’d always wanted to try watercolor painting. I told him he should do it, but he didn’t.

“Then, we went to another exhibit and he said the same thing. That’s when I got him the paints, some brushes, videos and a block of watercolor paper. I handed them to him and said, ‘Here, try it.’ He’s been at it ever since.”

In just a few weeks after receiving his nephew’s gift, Downs completed his first painting. Since then, he has created more than 70 paintings in watercolor, acrylic and oil. His work has been featured in three solo shows across the metro area, including his current exhibit at Lee’s Summit City Hall.

Over the last five years, Downs has immersed himself in the study and practice of painting, something he had done with another visual art medium in years past.

“I was a photographer for decades and was self-taught,” Downs said. “I read every book I could get my hands on from the public library and learned photography that way, so I knew I could teach myself to paint. As a photographer, I spent years self-training in composition and color, which I apply to painting.

“Art is art, whether it starts with a camera, pencil or brush.”

Today, Downs draws much of his painting inspiration from images he made during years of world travel as a photographer.

Another favorite subject is musical instruments.

“Not only do the instruments produce beautiful music, they have visually beautiful shapes, colors, patterns and texture,” Downs said. “They are extraordinary compositions in and of themselves and create visual harmony, unity and rhythm before even one note is played.”

Downs also finds inspiration in the community of fellow artists across the Kansas City area.

“I paint with three different groups each week and the other artists share so much,” he said. “They are there to coach, help and support you. I enjoy talking, painting and showing with them.”

Stylistically, Downs opts for dramatic lighting and significant tonal changes in his bold, yet simple compositions. He also prefers to work with a restricted palette, and most of his paintings are created from black, white and one or two colors. Though watercolor was his initial introduction, oils are now his preferred medium.

“I moved into oils because I can control my drying time,” he said.

As his mastery and skill increase, Downs’ enthusiasm also grows.

“Painting is my passion and I’m having fun,” he said.

Downs allows joy and passion to guide him.

“Usually, I can’t predict my next painting,” he said. “Typically, a visual scene grabs me and I can’t quit thinking about it. When I can’t quit thinking about it, it often becomes my next painting.

“It’s almost as if the scene chooses me and I follow along, a very willing participant, to turn a version of that scene into a painting.”

Ken Downs’ current show, “Visual Recollections,” will be on exhibit at Lee’s Summit City Hall through July 12. The show features waterscape, still-life and figurative scenes.