John Cook | Methodical Spontaneity


By Devon Jackson

As spontaneous as John Cook’s paintings appear to be, they are anything but. And therein lies their appeal: Cook’s paintings give the viewer the impression that he has captured scenes at the moment they happen. That he impulsively whipped out his oils and canvas and indelibly rendered that sidewalk café in Paris, that vendor at the flower market, or that rooster on the rooftop at that exact moment in time. By so perfectly capturing mood and emotion, Cook conveys a sense of the present. But this sense of spontaneity has been nearly 30 years in the making.

Cook had his first one-man show back in 1968, and it was three decades before his next one. “I wanted to go into painting, but it was hard back then, and I didn’t feel mature enough as a painter,” admits Cook of his early artistic years. “So I did illustration for real estate brochures, for architecture firms, and for high-end clients like Neiman Marcus and Disney. I worked with ink and a Rapido pen, drawing very delicate lines and making very detailed drawings. It was tedious work. So when I started painting seriously again about 20 years ago, I moved away from the tightness of the illustration work I’d been doing for so long. It was liberating.”

A native Texan, born and raised in Dallas, Cook, now 67, was the youngest of three boys. His father worked for the city water department and his mom stayed at home to care for the family. Not particularly artistic as a child, Cook figured he’d major in math once he got to the University of Texas at Arlington. But his plans changed after he excelled in the few art classes he took. “The artist in me said, ‘I can’t do math,’” chuckles Cook. He stuck it out at UTA for three more years before moving to the West Coast for art school.

The late sculptor Hollis Williford, a fellow Dallas native and a graduate of UTA and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, had convinced Cook to give the Art Center a go. So Cook loaded up what few possessions he had in his ’49 Chrysler and lit out for California, where he started all over as a freshman at the Art Center. “It was very intense, especially the perspective classes,” he recalls. “But I loved it out there. It opened my eyes to a lot of the professionalism in the art world.”

As much as he liked it, though, Cook says he had neither the confidence nor the desire to stay after graduation. What with the hippies, the psychedelic ’60s, and other forms of insanity, it was all a bit much for a Texas boy. “I was so young, I didn’t feel I could make it out there in L.A.,” says Cook, who earned a degree in illustration from the Art Center. “There were so many strange things out there. I knew I’d go back to Texas. I knew I’d come back to my family.”

Back in Dallas, he signed on with the Air Force Reserves, got married, and started a career in illustration. He worked for a design studio for a brief period, but for most of the next 30-some years he worked as a freelance illustrator: He drew buildings for architectural firms; he did illustrations of storefronts when a new store opened in the local mall. He spent thousands of hours hunched over a drawing table with his Rapido pen.

Deliverance from this tedious life of exacting detail came during the Christmas season of 1987. Thinking it would be nice to have a portrait of his family, Cook positioned his two kids on the couch with his wife reading to them. But instead of illustrating the scene, he painted it. “I worked on it for two weeks,” says Cook of his Christmas gift to himself and his family. “That was the turning point. That was what got me back into painting. The painting I did then was typical of my style now.”


Still, it would be another 10 years before Cook could completely leave behind his illustration career for fine art. Gradually, though, he did. He continued painting, scaled back on his work as an illustrator, and made the rounds of galleries in and around Dallas, showing them photographs of his work. “I did mostly still lifes at first,” says Cook. “But then I started to paint everything. Anything I wanted to paint, I painted it. I tried it all. I still don’t limit myself,” says the artist of his diverse range of work, including still lifes, portraits, architectural scenes, and countryscapes.

He says he feels most unlimited—and most inspired—when he is outdoors. “I went plein-air painting with some fellow artists, and that’s when I really started to learn to paint,” says Cook, who credits fellow Texan Tony Eubanks, in particular, with giving him insight into what he needed to do.

And while Cook gains inspiration from the outdoors, he actually does most of his painting indoors, in the studio that was once his two-car garage. That’s where he pores over the many thousands of photographs he’s taken over the years and recreates them as paintings.

Most of the photographs Cook uses as reference come from his travels. “Going out of state, to new cities and different countries, seems to be vital to my painting,” says Cook, who has traveled to and painted in New York, San Francisco, Paris, London, Rome, and a long list of other destinations. In Italy alone he snapped more than 7,000 pictures; over 300 of those were of a single bridge. “I have more adrenaline when I go somewhere else,” he insists. And adrenaline, for Cook, means more energy for his paintings.

Mood is key to his work, and it’s what he tries to achieve in all his paintings. “The mood is definitely the most important element. That and the play of light—the way the light filtering through a neutral zone can really pop and make the atmosphere work,” he explains. Oil painting affords him all the mood and atmosphere that pen-and-ink illustrations never did. “There’s no mood in illustration, and that’s totally what I strive for now.”

Consider his portrait of a young woman in BETWEEN TAKES, for example, where the angled light cast across her face and neck adds to the contemplative nature of the scene. Or his painting A HUSH OF WONDER, where the body language of the young girl standing before a painting in a museum expresses an innocence and joyful curiosity. A sense of mood pervades Cook’s paintings, whether it’s a canal in Venice or a street in small-town Texas. The buyer of one of his Montmartre café paintings bought it, he says, “because it reminded him of New York. The mood of my paintings touches a button in people.”

Capturing a feeling sometimes requires a little creative rearranging. “You have to be able to take people from Rome and put them in a Parisian street scene—and I know where and how to do that from my illustration work,” says Cook, who admires and is influenced by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Nicolai Fechin, Edward Hopper, Maxfield Parrish, and Winslow Homer. “It’s one of the benefits of having drawn figures for so long. I am able to transfer that knowledge and experience into my painting. I draw on my illustration background, but it’s a totally different approach. You won’t see the detail.”

His loose brushwork and rich, highly saturated colors impart an energy to his paintings. The energy evident in his artwork also stems from his admitted impatience—he refers to his painting style as “impatient realism”—and his affinity for the gestural stroke. “I cannot labor over a particular area too long,” he says.

And yet he does labor. “I have a tendency to go back and touch up a painting. It’s hard for me not to tweak. I call it alla prima all over again,” laughs Cook, who produces about 40 paintings a year. “It’s hard work to make a painting look spontaneous and easy.”

Featured in July 2008