Derek Davidson was interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on CHSR's (97.9FM) program "The Lunchbox," on June 28th, 2018.
MK: I’m here in the casemates, introduce yourself.
DD: I’m Derek Davidson, I’m the visual artists painting with acrylics.
MK: Derek, let’s start with a little bit about what you do, what is your passion and what brings you here?
DD: Well, most of my things that we see here have started from sketches on pen and watercolour, that’s really the best way at the moment. People change over their careers of artistry, but at the moment, that’s what I like to do, is no pressure, you’re out in the wild, maybe and urban setting, and you’re doing some sketching. And so these sorts of things that you see in front of you are sort of canvases from that. Now they can turn out well, and maybe sometimes they don’t turn out as well.
MK: So when you were a kid, were you one of the doodlers who was always making things that they want in the margins?
DD: I did do art in school, but I actually did pottery in my final year at school; I was always the mathematics type. I could draw at school, but I started to draw when my children were young, just to let them know “hey, you can draw if you want,” and it slowly came along from that. So I suppose I’d be mid-thirties or something like that.
MK: Had you left art behind for a while then?
DD: Well, I’m not sure that I was really into art before then. Like I said, I did a bit of pottery and I knew I could draw; I remember going back to the school and the art teacher saying “I’ve got a portrait that you did of your friend Simon,” and me saying “Oh yeah, I sorta remember that.” But it was only in later years that I’ve done that. I wished I had done it earlier, it would’ve been so good to actually have started earlier, how far could one have gone since then?
MK: Did you jump into painting pretty quickly after that? Filling in the lines that you were drawing?
DD: Well, I got into watercolours, thinking “Ah, *water*colours must be the least toxic, and if the children eat it…” actually, nothing’s further from the truth, they’re all the same. A lot of this stuff is in the pigment, and you can get pigment hues that are less toxic, then you can get Cadnium Red or Cadnium Hue Red, so I like to use the hue if I can. Also, they’re a bit cheaper. So the colour then, I found acrylic was so much easier; you could make a mistake with watercolours, but you can’t make a mistake as easily (with acrylic).
MK: You can’t make a mistake or you can’t make them too easily?
DD: You can make a correction when you make a mistake.
MK: Because it’s soaked in at that point? Is that the problem?
DD: Well, once watercolour is down, you can’t over-paint it, whereas with acrylic oils, you can go on top of it, and you don’t see it anymore. So from that point of view… everything’s got its problems and cons and difficulties and easiness, but from that point of view, acrylics are somewhat easier to use because if it goes wrong, put more on it or something, and keep going.
MK: So how long before you discovered this and decided to switch to acrylics?
DD: Oh gosh, it was 5-10 years now; time goes so fast.
MK: So you probably honed your skill pretty well then if it’s something so exacting with the watercolour where you know you can’t make a mistake so you get better and not make mistakes.
DD: Maybe, I never really thought about it like that, but to some extent that would be true. And also, I would’ve done a lot of these things through reading books; one of the things, from what I remember, is that with watercolour you start at the light subjects and go to the dark subjects. But I think when you read books on acrylic, you start at the dark subjects and go to the lighter subjects. But actually, after saying that, I don’t do that. Whatever comes, whatever paint you’ve got on your brush, whatever. And that goes back maybe to a little bit of the sketching, because when you’re out sketching, you don’t have any time to work out the colour, you’ve got basically eight to ten colours right in front of you, and you just use those colours.
MK: And you really can’t cover it over with watercolour.
DD: That’s right, it’ll still be watercolours, here’s an example of watercolours. (Holds up painting)
MK: Oh wow, and this is watercolour over ink I’m looking at here?
DD: Yes, also the (Pierre-Auguste) Renoir I’ve seen… I’m not saying I’m copying Renoir, actually there’s people in Fredericton that paint like this as well. But there’s a lot of history of people doing this sort of sketching, like Renoir’s famous sketches of North Africa. People on horses and the desert behind them or something.
MK: So describe what we’re looking at; would you call it a portrait? A painting? Is it a coloured sketch? How would you describe that?
DD: It’s probably closer to a coloured sketch, this I would thin out, just sit down anywhere, and go draw and paint what’s in front of you, and it is the most relaxing of the types of painting. Again, that’s my thoughts at the moment. Maybe five years ago I wouldn’t have thought that, and maybe in five years time I won’t think that.
MK: Now you started with a sketch. Did you do the painting on-site as well or is that something you did later?
DD: You do it there and then. And we’d start with the ink first, and then do a bit of colour, but then go back to the ink again.
MK: So you can add ink after you’re done the watercolour?
DD: Yeah, and you might see it more with the people but I tell people there’s one easy way to talk about difficulties. The one thing with this sort of thing is if you have a line in, and also colour place, and they’re in a different location, your eye will see which one is correct, which one is best. So it gives a little bit of leeway that allows it to be a little bit easier.
MK: So you don’t have to necessarily colour within the lines.
DD: Oh, certainly not. It would look terrible.
MK: So are you seeing the colours when you’re sketching with the ink as well or do you only go for the colour once you actually have the colour tools or watercolour in front of you? I’m curious how you construct and reconstruct the picture.
DD: Yeah, I’m not sure. When I do get the line, I try to get the shapes of people, and of course I do enjoy doing people. But the problem with people is they move, and they don’t seem to move in the same fashion. So this sort of image here that you’re looking at, they were sort of walking towards me, so that’s the easiest way to catch people; people walking sideways is much more difficult. So I would just try and get the shape of them in the lines. Then what often happens is by the time I get to the colour, that person’s gone, so I get the colour of the next person.
MK: So it’s a capture of a period of time instead of a single instance like a photograph?
MK: So where is that one in particular? That one looks like it’s taken down by the river?
DD: Yeah, well that’s been the floods, and that (points to different painting) was by the cathedral. So one of the themes of the casemates this year is the river and what the effect of it is and how we interpret it. So I’m taking the effects of the river on this.
MK: Definitely front of mind still for a lot of people. So what is a typical subject for you? I’m looking around and I see a lot of broad spaces and some sort of an architectural or some sort of straight-up linear element. Is that something you’re looking for? Is that something you’re comfortable composing or was that just happened to be where you stopped and that image just caught you for some reason?
DD: Those are actually all from sketches Except for this one of the folks, ignore that one. But these ones are all from sketches, and that one’s live.
MK: So the live one you’re referring to is a large crowd in front of a band it looks like, where was that?
DD: That would’ve been Officer’s Square, Alex Bailey Swing Band. 2012, so a bit of history there. So in a way, I think I started doing live paintings before I was doing much of this ink and watercolour sketches. So that was my first time; it’s a little bit different, standing there with an easel, especially in Officer’s Square, there’s a lot of people around. You’d be surprised how many people move around; that’s one of the problems of live painting, you have to be prepared to move the thing or go off and doing something else if that happens.
MK: Do a lot of people stop and ask you what you’re doing and ask what the process is? Or are they afraid of interrupting?
DD: Yes, no, and a bit in between. If you spot an artist doing anything, you certainly do not ask him permission to watch; you’re out in public, you can watch, you do not have to ask permission. In fact, if you ask permission, you’re interrupting them. That’s what to do if you see an artist in the street. You should really wait til they’ve finished; they’ve got their brush, they’re washing their brush out, then you say “why’d you put that red when it’s not really red?” or something like that.
MK: Do you ever notice the people around you when you’re working?
DD: You try not to focus in on the people around you; that’s why it’s nice for the band because the band affects the site you paint as well, so you try and go with the band and get the scene of them. Whereas if you listen to somebody next to you talking about their husband’s <indistinct> then you can’t very well paint. Again, that’s live painting and you have to accept that. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.
MK: So they’re (paintings) all a pretty moderate size. Is this a preferred size? I see one of them, for example, look to be a larger canvas version of the sketch you did on paper.
DD: Professional artists always tell you to get bigger, use a bigger brush, because it fills up more space at an art gallery. It’s easier to do a smaller one because you can do it quicker, but depending on the way of looking at it, some artists would say “yes, go bigger.”
MK: So do you tend to go smaller? Do you like that sort of challenge?
DD: It varies. I suppose I would have to say, historically, most of my paintings would have been smaller because you have to buy the canvas, and it’s cheaper when it’s smaller, and you can get more canvases. So rather than buy one big one, you can buy two or three small ones maybe, and maybe two of them will work, or one of them will work better than the one big one would. So I suppose if I’ve got a favourite, I would say go to the smaller one, but however there is the professional drive that one should try to get to the bigger (canvases).
MK: It seems like even with your sketches there’s a lot of little details though, and the idea of dealing with a big canvas just means that’s a lot more work to fill up with little details.
DD: Yes, you’re right. It looks as though there’s details but that’s really nervous hand shakes, so it is but it isn’t. I did not think “oh my gosh that person’s got a little spurt there,” but you go over it and that’s what happens. But when going from there to there, one has to do that; perhaps it just a nervous quirk. I’m saying that a rhetorical question, I can’t give you an answer either. When doing this bigger one, I have to use a bigger brush, and there’s a tendency in artistry to use a smaller brush, and I think that’s wrong. Now do I have the answer to that as well? No I don’t. I had to forcefully bring bigger brushes because I knew I’d be doing big stuff.
MK: So is there a particular element you’re working on this week? Is that the one you’re working on this week? Incorporating a bit of water?
DD: This one and this one here.
MK: So both of these are expansions on the sketches?
DD: One could argue that it’s more fun and relaxing to do that, because this isn’t even a canvas. I’ve read books where art instructors say “yes, paint better when it’s cheap, because you’re not worried about making mistakes. “Oh, I paid all that money for that? I’m nervous now,” and you won’t do very well. So I suppose really one has to get a nice big canvas and think “oh, this is only a cheap canvas.” I would not normally paint quite like this; it was after preparing the casemate room here that I knew I only had about an hour left, I didn’t want to get a load of paint out, so I thought I would just use the brown colour and start something. So I would not normally have one painting with just one colour.
MK: How long will it take do you think? Is it the whole week to finish these two or is it a matter of being done in a day or two?
DD: This painting here would’ve been done within an hour.
MK: The live one?
DD: If things go well, it could be an hour or a couple of hours, and if it lasts the week, well, there’s something wrong. I’ve had that discussion before; some of my best paintings have been ten minutes. Of course, they tend to be small, and that’s another reason to go for the small one. However, one should, on the same theory, be able to use a bigger brush and go to the big one and still have it be ten or fifteen minutes. And that maybe is the answer.
You can listen to Derek's interview on the CHSR website here.
Charlotte Simmons, FAA Summer Events Coordinator 2018