Andrew is a Natural

Looking at the intricate detail and the mastery of light and mood in Andrew Cooper’s paintings, it is surprising to learn that he has never taken an art lesson. As a child of eight years he moved to England with his family where he spent time in Scotland, Cornwall and Surrey. He enjoyed drawing caricatures and cartoons and went through a phase of painting birds. Around the same time his uncle introduced him to the sport of fly-fishing.

In 1981 he returned to South Africa and studied sales and marketing but it was during military service that he had the time to paint some watercolours. Borrowing the money from his mum to frame his paintings he had some success as an amateur artist. “My first exhibition at Groot Constantia sold out within 20 minutes – but the paintings were very cheap,” he smiled from his Tokai studio.

He continued to paint in his spare time, supplying work for a gallery at High Constantia until 1987, aged 29, when he made the decision to become a full-time artist. Although he suffered financially he enjoyed the lifestyle, not sitting in traffic or an office.

Then, 17 years ago he turned from watercolour to acrylics, saying the paint dries quicker and allows him to use larger canvasses. When the gallery in High Constantia moved to the city he started exhibiting at Red, the gallery at Steenberg Village. One day he was chatting to owner, David Endean when he suggested that Andrew use a huge canvas in their basement. Too large to fit into Andrew's home, David suggested painting at the gallery. Andrew said it has been a wonderful experience, not only for people who have speculated that he maybe uses an overhead projector as a tool but also because people generally do not have access to watch an artist work.

Also, many gallery owners are protective of their artists, not wanting them to have a close relationship to possible customers. Looking through his folder of work, the intricate detail and the mastery of light and mood in the landscapes epitomise the natural beauty of many hidden fly-fishing spots in the Western Cape. But what is most surprising is that he paints impressions or memories of places he has visited.

In August Andrew donated a painting Leopard’s Leap to be auctioned for the Cape Leopard’s Trust. Then he donated View of Constantiaberg to be auctioned on Steenberg Estate on Thursday October 29 (“Art auction for Baboon Matters”, Bulletin October 22). He credits fly-fishing for these decisions. “Both activities [art] have developed in me a deep appreciation for nature and acknowledgment of the fine balance that exists in a whole eco-system. Protection of the baboons, leopards and other creatures sharing space with ever-increasing human urbanisation needs continual addressing and monitoring in the hopes of creating harmony,” he said.

Andrew’s time in Scotland as a teen inspired him to return as an adult and to visit the Hebrides, the islands off the north-west coast. “According to local legend, in the Hebrides it’s easier to change your loch than your fly, and there really does seem to be more water than land on the islands,” he said. This is possibly what inspired his mystical paintings, three with the tree of life, all with a dearth of detail – monasteries, bridges, castles, wisps of clouds and much more. “It proves the freedom of exploring imaginary landscapes or ones that I have conjured up. It also allows me freedom to express myself without it being literal, as well as an escape for the viewer so they don’t have to work out where a place is, as well as them taking a trip through the painting,” said Andrew. He added that children love them. “There’s lots to explore if they get up close, they are constantly finding new things.”

His advice for other artists? “Stick adamantly to the things you like painting and do not become pigeonholed or you will be painting that for the rest of your life,” he said. And inspiration? “On days when I’m stuck I jump in the car with my camera, whatever the weather, and always see something.” Although he rarely uses a photograph as a reference. Are commissions good or bad? “It’s a catch-22 position. It’s nice to get commissions and some artists are content to have work all year round but have no space to do what they want to paint so their creativity and enjoyment is scheduled out.”

On teaching? “It’s nice to have a fixed income but can sap my energy and some students emulate my style as well as taking away from me producing work. And the more you paint the easier it becomes; it’s exponential.” Andrew prefers to work on large scale African landscape paintings and Cape seascapes. Jean Irvine of Red said Andrew’s work breaks all records with his largest landscape to date, Table Splendour at 1m x 3m, recently selling for a record amount.

Written by Karen Watkins - Published in The Constantia Bulletin (17 December 2015)