Dryden, N.Y. — After working for 32 years as a family care doctor in England, Nicolas Down traded in his white coat for a smock and emigrated to the US to take up a second career as a painter.
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Now he lives in Dryden where he paints in his home studio and hosts showings in his basement gallery. His work, which has been shown in Paris, London, Florence and New York, is now part of the Ithaca Arts Trail.
Down separates his work, which is highly abstract, into two main categories: landscapes and “biomorphic” works. The landscapes, Down said, are inspired by a “love of the natural world.”
“The abstracted landscapes have evolved from a reverence that I have for landscapes,” Down said. “As observers we need to cherish them.”
Although the landscapes are all based on eyewitness experiences, Down doesn’t set up an easel on location. After visiting a scenic lake or National Park, Down returns to his studio, where he tries to capture the “qualia” – or the subjective qualities – of the place he visited.
Down will set his painting in a general location – the Scottish highlands, for instance, or the Canyon Lands of the Western US – and then will proceed by improvisation.
“I think it’s being inspired by the paint itself,” Down said. “Colors kick off a whole nuance of ideas. They breed other ideas.”
Down’s sensitivity to color makes him very particular about the pigments he uses. If there’s a specific pigment that Down can’t get from a tube, he will mix the pigment himself using dust pigment and resin media. Striking red and blue pigments are stacked in a corner in his workspace. Down points one out: Lapis lazuli, one of the rarest blues in the world.
Down traces his interest in vibrant colors to his upbringing in Tanzania.
“Many of the African colors affected my unconscious,” he said.
In Down’s landscape paintings, shocks of blue and red streak across muted mountain ridges, and thousand-mile-deep scenes jump off of the boards as if lit from behind.
Down’s ability to bring luminosity to his paintings was gleaned, he said, from the time he spent drawing stained glass windows in English cathedrals.
“That’s what I aim for in the works,” Down said. “I’m using the bright surface of the boards to give quite a bit of back to front luminosity, rather than relying on reflective luminosity.”
After vibrancy and luminosity, the most striking element of Down’s paintings are their layout and composition. Like M.C. Escher’s impossible stairwells, Down’s paintings warp around the viewer’s gaze, each saccade of the eye bringing a new scene to inhabit.
Down draws a fairly sharp distinction between his landscapes and his biomorphic works – both in terms of the painting’s referents and in terms of his own approach and technique. Whereas the landscapes are meant to capture the expansiveness of the natural world, Down’s biomorphic works have a distinctly human, narrative quality to them. Down calls his approach to biomorphic painting “storytelling,” and says he has been inspired by the philosophy of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
“Grief Music,” shown below, is meant to capture the tragic jazz of New Orleans. And “Nocturnal City,” shown farther down, was inspired by New York City, and Down’s experience watching steel girders from the destroyed Twin Towers being taken away to be buried.
A consequence of Down’s abstracted, improvisational approach to painting is an inability to duplicate any of his paintings. Each painting is one-of-a-kind because each is the result of a unique chain of associations which happens in real time, as Down paints. Links are made between Down’s mental images, the paint itself, and the music which is playing in the studio at the time (typical background music includes Max Richter and, Down says with a smirk, some of Philip Glass).
And if he is struggling to find inspiration, Down follows Da Vinci’s advice and “throws a bucket a paint at the wall” (not literally, of course).
“People who learn to paint later in life often say, ‘lose the inhibition and just give it a go’” Down said. “And I’d encourage people to.”