Derek Davidson was interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on July 25th, 2019. Listen to the full interview here.
MK: So I’m here with Derek Davidson down at the barracks. Welcome, Derek, to the show.
DD: Thank you.
MK: As you reminded me when I came in, we spoke a couple of years ago I believe, or I saw you down here a couple years ago in the barracks. What’s it like to return down here and do some art?
DD: It’s great. I’ve got some ideas that I want to work on, and in the first couple of days you’re getting settled in, which is nice again, but what I can also use that for is finishing up some paintings that I had in progress.
MK: What paintings were those?
DD: These ones here are St. Andrews, St. Stephen…
MK: Okay, so they’re all harbourside.
DD: Yes, I did some sketches down there a couple months ago when it was still freezing; had a big jacket on. So there are three of four paintings that I’ve finished there; you’ll see some boats, and the people there also had some jackets on.
MK: How hard is it to work from a photograph as opposed to being there? Is the photo just the tip of the iceberg?
DD: I don’t work from photographs.
MK: Oh, sketches, sorry.
DD: You can see a sketch there; not of them, but that’s the thing. For a few years, I did work with photographs. I think now it’s more difficult to work with photographs; it’s missing something. You can’t hear the air or the call of the seagulls, but when you’re sketching… But then, of course, it’s not always straightforward to go from a sketch to one of these. It depends on how far you go and how much more you add to it, and whether you… On a sketch, there’s a lot of white paper in the back, and how much you keep that white paper in the back is my problem; my big thing to work out.
MK: You want to fill it up with things?
DD: Well, the mind, if you work on it for a while, you tend to think “Oh, I’ll put a bit more dabs in.” But sometimes it’s better to say “Hey, I am only going to paint this for an hour, and what goes in, goes in.” And then it’s more like a sketch but it’s on canvas.
MK: Do you typically give yourself that time limit? Is something like that a challenge?
DD: When I paint some scenes, you have that time limit, because it’s defined. Like in Officer’s Square, with the band, you’ve got one hour, and that’s it. But that’s the problem when you’re painting on the canvas with a sketch; you’ve got infinity, and that is the problem. You sometimes try to do too much.
MK: Have you ever taken a painting done from a sketch and then go back to the place and realize how much more you had put into it?
DD: Actually, I have not done that. Once it’s done, I like to finish and move onto the next one. That’s my excuse (laughs).
MK: How long doe sit typically take to make the sketch while you’re there?
DD: Fifteen minutes; it was usually cold, I would’ve frozen to death. But the sketch does have that in advantage in that it’s quick, and you can have fun and go on to the next one, do something else.
MK: Is the sketch sort of a trial run to see what the painting is going to look like, or are you trying to capture things that you want to inject into the painting?
DD: It may be that sometimes the sketch is better than what’s finished up, so one shouldn’t say the sketch is just stage one; sometimes the sketch is it.
MK: So you’re not always sketching to think “this is going to be a painting.”
DD: No, not necessarily. However, there isn’t really much you can do with a sketch; for an artist, to frame a sketch is to expect. You can sell a canvas, because it’s there already to hang up; a sketch is a piece of paper, not even watercolour paper. I wouldn’t be able to do the same things with watercolour because it’s too jagged.
MK: So they’re different mediums all together, but do you ever take the sketch and try to… Like do you ever sketch on canvas?
DD: Actually you have just touched… what’s the expression? Hammer on the head? Nail on the head? That is what I’m trying this week. Particularly the highland games, and the night market happening Thursday night. I have been practicing a bit. This one here is of Officer’s Square, this is a sketch directly on canvas.
MK: What did you sketch with first?
DD: I would have an acrylic pen, and when I’m on paper, it’s Indian ink and pen, and watercolours, whereas this is acrylic pen, and acrylic (paints). So I would have done two; one where the band is sitting relatively still; the St. Andrews Pipe Band, god bless their souls, they come on for five-ten minutes or less, do something, and then change since there’s usually two bands there. So what I’m going to try to do on Thursday night is to sketch effectively with a canvas; instead of doing something in five or ten minutes on paper, I’ll be doing something hopefully in five minutes, and then change the canvas, so it’ll be a bit quicker. And so that what you see there is sort of a preparation for it sort of, but there were two that I did; one of them might have been fifteen minutes, the other one twenty or twenty-five minutes, so we’re still talking a few order of magnitudes shorter. So it is a bit of a risk.
MK: Yeah, but it sounds like you’re excited about this challenge. What prompted the idea?
DD: I’m not sure if there was a defining moment; it just seemed like the next stage, and these opportunities arrived, and I decided “I should do that.” And as I was saying earlier about the sketching, they were very good, but it’s difficult that then… the cost of framing a sketch is too restrictive; while I can do sketches in the same sort of time on a canvas, it can sort of hang itself; just put a wire at the back, and it’s finished.
MK: And that would be the final product; you wouldn’t put any additional paint on.
DD: No. I have tried that before, and I usually mess it up. Now sometimes a big blob is too much, and there’s sometimes little things you can reduce the intensity of, but generally that’s it.
MK: I know, generally, a lot of painters do have a sketching phase that they’ll put on their canvas, like a pencil or something like that, and just completely paint over it, but you’re making these sketches as the essence of the piece, in a very short period of time. In that short period of time, what do you focus on? What is that thing that you’re trying to capture? Because you can’t capture everything anymore.
DD: No, you try and catch the main thing. You look quickly; what do you see?
MK: Are you looking for specifically the people? That’s something prominent in most of your paintings here.
DD: Yeah, I’ve got people. The advantage with the drummers is that they do have these pipes stick out, and there’s colour dangling from the pipes, so to get that more-so, and then a quick shape for a head or body, because they have to be quick.
MK: Because they have to be quick, right? Just looking here you’ve got a portrait, it looks like, of a symphony or an orchestra here, and you’ve got the orchestra represented; how quickly was that one done?
DD: That was a couple of weeks ago in Officer’s Square; Fredericton Marching Band. That would’ve been our taking on one thing.
MK: And then again, it looks like that’s another sketch attempt.
DD: Yeah, but that one is more of a fifteen-minute sketch. So it’s not this time limit thing. Maybe if I would’ve tried something here, for instance, I would have done an area, and maybe done the instrument here; something that signifies… Ah, yes, if you glance over there quickly, you see the thing, and that’s what’s there.
MK: When you started along this line with this style, was it… There’s something about your style that has a lot of motion, a lot of energy; it really seems to live. I wonder if that was sort of a conscious element at the beginning when you were starting, and this was what you wanted to do, or is that something you found emerged when you were doing these?
DD: I would say the latter; it all comes together and becomes enjoyable; I did mention that I started years ago, from photographs, but I didn’t start with people and movement. And then this naturally came from that. Actually, no, I lied a little bit. What happened is, when you travel, whether it’s going to St. Stephen or elsewhere, you can’t take a canvas, and if you did get canvases there, you can’t come back with it very easily, so when travelling, I realized that that’s when the sketching paper and paper and watercolours came in, so that’s why I started doing that. And then, from that, I thought “Oh, I can make a canvas from that.” So nothing was planned; it was forced, if you like.
MK: I think part of the mark of an artist is you take these things in stride, and do what you can with them, and then use them as opportunities rather than limits.
DD: Yes, yes.
MK: So what are the topics you’re looking to capture? I see a lot of people in a lot of these paintings. Are people and figure-drawing kind of where you find your heart or desire?
DD: I think so. That too is probably the interesting thing; that’s what changes and that’s what you can see. Sometimes even when you do a quick sketch of somebody, someone can say “Oh I recognize that fellow; you’ve got the position.” You couldn’t identify him in a murder scene, but you can identify the shape of his back, or the way he leans over, or the way he puts his hands, or walks. Certain people have certain postures.
MK: Do you spend a lot of time studying people, and how they move and how they stand and what makes it a typical element of that person?
DD: I’d have to say no. However, I am trying to get the person walking. When people walk, it’s not either there or… So in a way, yes. I sometimes think of it when I see people I can see, but I don’t go out and say “Oh, I’d better look at people today!” I think you’d get arrested for that.
MK: Isn’t it the artist’s prerogative to kind of look at the world and take it all in? So when you set yourself up to be in a place to capture an image, are you looking to be in the middle of everything, or off in the distance from it? Because a lot of these seem to be fairly, directly in front of the thing you’re looking at.
DD: I don’t like to be noticed. In fact, some band members will point you out and I’ll say “No, don’t do that.” However, I do kind of see if people around me are trying to talk to me; maybe you should say “Keep away from that fellow. Don’t treat him like monkeys at the zoo; don’t feed or talk to him.”
MK: Wear a shirt that says “Please don’t talk to me.” (laughs) Here in the barracks is a very interruptive experience while you’re here though.
DD: This is different.
MK: Yeah, you know this is coming, I guess. So how would you describe your style? I don’t know the proper terms to describe styles, but I feel like you’re going for… I don’t want to call it realism because you have these interesting shapes that aren’t perfect replicas of what’s there, but they’re so evocative.
DD: I also would not like to put a name on the style. In the past, some people have said “post-impressionist.” That really just means anybody who paints, not just a direct realist image not born after 1900 or something. I think this might be developed again. It depends on what you would call it; whether just outside, painting people and things. I once used the phrase “interpretation.”
MK: A lot of art definitely falls into interpretation, yeah. But much closer to reality in interpretation, while the varying colours from which you’d expect some reaction. So this week, you said you’re taking on this challenge of doing some sketches on canvas directly. What new pieces are you working on besides the Officer’s Square with the many, many kilts that will be there with their bagpipes.
DD: The first two days was a warmup, where I finished off some of the paintings, so what I intend on doing is getting the canvas out and doing sketches of people that are around or on the side here, just to see what happens. Again, you don’t know who’s going to turn up or who’s going to go down the side here. But I will be effectively sketching on canvases, using the pen and acrylic paint.
MK: Now obviously if it’s raining outside, that’s going to affect you, but what about the weather?
DD: According to my weather network; as the saying goes, if you don’t like one weather network, you check another one. It predicted rain last week, and so I’m fairly confident. We might have some drizzle.
MK: Aside from affecting you, does the humidity have an effect?
DD: Now that you mention that, I have painted before, when I used to paint with water-soluble oils. And it was early morning, painting the boats along the river. It would’ve have been along the lines of an impressionist fellow; almost copying it there. I was painting, and it started to drizzle, and then suddenly, all my paint just oozed out over the edge of my canvas.
MK: So now it’s abstract. (laughs)
DD: Yes, so the weather does certainly affect it.
MK: One of the things I find fascinating is there’s sort of two distinct kinds of paintings I see around me. Ones in which you’ve left the canvas, and ones in which there’s no canvas whatsoever. And I find it interesting. Where does that decision come from, to fully fill the canvas or leave it somewhat sparse?
DD: The first rule might be that ones with no white might be the older paintings. That wouldn’t mean these ones that I’ve just finished two days ago. So what’s happened with them is that if I’m probably sat there, painting over a few days, coming in whenever I can, there is this tendency to fill up the canvas. Looking back on it, I would have preferred not to have. But they’re okay.
MK: How do you make that decision? It’s not like you’re leaving things that are only white in the background either.
DD: I think really I should be saying to myself “I am doing that one today, and I am only doing this for two hours, and that will be it.” But you can’t say that when you’re in the middle of washing the dishes, and then you come downstairs to do some painting.
MK: Is painting for you kind of like stepping into another world, and then when you step out, there’s a painting that’s created? Is it that sort of sense of disappearing into the work?
DD: One could say that, but no, I wouldn’t really say so.
MK: You’re pretty conscious throughout the entire process then.
DD: I think so. I know sometimes you like to write a little description beside a canvas, and it’s nice to have that wordiness; makes it interesting to read. And there’s probably a little bit of truth in it, but I would only say a little bit of truth. I remember being at St. Andrews and seeing seagulls flying around, and the boats. I suppose there’s some level of that, but I wouldn’t necessarily try to put it out too much.
MK: Does it bother you when people try to have that wordy discussion about the painting? You want them to just see the painting as it is?
DD: I wouldn’t say that either; I don’t think anybody has come in to try and say that. It’s usually “I like the colours,” or “I see the motion,” so that’s really what I would hope to see. I want them to see the motion, maybe even feel the music, but again, this is approaching the same thing. You see something, and it clicks your mind to think “Oh, I remember that band; they played this.”
MK: Well, it’s very beautiful work, and I’m delighted to talk to you again. Is there a place that people can find out more about your work? Either online or a gallery exhibition you have coming up?
DD: There is derekart.tumblr.com, but that’s really about it. I’m in Isaac’s Way; one painting as part of the overall auction, so I have a painting there, and of course here in the casemates for this week of the summer. There is the capitol area, $100-or-less sale out done twice a year done just before Christmas and Mother’s Day, but I’m not in a gallery, so that is my big problem — getting my paintings out.
MK: So that’s a goal? To get a gallery exhibition at some point?
DD: There are exhibitions you can do; you can put it in the Charlotte Street Arts Centre, but then there’s that other, what some people would say is the recognizing of being in a gallery. Actually the main thing is that somebody else is doing the selling. That would be the feature, because a lot of artists, me personally anyway, I’m not a sales person. When somebody paints, there’s a certain side of their brain, and if you talk about selling and money, that’s another side of the brain. So you’d probably get a good deal.
MK: Well thank you again, Derek, for joining me.
DD: Thank you very much.
Charlotte Simmons, FAA Summer Events Coordinator 2019