John Cowen

Artist & designer

Blog

Get Rhythm

13 July 2020

For over 2 years I made a series of drawings focussed on the Anthropocene and mankind’s impact on the planet. And if you look around the website at the time of writing, it’s focussed almost entirely on these.

I’ve been exploring some very different approaches over the last few months - which I’ll aim to get up on this site shortly - and wanted to talk about it in this post. It probably looks a fundamental shift from the drawings - and in some respects I suppose it is - but they’re still very directly connected.

I absolutely love my detailed map drawings. I love the slow, methodical, painstaking, process of making them over many weeks, and I love the results. However, they are slow to produce and while there is not any fundamental restriction on their size, the speed of production does put some practical restraints on how big I can go. Being bigger doesn’t make artwork inherently better - but I still feel the pull of wanting to work at a bigger scale.

So I started experimenting with different types of mark making. Ironically, perhaps, I started on quite a small scale with some much more free flowing versions of the maps with ink applied by a brush rather than 0.1mm nib. I was feeling a lot less precious about these drawings so I also started throwing a bit of colour in there.

Colour has ended up becoming a fairly significant element in the newer works and there’s probably a blog post on its own that I’ll write soon to explain it more.

While I had the paintbrush in my hand, I couldn’t resist just throwing some paint around. I’ve always had a liking for gestural abstract painting and I found it quite easy to start going down this route. Which resulted in some paintings I did like - but had no idea what they were about or really bore any relation to my other work.

So I started combining the abstract painting with the looser city drawings and the precisely drawn maps all in the same piece. And things started getting interesting.

The paintings combining different levels of detail and mark making encourage you to look at the city from different perspectives (literally and figuratively).The energy levels across the works change as well; as the marks grow bigger and looser, the sense of speed increases too.

The original detailed drawings are of cities, but to my mind, always presented as living organisms and the sense of growth is slow. And the conflict between the rapid pace of urban development and the geological pace of the natural world around it is part of the interest in these works.

The painted works have a very different pace. They’re far more rapid and have a rhythm to them that makes me think of footsteps, of jazz, of animal print, of windows and of gridlocked traffic, textile swatches, fragments of billboard and hoarding posters. Each square is a stamp of identity, a person, a group, a trend, an idea, a community, a life lived well or a life destroyed.

They’re frenetic, chaotic, multi-layered, pulled together in a composition and colour combination that I find appealing because I want the paintings to be beautiful and visually rewarding. But the process of creating them often results in distressed surfaces and obliterated layers. A return to my core interest in the relationship between mankind and the natural world and the reality that the symbiotic relationship we enjoy is fast falling out of harmony.

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