I have to admit, I often feel like a slave to colour. Like it has a power over me. I’m inspired by the optical effects that colours can have together and the movement, distortions, and tension this creates for the viewer.
Daniel Freaker's captivating paintings often seem to be mere fragments of a broader narrative. They occupy a space between the abstract and the figurative, as their relatable subject matter is rendered through a rich tapestry of interwoven processes, both intentional and accidental, that add a complex textural quality to the work. The moments depicted seem reminiscent of movie scenes or more personal experiences, while the radiant colours evoke a longing for warmth, connection, loss, vulnerability, or loneliness. This constant juxtaposition between vibrance and darkness, accident and intention, order and chaos, is what makes his work memorable.
Q. Did you always want to become an artist?
A. I remember reading about Belbin personality types, where a ‘planter' defines a person that tends to ignore incidentals or getting bogged down by details. They are unorthodox generators of ideas but tend to start without finishing things off. Looking at my own life, that is what I have done; I get very passionate and excited about problem-solving but don’t really have the patience for bureaucracy or logistics. I’ve also grown up in a counter-culture that is critical of politics, social norms, and corporate consumerism. The values of creativity, critical thinking, and the search for experiences have led me to become an artist.
Q. Your work seems to have a strong narrative, almost cinematic, quality to it. Is there a narrative structure behind each piece?
A. Stories definitely drive me. I’m a very sentimental person and find thinking about past experiences both wonderful and painful. For example, I see images of my kids when they are smaller and I can’t help crying. I find it hard to accept that those moments are gone or that they even happened to me. Painting these moments captures them in a way that feels alive and allows for both loss and mourning, as well as celebration. The subjects of my works aren’t my own memories, but those I think many can connect with and of which it feels like we all had them. In relation to traditional narrative structures like Freytag’s Pyramid or a Fichtean Curve, I don’t think about a beginning, middle, and end, like a before and after the scene you see in the painting. I feel like life is much more fractured and senseless, so I’m certainly drawn to films that don’t have a simplistic happy ending or those with unusual structures.
Q. How has your interest in film impacted your work?
A. I’m certainly drawn to cinema and especially to music videos in a big way. Sometimes, I see a scene or shot in a film and it looks almost like a painting. Especially when those parts of a film don’t make perfect sense, but leave a very visceral feeling. There are also creative people who work between moving image and painting that have had a big impact on me, such as David Lynch. Sometimes, I wish I could share my work with music, like “here is the perfect song for this scene”, that would enhance the experience and might bring it closer to the feeling evoked by cinema or music videos. I just love the flicker and shimmer of light in film, it reminds me of dancing colours and textures on the surface of a canvas. During university, I started out by making short films and experimental artwork before really applying myself to painting. These were very experimental installations like sequences of film made through cherry blossoms projected onto the ceiling of the gallery. But I found that working in film and video requires a lot of organization and planning, whereas paint allows me to work more intuitively and impulsively.
Q. Was there a pivotal moment in your career as an artist?
A. There have been many intensely powerful moments of loss, both emotional and financial in my life. I think this moved me towards working self-sufficiently, relying on my hands to create value and meaning. Rather than a single moment or epiphany, the gradual realization of impermanence means I find value in the immediacy of working with paint.
Q. Apart from the very recognizable subject matter, which draws the viewer in, you draw attention to the medium you utilize itself by introducing visible paint splatter or expressive brushstrokes. One could say that this diverts the focus again to the surface of the artwork and the ‘painting as a painting’ creating a certain distance to the viewer. What would you like to achieve by navigating this field of tension between drawing in and pushing out?
A. I’ve always felt that that the initial subject captures people, but the rich play of details, contrasts between gestures and tones is what really brings a work to life and allows the gaze to linger. It’s what makes me stand in my studio and lose hours of my life as my eyes work their way around and try to explore and consider the process of how things happened on the surface. The movement between being drawn in and moving back feels similar to looking at your own past. I think the tension is what actually draws the two things together - the subject and the surface - and this is where poetry starts to occur. My techniques change quite a lot between images and I spend much time working out which type of mark would support the potential in the image. I often work from found photographs in which I see something I really want to draw out through the use of experimental techniques.
Q. In this manner, you simultaneously strike a balance between the figurative and the abstract, what does this interweaving of techniques and modes of interpretation mean to you as an artist?
A. People, places, and experiences are what interest me. I read a lot of work by authors like Albert Camus, Alex Garland, Douglas Coupland, Michel Faber, and Michel Houellebecq. Their scenes start to form in my mind and I can practically feel the light and the colour and I can picture the people, but I can’t see the detail. In many ways, my painting process is quite similar in that I can find the people, and their general setting, but don’t want to pin anything down with too much detail. That would feel static and synthetic. The abstract and fluid gestures seem to provide a certain movement and presence that makes the work feel alive.
Q. Could you take us through your artistic process?
A. I try to challenge myself from the outset. I feel uncomfortable working on a next painting that is too similar to the previous one. I think that insecurity and surprise are what I live for and what bring me joy. I antagonise with what I am doing and how it is progressing. I always start with an image or collage of images that I have found somewhere. From this starting point, I create an experimental surface of marks and colours. I do have an idea of how this surface might connect with the original image and I want to draw it out, but it is still very loose and exploratory. I also try to create tension, by, for example, using a very complimentary and contrasting colour for the ground which evokes a disconcerting effect on the eyes. This optical effect is important. It also means I can’t plan exactly what the image will look like, which ensures it does not become a photorealistic image. The work builds up very loosely to start with and the additional layers then help to create form. This building up of the image is a quite playful process and the whole canvas evolves as one object rather than specific areas being finished separately.
Q. Your work seems to emanate a sense of longing or nostalgia. Is this something you consciously try to evoke or are you looking to convey something else entirely?
A. I make use of unusual processes that wouldn’t be associated with traditional painting. For example, someone said to me that my paintings sometimes feel like they have been left in the rain. As some colours feel washed out and some areas or forms feel dated and weathered. I do, in fact, often wash them down with a hosepipe in the garden, or large sponges, to establish an ebb and flow between building and removing. This leaves hints of shapes, forms, and colours on the canvas that are at once creative and destructive. The more layers and washes and different techniques are used, the more it feels like the surface has a lived experience. Like it has character, much like the lines on a mature person’s face. I’m generally drawn to these kinds of things and don’t feel the need for new, shiny, and ephemeral culture. This, in part, explains the nostalgia, but the longing, I think, comes from the tension between a static image and the impermanence of the experience.
Q. Your work often features a certain use of unusually vibrant colour combinations, what informs your choice of colours for each work?
A. I have to admit I often feel like a slave to colour. Like it has a power over me. I’m inspired by the optical effects that colours can have together and the movement, distortions, and tension this creates for the viewer. I’m not specifically drawing on Op Art, which is generally using geometry and lines combined with colours, but rather the intensity of experimental music videos, graphic design, and street art. I feel like I am constantly struggling for impact and visceral power through colour. It feels as if scars that have been left on me by those memories in the images. Colours also enable an experience of hope and optimism that I know I need in my life. They provide moments of pure wonder as the gaze moves around the canvas.
Q. You also teach art and design - what does it mean to you to work with the next generation of artists and do you think this has had an impact on your own artistic practice?
A. Teaching art and design for over 13 years has had a profound impact on my practice. The students always had that sense of joy and wonder about creativity and learning and exploring. Most of all, it is the willingness of art students to take creative risks that has left the biggest mark on me. That creative risk is very addictive. It can easily destroy something you have worked on for hours and that you have a very strong attachment to. So it’s very emotional, scary, and profoundly nourishing at the same time. I was able to teach across a lot of different subjects, from painting to graphic design and photography, from fashion to architecture, which has given me insight into lots of creative practices and I feel deeply lucky to have had those opportunities and means to find joy in engaging with many areas of culture.
Q. Which other creatives or artistic movements inspire you?
A. I’ve touched on film, music videos, and literature that I’m fascinated by, but painters such as Cudahy, Armitage, Doig, Tuymans and Schnabel all create work that is absolutely mesmeric. I guess these creatives can be connected by a sense of narrative, history, and experiential colour work. My secret pill for productivity is intense electronic music. I grew up during the techno rave culture, from Berlin to Goa, and there is something about this mechanical rhythm that pushes me on and allows me to dance through disaster and terrible mistakes without getting down and losing motivation.
Q. Could you describe your work in three words?
I couldn’t do that for the work itself, but I can for the practice of creating it: cathartic - mesmeric - playful.
FOLLOW UP INTERVIEW
Q. Could you explain why critical thinking and the search for experiences were essential for you in your path to becoming an artist?
A. Critical thinking and a search for experience seem to be such different things. The first appears abstract and unnatural while the latter feels carnal and savage. Yet, there are experiences that I’ve had, the memory of which continues to haunt me and punctuate much of my life. So, it seems natural to question these experiences and to try and understand why they are so prominent and powerful. There are experiences that I can’t forget and make me think how complex and challenging life is. Growing up is full of experiences that are on the edge of being tolerable and it feels natural to question why.
Q. You have stated that you find value in the immediacy of working with paint, could you elaborate on that?
A. The images I create allow me to delve into my own sentiment and nostalgia for a moment in the past. I try to find images that capture a feeling that we may all have had so the language of the work feels more universal. These are fleeting moments in time that I don’t think should feel pinned down and become static. The kinds of marks that I make on the surface of the canvas are fluid and moving and never stay still. They react to the layers underneath, they seep down the canvas and mix with other colours - it feels like there is a balance of control and release.
Q. A lot of your work seems to evoke a certain restrained energy or tension, like emotions that are perhaps not expressed explicitly. Is this something you consciously try to evoke and if so, how do you imbue your works with this feeling?
A. I see the world that way, full of restrained energy. I think we spend most of our energy trying not to explode. I mean that I often want to share my feelings, but feel I can’t and that if I let them out that I would leave a trail of destruction. The important thing is that I don’t think these feelings or the energy we keep in check is inherently negative, its just there. I try to find tools to uncover that tension within the painting because I think people want to explore their own experiences with that. This might be found in the connection between two people in a painting, or in the pose of a single individual and the space surrounding them. The colours help a lot in this. That's why I take big risks with the colour often changing a painting completely from one colour to the next. I think the covering up and layering and allowing hints of the deepest layer of paint to shine through in fragments hints at this tension.
Q. Could you ever imagine going back or further into your work with film (perhaps in combination with painting) to create even more immersive experiences? Or do you feel like you have fully arrived in this medium?
A. I feel if I take too much care with a painting that it doesn’t have a life of its own, that the painting would feel very artificial. Painting allows me to take more risks and be more experimental than film would. I am currently developing ideas for exhibitions that would explore the relationship between painting and cinema more. I like the fact that we have all collectively seen many films before and so using the language of film, the famous scenes, shots and cinematography, would allow me to connect with those experiences we have all had.
Q. You have mentioned previously that the sense of longing one may find in your work stems from the tension between a static image and the impermanence of the experience - does this refer to the human desire to hold on to moments that will inevitably pass, or does it hold a different meaning altogether?
A. Of course there is sadness in things passing. I think it's important to recognise that sense of loss and change. I think as people, we are generally vulnerable and fragile. The desire to hold on to things seems to challenge or to try to cover up our own fragility in an artificial way. The heartache of loss seems more real, an honest and humble connection with the world. The images themselves may not be real, but they are a search for a real experience and emotion.
Q. Your paintings go through a layered process of creation and destruction, how do you decide that a work has reached its final stage and is finished?
A. I like the idea that a painting doesn’t come across as finished. The imperfections, the drips, scratches, marks and drops almost make it feel like it is still in progress. They give the work a sense of movement. When I cast my eye on the surface, areas just off to the side seem like they are still running and moving and this draws the eye around the picture plane in a way that ads to the narrative and the sense that the work is still alive, as if the paint hasn't dried.
Q. You said that certain authors have contributed to your process of picturing subjects from an emotional perspective rather than a hyperrealistic one, are there other ways in which literature has impacted your artistic practice?
A. I was writing a novel many years ago and filled it with narration about a person’s experience and feelings. I gave it to an editor and they said the best parts were where I described a space rather than a feeling. They said I should show the reader, rather than tell. I think that I can do this more effectively through painting. The images literature gives me enrich the worlds I try to create. I’m more interested in literature that doesn’t have a traditional narrative structure and where scenes and experiences are more important than the resolution of a conflict.
Q. You previously mentioned that your provocative colour palette is the product of a struggle for impact and visceral power, is this tense dialogue between often contrasting hues also reflective of an inner conversation or is it rather focused outwards, created first and foremost with the emotional impact it will have on the viewer in mind.
A. The colour choices and the way they are applied are equally important. Before emotion and before communication, there is the experience of the eye. There are certain optical effects that I am interested in; the juxtaposition of complimentary colours or the layering of thin glazes causes a movement that I am fascinated by. Not in the same way that Op Artists are exploring the visual mechanisms of seeing and light, but I am trying to exploit that. Often, I am trying to create an awkward or uncomfortable experience by using colours that don’t quite sit comfortably. So the impact I would like my work to have is physical or experiential first. It is an inner conversation, but one that I think we are all having.
Q. Many of your subjects are kids or adolescents, what appeals to you about their youth? Is there a symbolic element there?
A. I don’t really feel like I have grown up. Yes, I have become calmer and more patient which allows me to absorb more pain or manage better than I would have 30 years ago. But, the same sensations are still there. I think we all still feel as awkward as we did in the formative years of being a teenager, exposed to new experiences and the beauty and excitement they contain, but also fearing the terror of the new.
Together with our latest release from Daniel Freaker, we conducted another further interview with him to find out more about his artistic approach and what’s behind the new artworks.
Q. You mentioned that you don’t feel that you have grown up. But as a father, have you noticed any changes in how you react to emotions and memories? And do these changes also reflect in your art?
A: In all my encounters with people from different backgrounds and careers, artists always seem to be the most modest. It’s a quality that I admire, and I hope never to lose it. Saying I haven’t grown up for myself means that I still feel like I have a lot to learn. Becoming a father only made me feel like I knew less than before. Of course, I react differently. I’m much more patient now and react more tolerantly. But being a father has brought a lot of pain for me, to the extent that I am surprised I can tolerate it. This is a huge reservoir of experience that I draw on in my work and many of the images I create are about parenthood.
Q. Most of your work in this release has a very warm tone, like most of your previous works too. Do you consciously prefer warm colours to cool ones, or is this unintentional?
A: Spending much of my childhood in India and later living in Spain and Cuba developed a passion for richness and fullness. I’m looking for intensity and vibrance in colours in the same way I look for spice in food. Beyond their optical impact, these colours have a viscerality that helps me engage people. Many of my works explore sad and tender scenes, and these warmer colours allow me to do that without them collapsing into melancholy.
Q. You said that you often work from the found photos. Are these photos of your own or also from others? Do you assign these photos arbitrary stories that you imagine upon looking, or you already knew the contexts of them?
A: I don’t like to know the people that appear in my work. Having an emotional connection to them distracts me from focusing on the ideas and what I am trying to communicate. So I don’t use models or photos of people I know at all. I also don’t know the context of the images. That way, it’s easier for me to build greater narratives of the before and after. In addition, I also concentrate on the momentary experience of the subject in the painting. I usually collage different images to create a new context through a pose imbued with meaning and a space that would complement and enhance that. I have several series of works that use specific types of spaces with people, one with transitional spaces such as doorways, another with architectural spaces, another with water.
Q. Your art has always been about memories, stories and nostalgia. Have you ever thought about exploring the opposite realm one day - futurism or avant-gardism?
A: While my memories are all I know, I tend to use these to find common ground between what I have experienced and what others have experienced. Yet science fiction, with ideas of utopia and dystopia, has always hugely influenced me. Writers such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Asimov have helped me form my ideas and view of the world. It is less the visions of technology that I am intrigued by than the commentary on society. I think science fiction has always tried to tell us something about ourselves now, about our human condition and what our potential is. There are often dystopian traits within the work and it's important to consider where we are going and what might become of us.
Q. You have described your artistic process, and it sounds playful and exploratory. However, how different are your work from artwork to artwork, in terms of techniques or visual impressions?
A: I only ever feel comfortable when I am learning. For me, play and experimentation are learning processes. I make a conscious decision that each of my works needs to do two things. First, it has to build on learning from the past and show some form evolution. This is done by trying something new, such as a new technique or process. I feel uncomfortable if the work becomes stagnant and repetitive. The second is more personal in that the work needs to take me by surprise and help me grow in confidence and ambition.
Q. You also talked about creating tension in your art by manipulating colours. Why is tension important in your work?
A: When I look at artwork, mine or work by others, I’m always most inspired when I feel something awkward, unusual or uncomfortable. I think life is full of moments of awkwardness, innocence and fragility. So I try to engage with work that helps provoke those feelings and allow a dialogue with those experiences. It’s like when we watch a film about an awkward first kiss and we get a wave of emotion that tells us a lot about who we are. The tension I am looking for in my work is the same. It isn’t just with colours and how these can be combined, but also through the juxtaposition of marks and subjects. For example, a scene that would ordinarily look sad contrasted with vivid colours creates tension in our perception where our brain is telling us this should be one way or the other, but it actually breaks that preconception.
Q. Have your artistic techniques evolved in the past few years? What were some of the triggers for them?
A: The techniques are constantly evolving and that is something I always expect to happen. But the major changes are less about practical technique and more about evolution in the subject matter. I feel I am becoming more sensitive and want to explore visuals that conjure more delicate experiences for the viewer. I think this comes from several things, the isolation during the pandemic and the introspection this allowed for; or the challenges in personal relationships I have had and the opportunities for calmness and peace. Or even the battles I have had with alcohol and the sobriety I try to keep. These are very personal things and not overtly transparent in my work, but it’s the emotional challenges that always drive the work most powerfully.