David Stewart won the Landscape Award in Jackson’s Painting Prize 2023 with his work Tower Shadow. In this interview, he offers insights into his working practices, the importance of keeping the painting process fresh, and how his relationship with painting has changed over time.
Above image: David Stewart’s studio in Montreal, Canada, with work in progress
Artist Interview with David Stewart
Josephine: Could you tell us about your artistic background? How did you become an artist?
David: I was a bit awkward growing up and had trouble fitting in, but was always good at drawing and was encouraged to keep doing it. When I was in eighth grade I found a Salvador Dali book at a local bookstore and couldn’t believe the images were paintings (or that the moustache was real). In tenth grade I got my first oil paint set for Christmas, and still remember how unique and different oil paint felt from other mediums. I knew it was something I’d be doing for life.
Josephine: What are the stages of your work on a painting? Do you work on more than one painting at once?
David: I typically start with a photograph as the basis for a painting. This used to be images from the internet, but in grad school this notion was challenged by a professor that asked me “is there anything you won’t paint?”. As a general rule I only use photographs taken by friends or myself. I don’t consider myself a photographer, so these function more as quick sketches.
The painting process usually starts with a coloured ground, and I build up in layers. If I don’t like a painting, sometimes that image itself becomes the ground, and I scrape it down before adding a new image on top. All the mistakes create a different type of surface, and my clumsy nature feeds into the process. Ideally I work on a painting quite a bit then leave it for a few months. That distance really helps to finish a work.
Josephine: What inspires you to work? What is more important for you, inspiration or daily work?
David: For me painting has become part of my routine, so I try not to let inspiration factor too heavily into whether I work or not. It’s great when you feel that creative spark but it isn’t always there. I think understanding this and working through this separates the artist from the hobbyist (not art school degrees, skill, or gallery representation). Painting can be boring or really frustrating sometimes. I buy into the late Chuck Close’s mantra of “inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just get up and work.”
Josephine: Tower Shadow is powerful and looming. You mention that your work addresses the tension between suburban and natural spaces in a contemporary context – did you set out to find such an apt representation of this theme to reference, or did you stumble upon it?
David: I totally stumbled upon it. Tower Shadow is the view from my parent’s eleventh story apartment window during a winter sunset. I’d said to my parents that I wanted to paint the view, but it never seemed to work compositionally. When the sun set it all snapped into place; the shadow solved the composition for me. I immediately thought of Peter Doig’s Ski Jacket painting from the 90’s, along with Arthur Lismer’s Cathedral Mountain which is a lesser known painting hanging in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Josephine: What’s your relationship with colour and how do you decide on the colour palette of a painting?
David: Colour has always been pretty intuitive for me, but I’m always tinkering with different colours to try and find something new. I think it’s important to try colours you might not immediately like or think to use because otherwise the paintings can get stale. I’d compare it to a guitarist that keeps going back to the same chords in their songs… You need to throw a wrench in there to keep things interesting. Right now the pigment that has been intriguing me was generously provided by Jackson’s as part of their award: Michael Harding’s Cobalt Violet Light. It’s a peculiar colour because it has such a low tinting strength, but comes out beautifully in glazes. I used it to glaze the windows in Plateau Night (Green).
Josephine: What role do sketches and studies play in your work? How do they contribute to your final pieces?
David: I almost never use sketches. I’m not sure why I fell so out of love with drawing, but the mark making on paper is like nails on a chalkboard for me. I envy those that can draw with grace. I do sometimes make a little painted sketch on a wood panel before a larger work, and that really helped me when I was making Tower Shadow.
Although I don’t usually sketch in a sketchbook, I did do quite a few paintings from observation when I was in grad school, and learned a lot from the experience. When I went back to painting from photographs my relationship had changed, and I developed a better sense of what the photo would and wouldn’t do. Over time I’ve also become much less interested in verisimilitude, so that opens up a lot of possibilities with photographs. Sometimes I see them as poorly drawn maps that point me in a general direction, without making the painting process too procedural.
Josephine: How has your work evolved over the years? Do you think of your work as existing in series?
David: Oh yes, things I made five years ago look nothing like the work today. Back then I was a kitchen sink painter that just threw things into the picture when it wasn’t working. Doing my MFA definitely changed the way I worked, and I’m more interested in the surface and texture of a painting instead of just the images and symbols.
I do think in terms of series, and try to avoid making one-off paintings. I used to want every painting to be a novel, but now they’re just sentences, or even words. Currently I’m working on paintings of dinner parties in Montreal. For me, the setting of a painting helps to determine which series a work belongs to.
Josephine: Do you have a dream project that you would like to realise? If so, could you tell us about it?
David: I’m a huge ice hockey fan, and my team has historically been quite terrible (the Vancouver Canucks). When I was 25, I made a few small paintings that depicted the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver. What made the event interesting to me as a painter, was that another Stanley Cup riot took place in Vancouver in 1994, so the same event repeats itself in two decades. I’d like to make a grand painting that mixes these two timelines together in a unique way. Two paintings that come to mind as an inspiration would be James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels, and Jacque Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women.
Josephine: What role does experimentation play in your work? Are there any experiments that have influenced your style or technique?
David: I find it incredibly boring to paint within a system where you know what is going to happen next. I’m always trying to find a different way of painting the same thing, and also make an effort to switch up the way I’m handling material in a painting. The surface of the canvas, and the way that layers of paint can intermingle is a big part of how I experiment in the studio. If something doesn’t work it gets scrapped down, and sometimes the entire canvas gets flipped around.
Josephine: How do you know when a piece is finished?
David: When it doesn’t nag at you from the wall. If a painting can hang for a month or two and not really bother you, it’s probably done. I have a few paintings from my MFA thesis that I thought were done but kept bothering me, so I went back into them. Sometimes I end up overcooking the painting, but it’s a part of the process I’ve grown to accept.
David is represented by Corkin Gallery in Toronto, Canada