Featured Artist

Representational Painter: Interview with David J Cunningham

David Cunningham is an American painter living in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a prolific painter.

His interested in art began at an early age.  His older brother and cousin were also artists. They apprenticed with a local fresco painter for a year and then attending a French Academic Art school based out of his hometown of Minneapolis named The Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art.

Training at the Atelier was a four-year endeavor which began with a series of exercises starting with charcoal drawings of plaster cast busts, before progressing to more difficult things such as still life, portraiture and the human figure in oil paint. Concurrent with these exercises was the study of life drawing with charcoal followed by oil paint.

The Birds © David J Cunningham

The Birds © David J Cunningham


“Six years ago I was introduced to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson which has had a huge influence on my work.  Bresson started out as painter and started using photography as “sketches” for his work. I’ve shot street photography ever since and develop larger oil paintings with these references.“


After completing the program David began studying landscape painting while living abroad in southern Argentina and tuned into the 19th century tonalist painters George Inness and James Mcneill Whistler.  Their atmospheric paintings inspired him to focus on the rural landscape as a way to convey emotion to the viewer.

This is an "alla prima" painting I painted last week. The term "alla prima" is defined as "in one" or that it was painted in one session. Alla prima painting had its hay day in the late 19th century. The greatest painters of this style always comes down to 3 painters John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, and Anders Zorn. In the end most of their paintings weren't necessarily painted in one session, but were continually scraped away, with some spots being painted 25 times over and over until they were satisfied with the result.

This is an “alla prima” painting I painted. (2011)  The term “alla prima” is defined as “in one” or that it was painted in one session. Alla prima painting had its heyday in the late 19th century. The greatest painters of this style always comes down to 3 painters John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, and Anders Zorn. In the end most of their paintings weren’t necessarily painted in one session, but were continually scraped away, with some spots being painted 25 times over and over until they were satisfied with the result.

 

David moved back home and continued toward that goal for several years painting the landscapes he had seen growing up around his family’s cabin in Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. After working in that vein for several years David moved back to Minneapolis and became interested in street photography and street painting. He developed a large body of work focusing on urban landscapes with the aim to communicate traditional techniques with a more contemporary subject matter.

I recently contacted David for this interview:

What inspired you to become a painter and how did you start?

One of my older brothers and a cousin got me interested at a young age. When I was in high school they became apprentices to a well-known fresco painter, Mark Balma. When the apprenticeship ended he directed them toward a local French Academic Art school known as “The Atelier” in Minneapolis. They brought me along and I studied there for 2 years during high school and 4 years full-time afterward. Training at the Atelier began with a series of exercises starting with charcoal drawings of plaster cast busts, before progressing to more difficult things such as still life, portraiture and the human figure in oil paint. Concurrent with these exercises was the study of life drawing with charcoal followed by oil paint.

I would say I paint “Urban landscapes”. As far art movements go, I have more in common with “Contemporary Realism” which in my mind is a style of work that is representational in nature and while having a respect for the works of the past, does not try to replicate the 19th century for instance, but looks to evolve with the times. To paint your own time.

You paint mainly in oils. Do you have a preference in the type of medium that brings out the best in your works?

Over the years I’ve tried out other mediums such as acrylic, watercolor, pastel, etching, and all the drawing mediums. I was trained in oil paint and that is what I work 99% of the time. I prefer Oil because I like to paint “wet into wet”, oil paint has the longest drying time and lends itself best to this practice.

How has photography influenced your paintings or have your paintings influenced the way you photograph?

For the first ten years that I painted, everything was painted from life. Painting from life definitely has its place and is my preferred method, however it has its limits. I wouldn’t be able to paint 3’x’4 painting in the middle of a downtown metro for instance.

Six years ago I was introduced to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson which has had a huge influence on my work. Bresson started out as painter and started using photography as “sketches” for his work. I’ve shot street photography ever since and develop larger oil paintings with these references.

Many of your works have a symmetrical perspective to them and quite varied contrast in light and dark colors. Also, I see a recurring theme of train tracks in some of your paintings that accentuate one-point perspective. Can you describe how you determine the particular subject matter when you paint.

Stanley Kubrick’s work influenced my work quite a bit.  Symmetry as well as one point perspective play a huge part in that. Wes Anderson has the same thing going on. The trains were chosen because they lend themselves well to accentuate this one point perspective. My interest in almost any of these subjects are chosen for the same reason they lend themselves well to the interest in symmetry and perspective. I’m not really sure how to describe why I love that composition except that it lifts the subject up and almost makes it into something like a Holy icon from the middle ages.

You work and live in Minneapolis. Are many of your works defined by the city day and night life?

Every painting is in either Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, or Chicago. The back ground is defined by these locations, any of the moving parts such as the people or cars are set up by myself and are rarely in any of my reference shots. My interest in low light or night scenes is the same as the perspective, its an aesthetic interest of mine. I don’t believe anyone who is painting should paint a scene exactly as it looks. Each painting should contain a little bit of the painter, which is where things like mood enter in.


“I would say I paint “Urban landscapes”. As far art movements go, I have more in common with “Contemporary Realism” which in my mind is a style of work that is representational in nature and while having a respect for the works of the past, does not try to replicate the 19th century for instance, but looks to evolve with the times. To paint your own time.“


Can you describe representational painting and how this has influenced your paintings?

Representational painting at its core is made up of elements of abstract shapes that are derived from real object and sources. For me representational painting is at its best when it is evoking a mood or feeling. Without that I wouldn’t be interested, although as a student there is always something to be learned from the paint handling when its done skillfully.

For me the influence of representational painting is most clearly seen in my paint handling as well as lot of my subject matter which has been influenced by a lot of Contemporary Artist’. In addition Photography and Film have also played a huge part in that.


Exhibition © David J Cunningham

Links

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Reference

Henri Cartier-Bresson

2 replies »

  1. Really great work here,David Cunningham! There a a couple of pieces that remind me of my favorite artist, ever, Alex Coleville!
    TY, Featured E for sharing this talent with us!

    Like

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