David Stewart, Westminster After Three Fifteen, 2022

David Stewart: Cuts from PoCo

My painting practice has an ambivalent relationship with the history of Canadian landscape painting. I am interested in how romantic notions of nature that correspond with popular modernist Canadian painters often fall apart in a contemporary context.

I use photographs of my suburban hometown of Port Coquitlam as the basis for many of my paintings. While these photographs have a connection to my own history, they also connect to a larger history of Canada and the legacy of colonialism in our country. The suburbs are a place where conformity and appearance have more importance than truth or inquiry. Uncomfortable questions are to be avoided, which I find disturbing as a citizen but intriguing as an artist.

How can contemporary landscape painting in Canada confront its problematic legacy of celebrated Canadian landscape painters? As an artist of European settler heritage raised in the suburbs of Vancouver, I continue to ask this question in my own work presently, and moving forward. (David Stewart)


Born in Saskatoon and raised in Port Coquitlam, B.C., David Stewart has completed a BFA at Emily Carr University and an MFA at Concordia. He has shown his work in Vancouver’s Phoenix and South Main Galleries (2018), as well as in Fresh Paint, New Perspectives at Galerie Art Mûr (2020), and Domestic at Cache Gallery (2022). He is the recipient of the Jackson’s Painting Prize (Landscape) and two Elizabeth Greenshields grants. Stewart lives and works in Montreal.

Featured artists:
David Stewart

Interview with David Stewart by Katerina Kieran and Lisseth Llorente Ruiz

David Stewart is a visual artist born in Saskatoon, raised in Port Coquitlam, BC, and based in Montreal. His current exhibition, Cuts from PoCo, is on view at the Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery from September 7th until October 14th. Two 2nd year visual arts students, Katerina Kieran and Lisseth Llorente Ruiz, had the opportunity to sit down with David Stewart to discuss the artist’s life, works and creative process.

KK: Did a specific personal experience spark your desire to pursue art? When did you know this is what you wanted to do?

DS: It came in stages for me. As a kid I always loved drawing and it helped me relax and I got a lot of praise and support for it, but it’s sort of a weird concept to think about being an artist for a living when you are that young. Later, around grade 8, I loosely thought about being an artist. I remember opening a Salvador Dali book and feeling amazed about the paintings, I didn’t understand how paint could ever become something like his works, it blew my mind. Around the age of 13-14, this desire to pursue arts solidified, but it wasn’t until I was 16, when I got the chance to travel and experienced the European canon of art that things started to get serious. Around this time, Christmas of 2003, I was gifted my first oil painting set, and I still remember dipping my paintbrush in black oil paint and dragging it across the canvas for the first time. Of course, we all end up crafting our own narrative, this is mine at this point.

LLR: Can you tell us a bit about your schooling, specifically what your experiences at Concordia were like? 

DS: Concordia was on my radar because of the RBC National Painting competition for young emerging painters. I noticed that consistently, a lot of the winners had studied at Concordia. I thought it would be a good fit as it drew from European influences and was located in Montréal. However, because I signed up for my masters in 2019 my experience was challenging and unique, so I don’t believe I can serve as a reference. Ironically, these artworks only came into being because I moved back to B.C. during the pandemic when all classes were happening online. I would say though, that one of Concordia’s strengths is that it offers a vast and diverse array of teachers and artistic approaches, so I think there is something for everyone. The more viewpoints you get the better; try as many different approaches as you can. Having said this, if a student wants a lot of guidance this is not something you necessarily get. Art colleges focus more on technique but at the University level there is more emphasis on the conceptual aspects of making art.

KK: Are there any artists or art movements that inspire you?

D.S: Dali was my starting point, he probably is a first love for a lot of artists, but the Intimists early last century with painters like Bonnard and contemporaries of Matisse have been an important influence on my work. I’m interested more in the content of a painting, rather than the colours working with themselves. I really like the work of Andrew Cranston and Peter Doig, and we can see the influence of post-Impressionism in their paintings. Also, Eric Fischl has had a big influence on me, he was one of the first painters to explore suburban spaces and realities. These are some of the influences that come to mind, but it all ends up being like a big soup, you mix influences and ideas, throwing everything in, but never forgetting to not stray from the essentials.

KK: What do you consider a "finished" painting? How do you decide when a piece is finished?

 D.S: I mean, deadlines can definitely help to determine when work is finished! I have a rule, once I have photographically documented the painting then it’s done, but I have broken this rule in the past several times. Also, the process of a painting just sitting in a corner of your studio, and later coming back to work on it, can be the key to its completion. A painting has to sit on a wall, and if it’s working that will reveal itself over time. Sometimes I overdo it and when I look back at photographs taken before I get that sense of “it didn’t need any more work”. Often, it’s important to trust the process of painting.

LLR: How much is purposeful and how much is "going with the flow"? How long do you spend on a piece, based on that?

 D.S: This rarely happens to me, but with Tower Shadow I had a plan, and it was very straightforward. With most other paintings it can be more like a fight. Red Jacket has about ten paintings under it because I kept adding and reworking. It’s like a game, like painting itself has a personality. You’re having a conversation with the material, where you make a mark and react to what’s happening. This can make you feel powerful, almost God-like, and then the next day you might see the same painting you thought was perfect and think “what a load of junk.” Sometimes only a part of the painting works, and you have to get rid of the rest of it, or turn it upside down, or just start over entirely. Painting is part instinct, part planning. Cuts from PoCo all started as photographs, but often they only half-work in terms of composition or colour, and then I have to tweak it. In the initial stages of a painting, I am often purposefully sloppy because that invites mistakes to happen that I can explore. Sometimes I even work from blurry or unclear photographs. It’s important not to be afraid of mistakes; they can lead the painting to where it needs to be.

KK: How do you choose your colour palette for each painting?

D.S: My roommate often used to say that I made “gravy” paintings, and I hated it but it’s true that my palette tends to go towards brown undertones. I always try to do something unusual or try new colors to avoid this from happening, it worries me to have that present in my paintings, I don’t want to have a formula. I recently bought a tube of cobalt violet paint, and I have been trying to figure out how to make a painting out of it. Sometimes the source image has great colors that I can work with, and sometimes it’s only intuition. The first layer always influences what comes on top, so it’s important to pay attention to the ground colors. Complementary colors work well with the ground colors once they are layered. I normally try to resist falling into rigid patterns, even though it’s difficult. Paints are like spices when you are cooking, every spice behaves differently, some you can use a lot and some less. It’s important to always explore mediums and colors, working with a new color can change your practice.

LLR: Do you prefer working with thick or thin paint application? We've noticed some pieces look washed with water with multiple thin layers whilst others look thicker, and that a mix of both are used in Deboville Slough.

D.S: It depends where the light is coming from in the painting. For example, in my painting with the policeman, the luminescence comes from using the colour of the light as a ground and then painting over it. It can be done with thin darks and thick light sources as well, but I prefer to do it the other way around. Paint can create luminosity through the base layers, thick and thin layers, and underlayers, but it also honestly depends on how much money I have for paint.

KK: What's your process for deciding how to work with parts of your art - in terms of the manipulation of parts of it, and the detail and/or purposeful lack thereof? For example, the paint layers scratched to reveal what is underneath in Night Swimming.

 D.S: If a student really wants to pursue painting, one of the bedrock skills is the surface (canvas, gesso, etc.) - your surface is your foundation. If you master this, you are one step ahead. Scraping the paint down is necessary if the painting is not working. Night Swimming was a painting that wasn’t working, Susan Scott, a teacher and mentor, called it a bad painting. When situations like this happen, I take a palette knife and scrape down the surface. Someone else who has influenced me is Dawson Fine Arts Faculty member Jackson Slattery, he noticed that I was spending a lot of energy into putting things in my paintings and suggested that I focus more on the surface. When you see impasto in my work, chances are I may have won a grant or something— good quality paint is expensive! Ultimately the painting will tell you what it needs.

LLR: Do you purposefully integrate symbols in your artwork? For example, there seems to be a distinct circular shape in both Night Swimming and in Harrison Lake Swimmers.

 D.S: Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. My past works were often loaded with objects and symbols, and I cringe when I look at those now. In my new paintings, there is a strange connection to Christianity or spirituality. For example, a recent painting of one of my friends floating in a pool evokes the image of Jesus on the cross. So yes, there is a connection to the European canon of painting; sometimes I am quoting from art historical tropes. As in some of Caravaggio’s works, I believe some of the best paintings are of moments right before or right after something happens. There’s a relation between art and cinema in that way; how it tells a story. There is also a connection in his paintings between the sacred and the vernacular. This is something I explore through the details that represent a specific person in my past and that situate the painting for the viewer.

LLR: How and when did you develop your style and/or preferred medium?

D.S: I don’t think in terms of style, it’s a very limited way of thinking about art. Artists often refer to their “practice” which I sometimes use to describe working (begrudgingly). Painting isn’t entirely craft, and it isn’t just another academic discipline (as much as universities pretend it is), it’s a bit messy and hard to categorize.  Explore techniques and materials, some of which are taught, while some are accidental discoveries. In the act of doing, the process solves itself. We all walk, but the wear pattern of our shoes ends up being different. It’s more about self-discovery and experimentation than style. It’s not about answers, it’s about the questions you ask and what you want to explore. This exhibition is asking questions about my past. I have pieces about Montréal, others about a trip with a friend. I’m still figuring out what questions I’m asking and refining them. I hope that in 20 years I’ll still be adventurous. I hope I never have a style!

Last Modified: October 12, 2023