We’re thrilled to welcome Dan Cook to Livingstone St. Ives, with his complex, abstracted paintings which draw from Cornwall’s hidden industrial past. We caught up with him to discuss inspiration, knowing when to stop, and what lies beneath Cornwall’s surface.
“I draw a lot from being outside, but I don’t ever draw outside or en plein air. Everything I collect from outside is done mentally. Where I live you’ve got a lot of access to open spaces, crashing waves – I quickly realized that I needed to explore what was smaller and more personal to me.
“I’ll go out and walk around the old mining sites – not the big ones, just along the pathways where I live, there’s lots of scarring and mined areas which have now been reclaimed by nature. I will go and have private moments with the scarred heaps of shale and the kind of grooves and dips that have been scoured out by human activities. I’ll pick up rocks, crumbling things in my hands, feeling what’s under my feet, rather than looking at the big expanse around me. It’s natural now, but it has a history of human endeavour – the idea of a subterranean horizon that we are walking on all the time. My paintings are not a literal interpretation of how people have mined and dug under the earth, it’s more just how it feels now, the history of the scarred land, how we touch and feel it now.
“First of all, I make up ply boards with an aluminium subframe and then gesso prime it all. I go through a period of making a number of these boards, so I have these blank boards in front of me, then at that point I go straight to the paints. I have an idea of the colours I want to play with, but I initially work with the shapes in thinned paints, and cloth and brush and get the forms out quite quicky and build from there.
“I almost always work in oils on wood panel – I don’t often work on canvas or paper. What I like about these materials is that you have the hard surface – I let the grain of the wood show through the oils which I apply with thinners and different mediums. Once I’ve started working on them, I let the paint have its way and work a little more. But the initial idea is always there, right to the final pieces.
“I don’t have a sketch next to me, I don’t have a prepared composition on paper, it’s all just an image in my head and I work on it from there. It’s straight to putting down the general form and working thin layers for there. I think it allows a fluidity in the painting, to let the paint have a say in how the form comes through.
“But quickly I turn into a control freak and start to rein it in. That’s why the oil paint works for me, I can start sculpting it although the paintings are flat – I don’t often use impasto, except as a gesture at times, it’s mostly thin layers over thin layers – I like to rework the oils with cloth, brush, palette knives to give depth.
“The final stage of each layer is working into it with scratching tools, or sanding back the layers until they are really quite faint and building up again, knocking back the painting. It hints at what I feel when I go out into the landscape.
“These paintings take a long time to mature, they often have layers that have almost disappeared and have only a faint impression of that layer left. They can take from between a few weeks to a year.
“I have disciplined myself to know when to stop – in most cases I feel like I could always do a little something else to it. But I have to say “right, this is doing what you wanted it to do” it’s had its own ways and developed its own gestures and textures. Each artwork is quite distilled and simple, so I quite often think “Ok that has finished its own little journey in getting there”. The only thing I dither around it whether I want a particular area to have varnish, wax sheen, the finish of the painting. But the mark making has been getting to a point where I’m happy with that. And also bored of it, I want to get onto the next thing.
“I also love working with charcoal, it’s a quicker way of working to get the lines and the feel. But I still work on wood panel, grind the charcoal and mix it with mineral spirits. So, the charcoal is both drawing and painting. The charcoal pieces hint towards shale heaps and crumbling dirt and rock in the local areas around me, in this area. They are one of a kind, a direct reaction to what I see around me.
“As a kid, drawing was my thing, which has carried though into my adult life. I spent 15 years as a commercial illustrator for brands, but three years ago, during lockdown, my illustration works stopped for the first time and I managed to get some time to focus on painting. As soon as I started, it was more of a release – I was so used to other people’s responses and ideas and me having to shape my processes around that. Suddenly I was able to focus on my personal interpretations and reactions to things. I feel like I’ve been catching myself up – all this feels very fresh for me, it feels like I went back to college or started thinking about things in depth.
“There’s also an urgency to it, because I’ve come to this point slightly later in my life than other painters, I’ve had a career doing something else. Although the commercial illustrations were art, it was never me, not my response to things, so it was the first time in so many years that I had that opportunity. It feels like a young kind of process. There’s so much I want to build on.
“I think maybe the thing I both like and don’t like about my work is that it doesn’t quite convey the chaos that it falls out of. I think I should drop some more of that chaos in. The pieces seem ordered and deliberate, and that’s not necessarily how these things are coming about for me. I’ve always got the feeling that something else that is waiting in the queue and I need to get it out. I struggle with staying still.
“I was born in Cambridge and brought up in Northwest Essex. We’d come to Cornwall to Lamorna cove, and those times were when I felt happiest. It’s a subconscious link for me – when I was down here was when I felt most alive. We’d spend a couple of weeks in the summer, and as I got older, I brought my family down here to around St Ives to explore the southwest of Cornwall. In younger years we lived in London, then Wiltshire but it wasn’t west enough, we realized we had to be here. We moved here about five years ago. I don’t think it’s just a love of the place, I feel like I have a personal bond to the place, its stronger that just liking it. Now that we’re here there’s nowhere else that I would want to go.”
You can see Dan’s work online and at our Clifton gallery at 30 The Mall. Why not sign up to our mailing list to be the first to find out about private views, first looks at new paintings and exclusive subscriber discounts.