I’ve been a fan of John Cook’s work since the 1970’s when we were both working as freelance illustrators in Dallas. He excelled then and he excels now, as a fine artist; may I say, “fine, fine artist?”
What makes Cook’s work so incredibly appealing to me is that it comes across as being created by one who is absolutely fearless. He does things with a brush and palette knife that I can only achieve in my dreams. What I need to define and explain, he is able to suggest with just a few strokes of the brush. His work is powerful and emotionally charged. Fellow artists love his work for they recognize his amazing talent and his ability to apply paint in such an attractive manner.
His work is just exciting and inspiring when seen firsthand. I often ask myself, “How does he do that?” Yet, if you were to meet Mr. Cook, you would surely be asking someone, “Is this THE John Cook, the guy that paints all those colorful, bold, amazing paintings?” Your question of course would be justified, for the public John Cook is quiet, low key, and reserved…and that’s what I find so intriguing about him. I’ve just got to know what the deal is with him…so I asked him.
You’ll love this interview and his amazing work. Photos showing the progressive steps of a painting will blow you away.
My number one question is this: How can a guy as seemingly low-key and reserved as you paint such expressive, exuberant paintings? This guy needs to know. I admit to being an introvert in front of a bunch of folks. Not a confident or loud talker I often hesitate to express myself verbally, except with familiar faces. Conversely, as only friends and family know, I’m impelled to help a few people find laughter in almost any situation. Apparently I counter this low key persona by producing my art with an emotional energy, an insatiable drive to “explain” a concept with as few unlabored strokes as possible.
If one’s paintings do indeed reflect one’s personality, what’s your work really saying about you? Have we been duped as to who the real John Cook is for all this time? While maybe appearing to be reserved or low key, I am extremely consumed to be a force when entering art competition venues, be it plein air or juried exhibitions. I am simply driven to do my best work possible and not just “show up” to my exhibitions. This competing spirit is definitely not limited to my art.
Artists generally love your work; you’re a painter’s painter. There is a feeling of fearlessness and bold confidence, mixed with a bit of impatient energy that is very appealing. Nothing is overworked. How do you know when enough is enough…just to lay down a stroke of paint and leave it? The reason nothing appears overworked is because sometimes I paint certain areas with multiple attempts of scraping and repeating so as to make it look spontaneous. I try to let the properties of the brush and the viscosity of the paint work for me instead of multiple tedious refining strokes. I try to be aware of not always totally mixing colors on the palette, thus allowing the eye to finish the blend. This tends to keep energy on the surface. The days I do not lay down a stroke and leave it often plague me simply because I’m not concentrating. This direct approach can prove very difficult for me if losing focus.
Your work is noted for its amazing, risky color notes, do you have a color philosophy? Nope! I am open to anything. I paint often with subdued grays, and then again sometimes with intense color, or a mix.
Do you have basic rules of composition that you always adhere to? Yes, I consciously attempt to place the main interest in one of the four quadrants of the canvas, unless I happen to place it near dead center. The latter is tougher to pull off successfully (and, it’s against the rules, if one cares).
How significant is photo reference to your work and how do you avoid the pitfalls of slavishly copying a photograph? I use photos 90% of the time. I haven’t the courage nor patience to copy one.
List these words in order of importance: drawing, color, technique, framing, concept, value, composition, edges. Drawing, Concept, Composition, Value, Color, Technique, Edges, Framing (though often I acquire a frame that inspires a special concept, and the list then takes on a life of its own.)
How much preliminary work do you do before beginning a large studio work? Seems exhausting sometimes planning a large (60×72 in.) canvas. The subject absolutely must be interesting for the size and price. I gather the main subject reference and prominent reference images from my 70,000 digital photos and start a folder. Then I choose half a dozen to a dozen images of figures, animals, or background scenario scenes for a “supplemental” folder. I name these files with an obvious name for ease of location. Some days I just work it all out with guts, and a long handled brush and a cloth with mineral spirits for corrections.
“As for my style of painting, sometimes I feel the urgency to attack a canvas and capture the intensity of my emotions without adequate descriptive detail necessary for the image to be recognizable as representational art. Eventually I return to the canvas and bring the vision to some semblance of clarity.”
Please explain your working procedure. Not sure I can. Sometimes I draw with conte crayon, charcoal or a brush, and seal it so I can wipe down to the original lines if necessary, enabling me to correct too much variance. Then with a portion of an old towel or cotton sock I scrub thin washes to confirm the large patterns, basic values, and color tones for underpainting. Then I define as plainly as I possibly can, refine the color, separate the values, define the edges and detail to the extent that I have patience. Often I am painting over a previous failed canvas and this wash is not possible. I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with ADD as a child. This is only too evident when I try painting tree foliage and tree limbs, or especially stone walls, for my brain just will not let me analyze random patterns without much (understated), MUCH difficulty. This is one reason I do not do workshops, and demos.
You seem to easily switch back and forth between brush and palette knife, what influences the use of each? Edges! That is the short answer. However, the texture of the canvas, or when painting over a previous failed canvas, the knife may work best with thicker application. Early on I saw a painting in a gallery in Boston and it was entirely knife work. It was a fine piece with a definite style. When painting something that is physically structurally straight, I’m compelled to define it as straight as possible. Thus the knife! Most folks use the brush, I need the variation brush and knife, to be comfortable with most of my canvases. Some days I will go 100% either method.
What colors are typically found on your palette? Cad Lemon yellow, Cad yellow Deep, Yellow Ochre Light, Cad Scarlet, Alizarin Crimson, Permanent Rose, Alizarin Orange (Williamsburg), Transparent Red Oxide (Rembrandt), Sap Green, Sevres Blue (Williamsburg), Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Pthalo Turquoise (WN), Ivory Black, Alkyd Titanium White and Georgian Titanium White.
Many of your paintings contain fairly complicated architectural elements, how do you go about establishing accurate perspective and proportion of these elements when working so large? For complicated architectural scenes I sometimes use a digital projector to do as quickly and simply as possible a linear brush sketch for compositional placement. Blame Bernie Fuchs, an early 1960s illustrator for this practice, learned while studying illustration at The Art Center Los Angeles. Often this is futile because of horrendous digital distortion of perspective, and proportions. 35 mm slide projection gave a much truer representation. No matter what the preliminary drawing looks like, it’s going to change dramatically, for painting and scraping and repainting takes on a life of its own.
You’re an excellent plein air painter, what three things are most important for a beginning plein air painter to know? Edit, edit, edit. Find the prevalent patterns. Don’t be afraid to wipe out and start again!
What are you looking for when selecting a subject to paint? Light and shade if possible, on figures and the landscape; a mood that grabs me emotionally. Something that’s interestingly different.
What do you hope to communicate through your work? Energy, emotion, and mood, non-static strokes…even in still life work.
Your work seems to be only slightly influenced by the local color of the motif, how are your color choices made? It’s often just a gamble.
If an artist desires to paint in a looser style, how do you recommend they go about attempting that? I don’t know, for I have no choice personally, it’s what happens when I apply the pigment. However, big flat brushes 1/2 in. and up would tend to loosen some folks. Setting a time limit to push oneself may help.
What three artists have had the greatest influence on your work? Fechin, Sorolla, Sargent. (Early on, then myriads of contemporary monster talents)
What are your views concerning art competitions? I’m extremely competitive. I love the competitions, and the mixing with artist friends.
What’s the most exciting art related event that has happened to you in your fine art career? EVERY time an extremely talented artist compliments my work. Is that vanity?
Thanks John for sharing your comments with us…and for your exciting work. You are sincerely appreciated. Your work is an inspiring visual adventure.
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE