On David Olivant's Formal Development
by Melissa Barrett and Logan Bengston


For the past forty years David Olivant has been experimenting with abstract and representational artwork. Olivant began drawing by the age of four while growing up in Watford, a small town in Hertfordshire near London, England. After his parent’s separation in 1970, at the age of twelve, Olivant took on the responsibility of taking care of his mother and younger brother. Despite these adversities at a young age, Olivant reflects on this part of his life as an opportunity to become independent and positive. Although, during this period of his life, he had a dream of becoming a game warden, he began to stray in a completely different direction, into the world of art. This was partially inspired by his explorations into the literature of Albert Camus and the idealist work of George Berkeley.

Shortly after his graduation from grammar school in Watford, Olivant took a one-year course at Hertfordshire College of Art and Design at St. Albans. It was at this time that Olivant was exposed to life drawing and the complex works of Euan Uglow and William Coldstream, who were both considered at the time to be two of the most influential artists within the British art educational system. Yearning to change his geographic location and further his education in art, Olivant applied to multiple art colleges. He decided that Falmouth University of Art would best suit his artistic aspirations. 

While attending Falmouth, Olivant’s rigorous motivation helped him to begin exploring media other than drawing. He experimented with oil paint and learned to create landscape paintings based on direct observation. During his first year at Falmouth, Olivant was heavily influence by his studies of German Expressionists, such as Ernst Kirchner, Edvard Munch, and Emile Nolde. Soon thereafter Olivant began working on “systems” painting. This style emerged with a conceptual art movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s and stemmed from “systems theory”. Systems art and painting reflect the concepts of “systems theory” by using constructs such as geometry, mathematics, natural and social systems in creating artworks and paintings. Although “systems” painting broadened his artistic skills, he wanted to push himself even further and began to experiment with other ways of creating art. Olivant realized that he was inherently attracted to the organic and flowing configurations of his abstract under-paintings and that he favored them more than his works from direct observation. Thus, he abandoned his paintbrush and began using drawing mediums such as charcoal, pastel and crayon. This shift in media also resulted in a shift of style. Olivant began to gravitate toward compositions that pleased his subjective poetic nature rather than attempting to simply mimic images from real life. 

Olivant would start drawings and paintings using the same methods. According to Olivant, he would first create a background of patterns made from textures on a piece of paper. After completing the background layer, the outlines of subjects such as human figures, animals, and plants, would seem to manifest on the page. In an interview with Olivant, he said, “These things just appear out of the filled knots that I make.” His next step would be to observe his work and further refine the figures that first appeared to him. This process consisted of adding detail to the figures, such as outline and shading, to make them recognizable to the viewer. In turn, the compositions Olivant would create were almost completely decided by chance. He uses the same basic method when creating art today.

In his last years at Falmouth, Olivant researched and explored the poetry of Peter Redgrove, who was heavily influenced by depth-psychology. Olivant also explored the ideas and writings of Freud and Jung, Anton Ehrenzwiegs theories on the “hidden order of art” and the psychoanalytic theory as therapy.  Studying these theories, ideas and concepts helped Olivant identify his greatest area of interest—the unconscious or subconscious mind. After writing his dissertation in 1979 on Nietzche’s ideas, such as the “chaotic source of creative energy” and “the artist’s imperative to evolve a moral code independent of any preexisting system,” Olivant graduated in 1980 from Falmouth.

Olivant, now having a firm area of interest, pursued graduate work at the Royal College of Art in London. This was where Olivant really started to construct his life-long elaborate body of work, which was fueled by his overwhelming interest in the unconsciousness of being. It was at the Royal College that Olivant focused on the Romantic Tradition and the work of many Northern European painters such as Bosch, Cranach, Brüegel, Grunëwald, Beckmann and Guston. Studying the work of master painters and well-known philosophers influenced his style and artwork for years to come. 

Shortly after Olivant graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, he moved to Delhi, India where he continued his evolutionary process as an artist. Olivant had a public exhibition of the work created during the beginning of his stay in India that received many positive reviews from local art critics and newspapers. He remarks on his choice to go to India as one of the “most significant choices of my life” and he felt as though he “belonged in India.” The experiences he had while in India and the immense amount of culture he had found himself immersed in, was the complete opposite of the environment of his childhood and it was this opposition that allowed Olivant to flourish in this newfound diversity of culture.
After his sojourn in India, Olivant relocated to the United States where he began working as an art professor at CSU Stanislaus in Turlock, California. Prompted by a project for an Art Department fundraiser, he dabbled with unconventional sculptural mediums such as bits of wire, clothing pins, and paper maché. Finding a liking for sculptural forms, he experimented with stone and clay, and found that clay was the medium best suited to his style and work ethic. For some time afterword, he created many sculptures and worked solely with clay. After his sculptural phase, Olivant reverted back to making exclusively, two-dimensional pastel works for some time. Today the artist uses a combination of both two and three-dimensional elements in his work. Olivant achieves unique effects by adding various materials such as driftwood, metal and other found objects that are decorated with pastel, acrylic and spray paint. These materials are strategically placed over his pastel backgrounds and work to create compelling compositions.

In every sense, Olivant’s current process is a mixture of old and new. He will usually begin by placing an already completed pastel background onto a plywood support. Then using his original basic technique, he goes back to see what elements of the background stand out to him so that he may further develop certain components. First, Olivant adds detail to the two-dimensional aspects of his piece by drawing figures, landscapes and animals onto his pastel background. Next, he goes back and attaches clay pieces to certain sections so as to make them three-dimensional.

Originally, Olivant used epoxy resin to attach clay pieces onto a plywood support. He found this method to be problematic, because he would often change his mind about the placing of certain objects. The process he uses now is to create holes in the clay segments with wooden dowels and holes through the original background image, which is supported by plywood, so that the clay pieces may be held onto the backing with dowel supports. With this technique, later changes about the composition of an artwork are an easy alteration, instead of a permanent configuration. All of the techniques Olivant used during his career as an artist reflect his lifelong journey through education and artistic exploration.

The accretion of his experiences, education, and experimentation of thought have made him the artist he is today. Throughout his life, Olivant has created an enormous body of work that reflects an immense amount of concentration and discipline in pioneering a truly unique approach to creating art.

Melissa Barrett  and Logan Bengston are students at Humboldt State University where they served as interns at HSU First Street Gallery, preparing this essay during the autumn of 2010.