Interview: Artist David Downes' on his latest series the 'Covids'

Arts writer Claire Maggie Dowens interviews David Downes about his experience of the past year living through lockdowns, his creative process, and how the pandemic has impacted his work.

Credit: David Downes

David Downes is a landscape painter with autism who was born in Birmingham in 1971; he completed an MA in communication design at the Royal College of Art, London in 1996 and won his first major contract in 1999; a commission by the BBC to record the Corporation’s most important architecture at the turn of the century. 

Since then, he has gone on to achieve huge success and has had numerous other prestigious commissions including a giant mural painting to help launch the ITV period drama Sanditon in 2019. 

Painting has helped David to cope with the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic and towards the start of the first lockdown, he seized the opportunity to document an unprecedented moment in history. In his imagined representations of the virus, referred to as the “Covids”, David blends reality with surreality and makes the unfamiliar, familiar. In our interview, we discuss life as an artist with autism, highlights of his career and his latest COVID themed artwork. 

Credit: David Downes

Would you be able to tell me about your own creative process when approaching a new piece of work? 

I guess my best work is when I can visualise. I’ll have an idea, image and colours in my mind; a kind of vision almost, which is often inspired by music like Depeche Mode or Gorilaz. I’ll then basically paint or draw the vision but interestingly, it never really looks like what I have initially imagined. For my digiscopes and landscape pieces, I often use photography. 

Tell me about the ‘Covids’ – what inspired you to represent the virus in this particular way?

Well, it’s a pretty scary time at the moment! I think my personal circumstances of being furloughed and having to work from home as well as intermittent lockdowns and the awful death tolls have had a big impact on how I’ve presented the virus in my work. Over the course of the past year, everything has been so different, and we’ve all experienced such dramatic change in our lives and I really wanted to represent this in the “Covids”. 

Credit: David Downes

You were diagnosed with autism quite late in life – Can you tell me a little about your journey as an autistic artist? 

Yes, I was diagnosed aged 32 and that’s predominantly because I was struggling in other parts of my life as well as just feeling different from everyone else, but this is who I am, I’m David Downes – an artist with high functioning autism. I’ve found that autism actually opens many more doors than closes them and I’ve achieved success through being involved with diversity events and exhibitions. I’m also one of the presidents of the National Autistic Society. 

What has been your most favourite piece of artwork that you have produced so far in your career and why? 

I have several important pieces and I see my work in eras, kind of like nostalgic phrases…

  • 1994-1996 Disordered Development – a visual autobiography of my struggle growing up. 
  • 1997-1998 – London pubs and pictures of iconic London locals. 
  • 1999-2001 – BBC Gallery, a selection of commissioned paintings, sketching’s, and drawings of the BBC’s most iconic buildings. 
  • 2001-2014 – Drawings of London. 
  • 2012 – The Savoy Hotel - a large piece depicting the historic Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. 
  • 2016 – 2018 – Life in the U.S. Living in Newport Beach California.
  • 2018- Present – Essex and Suffolk work. 
  • 2020-2021 – Pandemic work.  
Credit: David Downes

Your social media followers have described you as a “War artist depicting the aggressor, but with a message of optimism” – is this how you intend your Covid themed artwork to be interpreted?

Yes exactly – I wanted to depict my Covid artwork as a life changing event which in one way or another has touched everyone’s lives. 

Follow David on Instagram 

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