Today I would like to talk about a relatively unknown artist who in so many ways epitomised the golden standard of the long suffering artist.
With no formal training and very little, if any, recognition, Dirk Cornelissen, spent his whole life honing his skill and plying his craft. From the early hours of the morning while everyone was asleep until he had to leave for work he would patiently lay down the strokes of his life. In Albrecht Durer-like detail he defined the nature he so loved. From mental pictures and memories of walks in the bush, he would replay these fond memories and recapture them in homage to his creator.
He never spoke about his work with hubris. In fact, he had found it very difficult to even see it as art. I remember the day he showed me his first water painting and how disappointed he had been at the results. I had the benefit of a formal art education and showed him how to stretch his Bockingford paper to get the desired results. A week later he had stretched a few sheets on boards all over his room and they stood at the ready.
Some had stretched perfectly and others had not quite achieved the desired results. Over the next few years, I saw him applying himself until he could stretch the paper better than I had ever been able to. It did not stop there. He would read every single book he could find on techniques and always had questions about mixing colour. His pursuit of light and colour reminded me of Renoir and Monet in an endless pursuit of perfection for the sake of the work never for art.
He supported a large family he could not pursue his passion for painting and drawing as is the luxury of many full-time artists. But he never stopped courting the muse and would spend literally thousands of hours patiently drawing and painting landscapes. Where I would impatiently attack a canvas with oils and churn out 3 or 4 large canvasses in a week, he would spend months perfecting his vision on an A3 sheet of water paint paper, mulling over the way the hue of the surrounding flowers would reflect and affect the shade of tree bark in the distance.
We would argue endlessly about art and its merits and why he never included any people or animals in his paintings. Since I focused predominantly on life drawing and portraits, I Found it hard to understand his viewpoint. I was able to show him some basic methods and techniques and he would always gracefully accept any advice offered. He always had kind words for my work although it never reached his state of meticulous, focused precision and while I am sure it must have seemed quite alien to him, he never made any judgmental statements about my pursuits, but would rather focus on the technical aspects of my application and approach.
We did not have a lot in common through most of his life. In fact, we argued about most things more often than not. It would be easy to say that we had a wonderful relationship but that would be a lie. I always found it strained and upon reflection, I have to admit it was mostly due to my brash, impatient personality and wild imagination. He had been very pragmatic and humble. I expected instant gratification and hurriedly pursued perfection while he had lived a life of patient excellence.
The lessons I had learned from him included patience, self-study, and commitment and while I am still very far from perfecting any of these skills his life and his art will remain an eternal inspiration to me.
I have a pen and ink drawing he gave me In 1987 hanging above my desk in my office and I look at it every day and get inspired anew.
I think of a statement by Kevin Mccloud in one of his Grand Design episodes, when he noted that we should not strive for perfection but rather work towards excellence. It is a statement that I find so strongly echoed in the memory of this artist who never rose to the fame he deserved in the service to his art.
Some would say that he lived and died impoverished and the few that attended his funeral may recall the way he behaved or made them feel. Typical of so many great artists he never knew any fame or would not be remembered for his contribution in a coffee-table book. Most of his work hangs on the walls of his children and grandchildren. His legacy continues through their memories and while I cannot speak on behalf of anyone else, I can only attest to the indelible mark he has left on my life and how his art has shaped my view.
You see Dirk Cornelissen was not only a great artist to the few but also an incredible and dedicated man who happened to be my father until his passing two years ago in June.
Author: Daniel Cornelissen