Exhibition | David Cottingham, ‘Catching the Light’
“Light moves across a landscape like the dancer moves through space; I am a painter of transient things”
Painter and sculptor David Cottingham presents a captivating collection of new work at For Arts Sake this summer, exploring his twin fascinations – the dancer in motion and the spirit of place. As his exhibition ‘Catching the Light’ opens in our lower gallery, The Inside Space, he talks us through his techniques and inspirations.
Where do you live and work?
I am very fortunate to have a studio where I live in Ealing, which I’ve worked in since 1990. It’s a lovely, purpose-built space, originally used in the 1960s by a designer who worked at Ealing Film Studios and the BBC.
You’ve spoken in the past about a childhood full of the wonder of nature and creativity. Tell us more…
I was born in Forest Row, Sussex, in 1950. From my earliest memories I would draw and sketch the world around me. My grandfather had been an artist and composer; the family home contained paintings, books and always music. Looking at paintings in his art books overwhelmed me and began a passion for studying the art of the past. I would copy Rubens and Raphael in pencil drawings and sketch the trees and wildlife in our garden and beyond. A magic door had opened for me and there was nature all around to work with.
The South Downs and surrounds must have provided wonderful inspiration.
The forest and South Downs, so beloved of artists like Ivon Hitchens and Paul Nash, were my playground. The colours of mist and streams of sparkling water, the light forever dancing on the hills, the sun setting behind the clumps of trees at Kings Standing… those are abiding memories and were powerful visual stimuli for a young boy trying to master drawing and colour. Emerging or fading light has always held a strong fascination, which I think dates from that time. Now I also use a camera to capture those moments of fleeting light, as well as relying on memory.
And your formal art practice began via life drawing when your family moved to the Kent coast?
Later moving to Margate, the seascape became an important source of inspiration as it did for Turner and what he described as the “the most beautiful sunsets that stretch across the entire horizon”. My own later obsession with sun-based abstract images definitely has its roots there. Moving from the countryside to the town also made my art gravitate towards the figure, which became for me another landscape. Life drawing at the local art school was an empowering means of expression and set me on a lifelong love of this meditational practice.
You went on to study sculpture, and describe your artwork has having its roots in that discipline. Could you explain a little more how sculpture informs your work?
My father was an architect and I was always excited on the rare occasions when I accompanied him on surveying trips. This led to an interest in building and construction, particularly in steel. Around that time I had fallen under the spell of the work of Henry Moore and later Sir Anthony Caro and I decided to go to Saint Martin’s School of Art, where he still taught, to try my hand at sculpture. I graduated in 1975 where I also studied with William Tucker and Phillip King RA. My work at that time reflected a desire to animate welded metal and create dancelike, floor-standing structures.
How did you make the move from sculpture to painting and drawing, and why?
I’d always wanted to work in colour and I think part of me wanted to be a painter so I had to find my own path. The landscapes came out of my sculptural technique – they are painted flat and the paint is dragged, floating within layers of gel. I often liken the way I create these as literally “carving” the paint in layers.
How did the obsession with dance begin?
In the 1960s during the summer I worked backstage in a local theatre and would watch with delight the dancers in the chorus line. In an attempt to emulate Degas, I studied their movements, the blurring motion of repeating limbs… My early sculpture work was also very balletic and I wanted to work with a figure again. I was very interested in how someone moves through space. I met this wonderful dancer who explained what dancing was like and she said it’s like you own a cubic space and with each movement you cut into that space. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll use the canvas in that way too’.
Who do you use as model/inspiration?
I work with professional dancers; they become my muses. I always work directly in the studio and there is a core group of dancers I work with. All my work is done live, like an event or a jazz improvisation. Whatever happens happens and I’ll very seldom change it afterwards.
Is this love of dance tied up in music at all?
Music was my first love, my grandfather was a composer, so it became an essential ingredient and later a joy to be able to connect so directly with music in the dance work.
Are there any specific performances or dance pieces that most inspire you?
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a work I often return to but I love a very broad range of music and dance styles, from ballet to Bowie, from jazz to Beyoncé!
What – or where – inspires your abstract art?
The abstract paintings are inspired by landscapes, cities, spaces, memories and the emotional power of colour and light. They hover between the worlds of abstraction and representation. The paintings are created by dragging and dripping the paint, as well as using the brush. They contain many overlaid glazed areas where planes, levels, horizons and depths are combined to create an intense colour experience. Like the figure paintings, they are both rhythmical in form and improvisational in style
Could you tell us a little about the processes behind both your dance pieces and your abstract paintings. How does a work unfold?
I work with different dance styles, in real time with the dancer in the studio moving to particular music. Matisse was a great influence when I was first studying movement and the reduction to a simple essential linear style and brush stroke has become a powerful tool for me to help express pure energy and the wonder of the dance. On the abstracts, I’d always found the brush quite limiting. I had a vision in my head for what I wanted to do, a vision of dragging the paint rather than pushing it. Then I found the tools in a hardware shop to do it, and the marks became powerful and took me somewhere else. The real mystery of art is finding your subject. If you find the subject, you’ll create a technique to make it work, rather than the other way around.
‘David Cottingham, ‘Catching the Light’, For Arts Sake, June 6-23, 45 Bond Street, Ealing, W5 5AS, Mon-Fri, 10am-5.30pm, Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 12-5pm; ‘Meet the Artist’, Saturday 15 June, 2-5pm. Email [email protected] for more information on the works available and to RSVP to our ‘Meet the Artist’ event.