In conversation with David Cheney

Posted by Aimee Coles on 25/01/2022 at 10:50


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Continuing our series of interviews with Abstract Art Canada’s artists, we’d like you to meet David Cheney, Albertan painter and bibliophile. David tells us about his artistic beginnings, his inspirations and his views on abstract art.



Aimee: When and who or what inspired you to start painting? 


David: I drew a lot as a kid. My mother was a strong supporter of my talent but she encouraged me to be trained in something that would pay the bills. I took drafting at South Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and after working for a year, applied for art college. My parents were supportive because I would take commercial art (to pay the bills).


After a year of that program, I won a scholarship and went on an art history trip to Egypt, Greece and England in 1982. It was a great experience as I had never travelled before. It gave me a head full of ideas.


Yet the real eye-opener was sitting in the Rothko Chapel at the Tate, London. I was so moved by the paintings that I couldn’t leave. While I was there, the room was closed off while the first retrospective works of a new artist were being hung. I overheard the conversation of the artist – he talked boldly and I was intrigued. The poster of his show was being sold in the gift shop so I bought it and it hung in my studio for many years. The artist was Julian Schnabel.


On the plane ride home, I ran into one of the professors from the art history trip, Bill MacDonnell. We chatted at length about my thoughts on becoming an artist. He suggested that I should switch to painting; adding that I could always continue commercial art to pay my way. He was right. I graduated as an artist, relied on my drafting job and later my work as a graphic designer, for income, and through the years, was able to continue creating my own art.




Aimee: Has your style always been abstract or has it changed or developed over time?


David: No. In the 1980s, the art scene was fuelled by neo-expressionism. In addition to Julian Schnabel, I was inspired by Francesco Clemente and Anselm Kiefer to create large-scale oil paintings, adding a variety of elements like wood and vases.


David Cheney's materials

David’s art materials

Another big inspiration for me was Robert Motherwell. My first art show at the college in 1983 was directly inspired by his work. His use of collage and free-flowing brushwork was so creative to me. Yet I never felt I could paint that freely and went through a variety of styles from realism to expressionism. I only came to abstraction in the last five years or so. However, getting to abstraction I needed a new medium.


In 1987 I won a grant to study at a small art school in Greece and I was taught watercolour. The real joy of watercolour is the loose, spontaneous brush strokes. Over the years I kept painting in watercolour, often painting images whenever I travelled. On one trip to Mexico, instead of painting the scenery, I just let the colours play. It was so invigorating. I felt truly free, after almost thirty years of painting.


Aimee: How would you sum up your style of art?


David: I would describe it as loose brush strokes with collage and ink applications. I’m not sure how to describe this other than ‘mixed media’.


Aimee: For those of us new to the world of abstract art, could you give your own interpretation of what abstract painting is?


David: abstraction is about spontaneous, loose and vivid brush strokes or it can be calculated, tight, washed-out imagery. The realm is wide. Abstraction, in the formal sense, can mean derived from an idea. However, in the creative sense, it really is up to the individual artist and what drives or inspires them. There is a lot of good stuff out there right now.




Aimee: Which artists inspire you?


David: Over the years I have seen a lot of art and I can take cues from many sources. In addition to Motherwell and Rothko I also love the work of Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney, Richard Diebenkorn and John Singer Sargent. Then there’s German expressionism, Der Blau Reiter, the Mexican muralistas (Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco), van Gogh, Matisse, and of course, Picasso.

Regarding my more recent collage work, the one artist who has inspired me is Mark Dicey. We have known each other for many years and Mark has been creating abstract collages in art books for decades. On a trip to Boston in 2012, I enjoyed watching the spontaneity of his book making process. I too have been making art in books for many decades, but his abstraction forms sparked something in me. That is when I tried something new in that trip to Mexico.


David Cheney

David with his foreign literature

Aimee: What else inspires you?


David: Actually, reading probably inspires me more than art. I have been an avid reader since my twenties. I read obsessively and fairly widely. I started with English literature (Graham Greene was my favourite) and have since moved on to Latin American novels by Marquez, Vasquez and Vargas Llosa.

Often images or ideas form in my head from a book and I have always used my art to express myself. I am not trying to illustrate books, rather it’s more a reaction – good, bad or indifferent.

Sixteenth century Andalusian Love Sonnets and other rubbish

Sixteenth Century Andalusian Love Sonnets and Other Rubbish

During the pandemic, I read Don Quixote by Cervantes and In Search of Lost Time by Proust. They inspired several of my artworks. I have four pieces that reflect these two books The Strange and Watery Crossing of the Ebro, Sixteenth Century Andalusian Love Sonnets and Other Rubbish, Looking for Dulcinea of Toboso by the Knight of the Sad Figure, Le Temps Retrouvé and Albertine Disparue.





Aimee: Regarding your creative process, are you able to plan ahead or can inspiration strike without warning?


David: Regarding the abstract collages, it usually happens out of the blue. I don’t plan ahead. I just go to the studio in my house and let it happen. Sometimes a colour will evoke a mood or feeling, then I grab some collage material and then ‘connect’ things.


Aimee: Are there certain set stages? For example, do you decide or know in advance the size of piece, portrait or landscape, canvas or paper, materials etc.


David: No. The only thing that I plan is the size of the paper, typically 11” x 14”. I work in Pentallic Field books which consist of loose sheets of acid-free paper that is strong enough to handle the various mediums such as watercolour, ink and collage materials.


Aimee: Do you always paint in the same place?


David: In the pre-pandemic days, I always took art books or watercolour blocks wherever I travelled. I painted anywhere where I could document and record images. I also have a studio where I create larger oil paintings.


Aimee: How long does a painting take or does it vary a lot?


David: Generally no more than about thirty minutes.


Aimee: How do you know when you’ve finished a piece? Do you go back over it and change or correct it?


Buscando las muralistas, José Clemente Orozco

Buscando Las Muralistas, José Clemente Orozco


David: I usually know once I feel happy with it. Sometimes, I will add something to the piece to ‘tweak’ and on occasion, I just tear it up (although I usually keep the pieces and add them to other paintings.

Aimee: So how do you know when you’re satisfied?


David Since I don’t spend a lot of time, I just go with my gut feeling. It either works or doesn’t.



Aimee: What do you enjoy most about abstract painting?


David: I really enjoy the spontaneous effects that I can create with my brush strokes. Since I am not ‘boxed in’ to create an image, I feel that there is more freedom, more play and more ways to explore. As if I can just be myself. I like that.


Aimee: Would you recommend it as a pastime and if so, why?


David: That depends on your personality. I think it’s important that you can simply let go and be creative. Also, realize that it may or may not work every time. When it doesn’t work, just move on to the next time.


Aimee: Do you think you have to have existing skills or innate qualities to be able to paint abstract?


Templo Mayor, 12 de octubre de 2018

Templo Mayor, 12 de Octubre de 2018

David: Good question. Some people have the knack for expressing themselves and some like to be more rigid. I am okay with that. When I taught watercolour, I had some people who preferred to be very realistic and others who loved the looseness and the accidents that happened. I tend to fall into the latter group but I always respect other points of view.


My daughter, who is almost thirty, has autism. I take her to my studio where she loves to paint. She needs some prompting so I pick the colours and remind her to either get paint or water, but she seems to enjoy it. The result is abstraction. Some are better than others. What she thinks about them, I will never know, but she has been doing this for about seven years.




Aimee: What do you think makes an abstract painting good?


David: That is an open-ended question. I can stand looking at a Motherwell, Rothko or de Kooning for a long time and yet someone else may not even blink at their artworks.Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


Aimee: Is that the same as valuable or collectible?


David: Motherwell, Rothko and de Kooning created paintings that in the 1950s caused an uproar. Some loved while others hated their works. They challenged conventions.  Some of their works shot up in value; some took longer. Seventy years on and they have all become very expensive artwork. Things do change but perhaps as artists, we need patience.



You can view, inquire about or purchase any of David’s paintings here.

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