The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with Chris Daniels by Fiona Grady

Recorded at the artist’s studio

January 2016

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

FG Thank you for meeting me today. To start, please could you briefly outline your current practice?

CD Yes, sure. I am involved in making abstract paintings that primarily deal with colour, form and how the two combine together. Generally, there are rules that dictate how the paintings are made, and the whole idea is to use the form as a system to put through the effectiveness of the colour combinations.

FG I want to ask you about your use of media in your paintings, as you tend to use both acrylic and oil paint; generally, painters prefer to use one medium over the other?

CD I make the choice of medium dependant on the best tool for the job. I use acrylic paint in the background as I’m looking for a very flat synthetic base that holds its own. I use oil paint over the top, although I sometimes use acrylic as well - it really depends on finding the right colour. The oil paint will normally sit on top and come forward to you, so that you get the effect of a shifting visual perspective between the media, and reactions between the colours in the background and the foreground.


FG So the visual effective is partly due to the finish of the paint?

CD Yes, I apply oil paints as flatly as possible, I use masking tape for the forms and I use the forms to control the gesture. Ideally, the gesture is seen as one continuous flat mark, rather than lots of smaller brushstrokes.

FG One the first things that strikes me with your paintings is the use of colour. Could you tell me about where your choices come from?

CD My colour choices are from a personal, non-scientific, non-colour theory approach. Really, it’s about looking at colours that cause reactions when put together. I often take inspiration from colours in daily life. For example, I saw an e-courier van with these amazing purple and pink stripes; obviously the idea with these colours is to be noticed, so I removed them from their situation in the world and put them into an abstract painting. By separating them out, I can demonstrate how powerful these colour combinations are - normally they kind of get lost in the modern environment. So by putting them into these forms that I use, it gives them an importance. And sometimes these colour combinations are quite strange, different or intense.

Comminuo II, 2016, 60cm x 50cm, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Chris Daniels.

FG Are you consciously choosing certain combinations or colour schemes that have stemmed from advertising and branding?

CD There is that, but mainly it comes from me. When developing a series you have a familiarity with it, based on the choices I’ve made in the past, and encounters with other colours and combinations. I’m always looking at colours, matching them and considering how they would work together. You can usually anticipate how they end up, there’s a certain element of having a feel for the end result, but sometimes you still get surprised. That’s an enjoyable part of it.

FG Would you say that you have a catalogue of colours? If you look back through your paintings would you find different phases or types of colours that were more prevalent?

CD There’s a colour called warm light grey which is a great colour as it makes almost every other colour look different in relation to it. It’s definitely a favourite of mine; I’ve used it in so many different ways. I do have a favourite green and definitely a bright pink that comes up quite a lot. Often colours will look different another time that I use them, due to the context that they are presented in. The combination of colours next to them can create comparisons and alter the way that you see them.

Legio IV 2013 60cm x 60cm, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Chris Daniels.

FG So they change by association?

CD Exactly, how we see colour is down to that.

FG Rather than mixing shades, you use paint directly from the tube. Is this decision to avoid the loss of brightness in colours or consistency in pigmentation?

CD Yes, by doing this I can guarantee that I repeat the same colour over and over again, rather than getting lucky. I want to be able to consistently call up these colours and use them again in the future. It’s important that I can recreate something that would almost never be the same otherwise.

FG Do you ever find yourself making a painting and then realise that – subliminally - you’ve just chosen a colour scheme from something in your everyday environment?

CD I think I’m generally very aware of where my choices come from. I guess I spend much longer thinking about colour than most people. Therefore, I can make quick decisions at times but I feel that I’m aware of what I’m creating, or at least I don’t think I’m walking past the same yellow sign every day, and subconsciously replicating it.

FG In your current series of paintings you’ve started referencing patterns from public transport. What led you to become interested in this?

ScutaXVIII 2014 100cm x 100cm, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Chris Daniels.

CD  Again, this goes back to seeing how colours are used. I’m interested in taking the colour scheme out of its context and turning it into an abstract painting, and giving it that kind of value, but keeping some of the colour relationships/ decisions that are chosen the same. There’s something about the way that the designs are used on public transport… I’m not sure of the exact technique but it’s almost flickered at, like they’ve used what I assume is a rotating brush that flicks paint everywhere in different-coloured layers. And I quite like the idea of replicating that, but it being more deliberate, and trying to break the visual perceptions and field of colours, and then even though these colours are flat it does create this illusion of depth, and agitates the retinal activity for the viewer. I’d never go as far as trying to create Optical Art, it’s more subtle than that, it’s really something that’s more a sense of recognition that maybe gets the viewer wondering where they’ve seen these relationships before. But I’m not attempting to hail the glorious design of colour, it’s appropriating it from the original context.

FG Are you interested in the utility or the functional background of the colour schemes? They are often quite bright and jarring; I imagine that with public transport that they’re not designed to make you feel comfortable?

CD I once heard that with terrible colours or the gaudiness, you can’t see what state the seats are in, with all the staining and detritus, as you would if they were a lighter or a single colour. It’s there to hide something at times, but I encourage you to look at these designs, some of them are absolutely horrible, but I do have a fascination with how people can chose such horrible combinations of colours. In my work I wouldn’t go quite as far as the worst ones.

FG Well yours aren’t horrible anyway. But it’s interesting that the British Transport Museum is selling items such as bags, scarves and even sofas using fabric designed for bus seats etc. I find the items quite unappealing, but it’s a funny idea that these objects in such a fabric could be desirable?

CD I wouldn’t desire them either but I am interested in the designs. Sometimes I wonder how it ever got made or how these things exist. At the same time, it’s the opposite, I see these amazing colour decisions in other situations and I think they are wasted as a design. I am trying to show the power of these colour combinations, both negative and positive, when they are stripped out of their functional purpose.

FG To a certain extent you could argue that they are celebratory?

CD I can see that, but I don’t know, maybe not. They would be simultaneously celebrating the best and the worst.

ScutaXV 2014 100cm x 100cm, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Chris Daniels.

FG Moving on to the motifs in your work, you have certain recurring forms such as lozenge shapes, shields, circles and mountains. Why do you have a particular preference for certain forms?

CD When I started making abstract paintings, the forms were definitely hard-edge geometric objects. Through drawing and painting I’ve developed forms which are recognisably my own. The idea of the forms is to carry the colour combinations; sometimes it’s just a stand-alone form or at other times they’ve been multiplied and repeated.

FG Do you think the repeated use of the forms changes your experience of them? Is there a reason why you show them so tightly packed together e.g. in the Scuta paintings?

CD The idea for the shield / lozenge shape came from reading a line that talked about a ‘shield wall’ and it came to me that the shield form was blocking the background colour. You have these gaps between seemingly impenetrable areas, but there are weaknesses, and it came from that. So the repetition of the shields and the blocking-off aspect are all tied up together. Sometimes the forms are right to the edge, and at times I made ones that leave a gap in between; they come in different types.  

FG So the negative space within the paintings can become quite significant in terms of the background and foreground - this creates a field of depth as well?

CD I’ve created lots of different long-running series of work. With the shield shapes I’ve attempted to create that same covering or colour reactions, but by breaking up the rigidity of the imagery. Mainly through looking at circles, or irregular shapes, or by keeping the same amount of colour combinations, so that three colours sit over the top of a background. Ideally, I would always show my work in series and the viewer would take relationships away from standing in certain positions to see the works next to each other and from different viewpoints.

Mt.IV , 2010 100cm x 100cm,  oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Chris Daniels.

Mt. VI , 2010 100cm x 100cm,  oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Chris Daniels.

FG I noticed that with both the lozenge and the mountain paintings, they are reduced versions of form  - particularly the mountains - although they are natural forms, you have in a sense designed the idea of what a mountain looks like?

CD It goes back to what I mentioned about working through drawing. On a square canvas it felt right to have six peaks or six jagged edges that held a weight. Obviously, a mountain is a big presence, but it gave you the idea of a mountain that you could look into and see. But other than that it doesn’t have to be a mountain, it can also be seen as a mouth in some respects, which has been said. But I am interested in allowing the viewer to impose their own ideas on the work; I merely suggest a form.

FG I was thinking that because it’s almost a cut-out version or a symbol of what a mountain could be, that out of all your works, it’s probably the one that most strongly references the advertising that you talk about in your use of colour, and perhaps this notion is present in these forms too?

CD I guess it’s sort of like a flag or a heraldic standard that I might have seen. Roughly, this idea is based on the front cover of a book that I once saw. It’s not intentionally symbolic, or a logo, but it is probably the most figurative thing that I’ve done.

FG Let’s talk about the use of series in your work. The majority of your paintings are bodies of work or series that often occur in similar scales. What impact do you hope to create by presenting them together as series?

CD Since I’ve started making more minimal, reductive, paintings I’ve always seen the colour as one of the most significant elements. My way of thinking through series has been influenced by the Andy Warhol ‘Shadows’ piece which I saw at Dia: Beacon, New York. It is essentially about 100 paintings that are 70 of one type and 30 of another, all in one room, and they are all different colours, and it was a pretty amazing experience to see the range of colour combinations in an immersive environment. I used to make stripe paintings and I’m interested in the idea of being surrounded by my work. Although I feel that a painting must be able to stand alone - and I still have that consideration - I feel that the relationships between the colour combinations build up best when seen together as part of a large series. I doubt I will ever stop doing series, I’m continually adding, I sometimes go back to do new versions of older works. When I come across a new colour combination or a new set of forms I’ll start thinking about how it might have worked in an old series; I’m happy to go back.

Circlus III, 2015,  90cm x 90cm, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Chris Daniels.

Circlus IX, 2015, 90cm x 90cm, oil and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Chris Daniels.

FG Would you say that there is a point where you exhaust the idea of the series, or could you just go on and on forever?

CD No, I don’t think so. Probably, over time, I’ll go on and make more series, and others will fade away. I wouldn’t want to end up creating a pastiche of myself.

FG Sometimes artists see description of their work as ‘pattern’ as a negative; they feel that it implies that the viewer is not connecting with what they are setting out to achieve, or that simply it implies a lack of imagination. How do you feel about this term?

CD  Well, I think pattern is often used in derogatory terms, the same as ‘decorative’ or  - what has been used a lot is: “oh, just a colourist”. I don’t think of the work as patterns, maybe because certain elements are more free, intuitive and less strict. I think a pattern is doing something over and over again, always getting the same results. Whereas my work involves a fair amount of drawing out and measuring; it’s not perfect, there are always certain shifts or vibrations. I feel that there is a degree of human error in my work that keeps it kind of away from being perfect.

FG I agree; I think it’s good to have that element of the human touch, because you often think, with your work as you’re painting it, that you don’t want it to feel generated by anyone except you, even if it is very clean lines.

CD While I say that the paintings are flat, you can still see that a brush has been involved in making them. I’m not interested in taking out the hand-made element. I want there to be an honesty about the work. I do use masking tape, but in my mind it’s not to create something perfect.

FG Discussing the digital - and the idea that you could just print the work - there’s a trend in current painting to digitally to print onto canvas and add some paint on top.

CD Personally, it’s not my way of working; I don’t have any real interest in that. Even though I’m painting a flat background I still want to be in control of everything by hand.

FG It comes from you…

CD Yes, and I’m not really sure what benefit there would be for me to work that way? Also I don’t know exactly how I would reach the same effect, or if my paintings would work in terms of digital, but I have no interest in it.

FG When reading about your work, I’ve found that it’s often described as playful and fun. Are these adjectives that you are happy to be associated with?

CD I think there is a sense of playfulness, not always necessarily fun, but certainly playfulness or lightness and levity. To me, when you see the work you’ll see I’ve used colours that can influence your experience and emotions, and manipulate you in some sort of way. I hope that there is a sense of fun.

FG I guess the way that I’m interpreting it, particularly with the paintings that have circles – e.g. Circlus - they can feel as though the shapes are floating or rolling around, and some of the imagery makes me think of computer games?

CD Yes, that is definitely true and intentional. I think that the idea of movement is important and you can see this interest. I find colours and ideas from apps and in games; the synthetic reality creates some interesting visual ideas which I try to use. To me it’s playful, but to other people it could seem serious. It’s an experience I’m still investigating.

FG Well maybe that’s important in this idea of keeping the human touch; if it feels there’s an energy about it, it helps to emphasise its presence. Also, although your work shows a considerable amount of restraint, it has a depth and energy, particularly with the more loosely-placed forms that imply an escape from the canvas. Is this something that is intentional?

CD It is. If you show a series of work together, for example the Circlus paintings, then some of the brighter colours and forms will follow you around, and if you were looking at another canvas you might still see the after-image of the previous composition. The images will also bleed off into the surrounding environment and the walls. This is a by-product of the unique composition and colour combinations of the individual paintings placed together, creating a continuation between the works. However, I generally always paint the work as being contained by the edge of the canvas, so it doesn’t normally ever go physically ‘off screen’ so to speak, but mentally, you take it with you and form relationships between the works.

FG In particular, for your RA degree show, you made a series of brightly coloured stripe paintings which you presented in a grey space. Is there an ideal environment that you’d like to install your paintings in?

CD I think it’s more that; I would ideally display the paintings to complement the environment that they are shown in. So I would say that they should contribute to the feeling or experience of the architecture, or the room as a whole, rather than compete with it. But I think that I would like to have the option to change the wall colour, to have control over the environment. I would like them to really complement the space.

FG Sometimes with installation art it’s more interesting to have someone give you a space and you work out what the space needs, rather than having this ideal space ready for you.

CD I guess it’s nice to work within limitations.

FG Yes, exactly, particularly when your work is quite restrictive in itself, it’s good to have a different kind of challenge. Earlier you mentioned the idea of displaying the works as installations, is it something that you would be interested in exploring further?

CD I think that my paintings can operate as paintings rather than being installation art. But I’m open to the opportunity to experiment, should I get the chance, but really the paintings are the most important thing.

FG For the paintings, I would say that your use of titles is as reductive as the art. Do you feel that your titles are important for the understanding your work?

CD Sometimes I think they are generally where the idea has originated from. For example, the mountain paintings are titled ‘Mt’ for ‘mountain’ but it’s also a reference to a Super Furry Animals song, so there is a double meaning to that one. I like the shorthand way of describing something that is, again, relative to the way that it’s an abstracted idea of a mountain. ‘Scuta’ is the plural Latin word for shield – it comes from an idea of Roman shield design. I’d be happy if someone recognised it, but I don’t expect them to, and it’s not integral to the work; it’s more something to entertain myself.  

FG I’d like to ask you about some of your reference points.You cite Ellsworth Kelly as a significant influence on your work?

CD Yes, he has been a big influence over the years; I think what’s important about him in relation to my work is his use of colour and his selection of form, and the confidence to simplify elements to the basic essence. For him, this became the whole piece, but for my practice it’s for the forms involved within the canvas. Looking at where his paintings originate from is really interesting to me, it’s that idea of selecting and referencing appropriated forms, usually from nature or architecture, and how he evolves this into an abstract work which fascinates me.

FG What is next for 2016?

CD I will have work on show later this year at Camberwell Art Space, which I’m looking forward to. I’ve also just moved into a new studio, so I’m getting back into the swing of making new work after a brief hiatus organising the move. The new space will give me the opportunity to increase the scale of my work, and working in a larger format will be a priority this year. In addition, I have a couple of exciting projects that I’m currently working on.