Erik Johnson’s life changed dramatically on June 30. That’s when he decided to leave his 15-year career as a vendor for a coffee company and start painting full-time. At 40 years old, Johnson’s decision has been a long time coming.

“It’s like I’ve stepped into a different world, an alternate universe,” Johnson says. Sitting in his garage-turned-studio behind his Park Circle home, it’s clear that he’s nervous but excited about his new career path. He has a 12-year-old son to take care of and bills to pay, but after years of painting on the side, he finally felt ready to take the plunge.

Johnson has always had an interest in art, but he received no formal training, opting to enter the workforce right after high school. But don’t call him self-taught. “I don’t think anyone’s self-taught,” he says. “I prefer to say independent study.” He used books, magazines, videos, and advice from other artists to reach his current level of expertise. In his 16 years in Charleston, he’s made a point of staying involved in the local art community, building relationships with artists like Robert Lange, who went on to mentor Johnson and eventually offered him his first big break — which he almost declined. “Now I’m so glad I didn’t do that,” Johnson laughs. “I didn’t think I could do it because I was working a lot. I just realized, I can’t decline this, so I just really tried to crunch some time and fit it in. I did two pieces for him, and they both ended up selling. They’ve kept me on ever since.” As a regular at the gallery, he joins the ranks of successful local artists like Nathan Durfee, Fred Jamar, Charles Williams, and JB Boyd.

Johnson’s first two pieces for Robert Lange Studios were for the Black vs. White group show. Johnson’s intricately detailed oil paintings depicted black and white ink clouding in a glass of water. In the gallery’s recent What We Choose show, Johnson contributed a painting of a goldfish alongside the palette he used to create it.

Johnson is a versatile artist, adept at everything from light-hearted children’s book illustration to photography. But his passion is contemporary realism. His painstaking process starts with an idea, which he then photographs. Sometimes he uses people, but usually he just works in his studio. When we visited, his work table was splattered with red paint he’d been pouring on a white daisy. “I think my technique is boring,” he admits. “If someone wants to watch me, I think they’d fall asleep. But if I can get the idea across, that’s what’s important to me.” And that underlying idea is what’s most important to Johnson.

“To be honest, there’s a million people that can paint better than me, and that’s why for me it has to be about the idea,” he says. “Because ideas are the things that will separate you, not painting technique. If I can keep painting like this and continue to improve, that’s great, but I have to keep coming up with ideas that are a little bit different. Nowadays, when everything you think of has a million hits on Google, it’s hard to come up with new ideas.” Luckily, he has years of inspiration saved up.

“I have a lifetime of ideas,” Johnson says. “What’s happened with me is, because I’ve been doing this other job for so long and haven’t had time to paint, anytime I’d have ideas, I’d write it down on scraps of paper or do a quick thumbnail and stuff it in a box. I have a big, humongous, thick stack of papers. A lot of times if I have a single idea, once I start doing the photo shoots for it, I can get five or six paintings out of one idea.

“But again, I’m early,” he adds. “Ask me this question next year and I might say, ‘I don’t know what to do!’ But I haven’t even begun to touch that stack.”