“This interview is not just a discourse between Jason Mykl Snyman and Donovan Smith, but it is also a surreal journey of the Magi (the interviewer, the interviewee and art, the core of the interview) into the intricacies of art and the artist, who paints fantasy scenes, myths and legends through three stages:
the abstract, the extract and the exact. This is a journey every artist and creative mind must experience to comprehend and appreciate more the depth of art.”
– Samuel Oluwatobi Olatunji
(Asso. Managing Editor of EXPOUND magazine)
~ Dragon Slayer, Soldier, Champion of Fair Maidens
I used to paint a lot when I was younger, always in three colours and three colours alone – black, red and white. At some point in my life, however, the feel of a brush in my hand had become almost alien.
For some reason unknown to me, the brush had become my kryptonite, and the act of painting took more from me than it ever gave.
That’s when I found the pen.
I figure writing is just a means of painting with words. Allow me then, to paint a picture for you, in a method that won’t destroy me.
It’s early morning, and outside, the sky is dark. There’s a man standing in the room wearing a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt, and he’s bent over a wooden easel holding up a near-complete painting. The air conditioner is off, the room is hot. He’s got a tattoo of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man emblazoned into his upper arm.
“There’s nothing like the smell of linseed oil at 2am,” he says.
During the day, the view through his window is that of the neighbor’s grey wall, so he tends to stare up at the sky a lot, hoping for an appearance or some sort of sign. He talks about an ‘epileptic eclipse’ – and I don’t know what that is, but it sounds genuinely fuckin’ terrifying. For a few seconds, I find myself wondering how a flickering moon may induce fits of wild seizures in the epileptic. I wonder, longer still, about how pissed off all the werewolves out there might be.
Paintings and sketches and works-in-progress litter the small studio in the back of his Empangeni home. On the workbench to his left are three empty Black Label beer bottles. You can still smell the foam. Stuck up on the pale-orange walls behind him are varied sketches of the human anatomy, the fundamentals, how our bones are connected, how our muscles move and stretch and coil. I’m reminded of a story I once heard about Michelangelo – how in his youth he would exhume dead bodies to examine how all the parts fit together. How to capture the energy of the human body and place it into the lifeless, like painting with lightning.
Creating art that lives.
The man’s name is Donovan Smith, full time husband, full time father of two young boys, full time human. After hour artist.
After a long day at work, he adjourns to this little room to sit down and sketch, to calm his mind, seeking asylum. Then he hears the voices. His wife and sons calling him back to reality.
“First,” says Smith, 41. He becomes animated when talking about his work. With a glint in his eye, he speaks about the process he uses to create his fanciful images.
“First, there is the abstract, your rough sketch. Then comes the extract, the more refined drawing. Then the exact, that’s when you complete your painting. If you are patient and you listen, the painting will eventually speak to you, demanding a little shadow here and colour over there. This is the energy from your original sketch translating itself into visual form.”
Donovan works long hours during the day, in the newspaper industry, and only gets around to his raison d’être, painting, in the early hours of the morning. “There’s nothing like the smell of linseed oil at 2am,” he’s said, and I wonder what else drives him…
“What is your midnight oil made of?” I ask.
“It’s making those strokes or lines,” he says, “which make the fantastical seem real – even if it’s only for a moment. To look at something you have created, to take what’s in the eye of the mind and make visible in colour, and to be in that place where you can engage the most beautiful women or take out an entire army of savages.”
Fantastical. Beautiful Women. Army of Savages.
Donovan paints fantasy scenes, myths and legends.
“A lot of painters portray the human condition in their work,” he remarks. “It’s not necessarily a message I wish to convey in mine. I am living in that same condition, if anything, I want to escape it.”
I ask him, as a younger man, what attracted him so to the fantastic? And are the figures in his work a metaphor for something else? What is his relationship with the characters he creates?
“My earliest influences were definitely the posters from the band Iron Maiden. I had over thirty at one stage and could stare at them for hours. That was in my teens, before that I was always in the open – by water streams and trees. I often wondered where the water started and where it would end. That was a dreamy time for me, always wondering and investigating. Growing up, I discovered legends and myths. I suppose, at some point, these floated on down those childhood water-streams toward me.’
‘I feel close to my subjects, having spent so much time studying anatomy, it’s as if I can feel every joint and fibre inside of them. On the one hand I feel like I am their God, because, well, I created them, but then on occasion it feels like they looking at me… Demanding I come hither and explore with them.”
“You’re a self-taught artist,” I say. “you’ve been your own mentor for over twenty years. Is there a specific area of your craft you’d like to improve upon? And how do you think being self-taught has helped you develop your own style, where do you draw your inspiration from?”
“I read somewhere that a good soldier is a good rifleman first. So I figured, if that be the case, a good painter should be a good draughtsman first. At least with sketching, this is the basis of all art. Luckily, I have never been to art school. They may have bent my hand to a different style, I have heard such complaints from other artists, but I think it depends on the teacher.’
‘Most definitely, I owe my deepest inspiration to the female figure, whose form and grace is but always a challenge to draw and paint. As good as I sometimes feel that I am, I suffer bouts of frustration working with colour at times, so that is an area that I am constantly trying to improve.’
‘I would love to paint more classical figures, too, but the images always present themselves in their own unique way, and end up in a fantasy realm. I end up walking this journey with the figures I paint. Sometimes I even talk to them.”
“What if they ever spoke back?”
“If they ever spoke back? I would have to poke myself with a sharpened pallet knife to make sure it’s real.”
“As a predominantly fantasy artist, surely you’re a fantasy reader. Read any good fantasy lately? What’s on your nightstand right now?”
“Surprisingly, I haven’t read much fantasy. This may be because I am
a very visual person. I will, however, read tons of 2000AD comic books – but you don’t seem to get those in my corner of the country anymore. Slain was my favorite.”
I asked Donovan to do a couple of rough sketches for me. It took him ten minutes to do all of them.
I asked him to draw a house, a tree and self-portrait. This is basically a variation on the House-Tree-Person personality test designed by John Buck, based on the Goodenough scale of intellectual functioning. It’s designed to measure aspects of a person’s personality, and can also be used to assess brain damage and general mental functioning, but that’s not what we’ll be doing with it.
The assumption is that when the subject is drawing they are projecting their inner world onto the page, and we can then investigate the subject’s inner world through the drawings. We already know, all creative people are fucking crazy. We’re going to try to have some fun with it.
For the rest of the interview, and my attempted analysis of Donovan’s drawings, follow this link: