WHO IS DAVID KNOWLES ?
Australian Artist magazine May 2000
When I was about 18 I decided to teach myself the rudiments of oil painting. It was as if the only way to get the paintings out of my head was to develop enough skill to paint them. I practised constantly and I kept on practising until the images started to come. I suppose I must have been in my mid- to late-twenties before I decided to go to the real source. I went to Europe and America and discovered the Masters.
I saw most of the major art collections at the National Gallery and the Tate, the Louvre, the Prado and the Metropolitan. It was a jaw-dropping experience. There seemed so much I had to learn. I was bowled over by the work of Ingres, the sculpture of Michelangelo, the incomparable Vermeer, and the modern American figurative painter, Pearlman.
Back home, my determination took on a new dimension, I was in for the long haul. From then on I knew I had no option but to somehow make time to devote myself to my artistic training.
SKILL FIRST --- IDEAS SECOND
I was determined to understand as much as possible of the techniques employed by the old masters. Gradually, after reading everything I could lay my hands on and experimenting endlessly, I began to make progress.
Even so, I don't believe I painted a picture of which I was truely proud before I had passed my 40th birthday. I can't help but feel that a great many modern painters believe they have something to say, but lack the craftsmanship and the skill to say it adequately. What I have learnt is that skill comes first and ideas second.
My method of painting is an adaptation of the tried and true. I prefer to mix up my own medium from an old recipe. I use 50% best quality turpentine, 25% cold-pressed linseed oil and 25% copal varnish. I use this mix more or less throughout a painting. I tend to work thinly, I do not incorporate any impasto at all. When I start to glaze, I increase the ratio of oil and decrease the amount of copal varnish.
CHANGING MY APPROACH
Ten years ago you could not see a brushstroke in my work, but now I am working much broader, and the painting surface has become slightly rougher. I think the change was prompted by criticism. My work was so fine, the picture surface so flawless, that people thought I was projecting the image in some way, and just filling in the spaces! I was mistakenly labelled a Photo Realist. Nothing could have been further from the truth on either account. So now I try to make my work appear a little less finished and a little more "painterly".
My work also used to be evenly finished throughout. Edges were constantly sharp. Everything was clearly in focus. Nowadays, I define the focal point more precisely than any other part of the painting, but not to a great extent. Areas that need to recede, still retain a hard edge but are painted less precisely and usually at a slightly lower value.
PAINTING THE PICTURE IN MY MIND
I am an instinctive painter. A lot of what I do, I just do. I work a great deal in my head. Before making a mark of any kind I literally paint the picture in my mind. Ideas for paintings often nag persistently to be given birth. It can be a battle to bring the idea to life. Sometimes, a little like a detective, I have to piece the elements together. At other times I realise the battle is too great and cannot be won, so I don't begin. Some ideas germinate and then over time develop into a burning need to be expressed. For instance, I carried one idea around for maybe ten years. I wanted to paint the arrogant strength of youth. It wasn't until I met a certain beautiful young woman, who seemed to personify these qualities, that the pieces fell into place. The painting was completed within a month, and we were married some time after. The painting is "First Sight".
Often my mind drifts off and I begin to see pictures. I have realised that the way you use your mind to create paintings is very different from, say, scientific analysis where you are concerned with weighing facts and methodically sifting information. With painting, something much more intangible and mysterious happens. Ideas seem to come from nowhere, unbidden, and all you can do, is let them grow and solidify.
The most exciting part of the painting process for me is the completion, when I make that final mark. I get a surge of satisfaction, almost joy, particularly if the image comes anywhere close to my original vision.
I am not drawn to any one kind of subject matter. I am easily bored if I try to paint the same subject again and again. I need to change from subject to subject. In between major works I will often paint a still life, to refresh my skills. This might be just a single apple or an egg.
The first time I exhibited publicly was at the Wellington Academy of Fine Art, in their annual competition. I won the Williams Art Award with my painting "Andy", a portrait of a 14 year-old girl. The second time I entered, I won the Caltex Art Award with another portrait.
There was a time when I had a consuming passion to paint the human figure. What better source of material than the Royal New Zealand Ballet. I telephoned them and they allowed me to sit in on their practice sessions. I sketched endlessly, 25 paintings emerged from this exercise. As a bonus I was invited to paint a portrait of Sir Jon Trimmer
, the doyen of New Zealand ballet. This painting is now owned by The New Zealand National Portrait Collection.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
I paint on hardboard. I gesso the surface using an ordinary housepainting roller. I sand the first coat, then roll it again and sand again, until I get the surface I need.
I draw my design with a 2B pencil, based on my line drawings, or occasionally, photographs. If I am painting a still life, the actual arrangement of objects is all I need, no preliminary sketches are required. When painting a portrait, or a figure study, I prefer to work from sketches. I don't like having the model in front of me when I'm painting.
I love the crisp clean pencil line, on the pure white gesso surface. Once the design is in place, I usually can't wait to get started. I experience a mixture of excitement and dread - will it work, or not?
I build the painting in sections. I treat each section as if it were an individual painting. I try to paint entirely directly. I make one mark and it has to be the correct mark. I do not alter it or adulterate it in any way. I move on from section to section in the same way. Because I have the picture in my head there is no need to change anything. I never use underpainting, and I don't build up textures, as you would with scumbling. I like the marks I make to be as fresh as possible and in no way overeworked. If I do make a mistake I don't attempt to correct it, in fact, I throw the thing away because it doesn't cost much to prepare another board. I like to believe I am creating a precious object, something akin to a Ming vase. What I do has to have that kind of integrity.
I think I'm a Romantic. I idealise to some extent. It's as if I'm painting a world I wish for, not the one that actually exists. For instance I leave out telegraph poles in a landscape. It's the same with people. I don't paint only what I see, I try to show the essence of the person, I try to paint their soul. A picture can take anything from ten to twenty hours to paint and it is often not possible to complete a picture in one go. Yet I like to finish the whole painting while it's still wet. I paint in two or three hour sessions during the day or night for concentrated bursts of painting. So one painting can take up to a week to finish. It can then take a further three weeks to dry. I sometimes work on two or three paintings at once.
There are three tenets that I believe in, with regard to art. They are: Commitment. Endurance. Practice. In other words learn your craft well, and stick with it. The "idea" is what the painting is, but without a high level of craft it will not succeed.
I was and still am driven to paint. I was a farmer for much of my early life. I am not sure if I am a farmer who paints, or a painter who happened to be a farmer. It probably doesn't matter. All I know for sure is I am not completely happy unless I am painting. My wife can vouch for that. Perhaps that's why she says "I married a painter not a farmer".