Artist Will Cotton

In 1985, Will Cotton was an art student at Cooper Union who saw himself more in the tradition of Church than Basquiat. When the dean suggested that he apply for La Napoule Art Foundation’s first artist-in-residency program, Cotton needed no persuading.

Thirty years later, Cotton remembers the summer of 1985 at the Château de La Napoule as transformative—a period of time that forever changed how he would create his now seminal depictions of confectionary landscapes and sugary portraits.

During a recent telephone conservation, Cotton spoke about his creative process, working with pop singer Katy Perry, and why he’d love to return to La Napoule.

How would you compare the work you were doing as a twenty-year-old art student to the work you’re doing now?
La Napoule was my first experience with plein air painting and landscape painting, which has vastly influenced my work—I guess you could say in a negative way in that the difficulties of working outdoors were made apparent to me during my stay…wind, changing weather conditions, changing light conditions, exposure to the elements [laughs.] All these things pushed me when I returned to the studio. I still wanted to paint something that was landscape related. I began building maquettes in the studio so that I could have a constant light source. No changing weather conditions, etc.

Having that experience [at La Napoule] definitely pushed me toward the working method that I’m still using today. It made me realize that I wanted more control over my subject matter—as opposed to just walking through nature, finding a nice vista, putting down my easel, and painting it. I realized I could have more control over the symbolism if I actually built the scenery myself.

The Telegraph called you “a painter of fantasy landscapes.” Do you see yourself as such?
Yeah. I think so…certainly. My interest is in making them all look as real as possible. And of course La Napoule comes in because that was where all the instructors were chosen for their relationship to realism. I’ve taken that as far as I can because as soon as you hit fantasy there’s the possibility that you’re looking at something that doesn’t look real. There’s something that looks very clearly fake, like a children’s book illustration.

So my getting into building these maquettes and working directly with them—as opposed to say working from my imagination—the goal there was to have a situation that was itself as close as possible to the situation of finding a painting. It just happens to be indoors. In other words, I’ve got a real tangible object in front of me with all its quirks and strangeness. If you said, “Hey, Will, paint a picture of a tree,” what I would come up with would be something entirely different and, in my opinion, less interesting than if I went to the grounds of La Napoule and picked out one of those big parasols and was surprised by what I saw.

I like to be surprised by what I see. I always am.

What do you hope people experience when they look at your paintings, sculptures, and drawings?
I think about audience a little bit, for sure. I mostly think about myself as audience, because I’m the only one I’m certain of. And what I want to do is believe this is a real place. And if there happens to be a figure in the picture, I want to feel like I could be that figure. That that person could be a stand in for me. This is across gender. I paint a lot more women than I do men. When there’s figure in these landscapes, it’s meant to say, “This is not a miniature. This is a real place you could go to.”

I wanted to, if anything, start viewers on a path of asking themselves questions about paradise and about utopia and about what it would really be like.

I guess what I’m after is something that’s captivating enough and believable enough that viewers have an experience like they might watching a movie or reading a book, something that’s narrative to the point that they feel involved personally.

If you can separate yourself from one of your pictures, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” for example, do you see the vision as a utopia or do you see it as something darker?

That [painting] really goes to the tradition of Boucher, who painted a lot of allegorical pictures of sunrise and sunset….They’ll often involve figures from mythology, Venus-like figures. And, in many cases, there’s these sea nymphs riding on dolphins that don’t really look like what we know to be dolphins now.

It all seems to me kind of primordial, like [Boucher is] looking at the beginning of something. And I’m transposing that into a world where everything is made of ice cream and this is a sea nymph that’s riding on a ice cream fish that’s been born out of the material within which it’s actually swimming. I think she looks maybe slightly concerned or curious, but I don’t think she looks scared. That’s wasn’t my intent.

She’s there largely so we know we can be there, too.

You painted the cover for Katy Perry’s 2010 album Teenage Dream, which brought your art to the attention of the public at large. How did that exposure affect your work? Has it?
That’s a very funny thing—only because I think, to a large extent, that I don’t know.

I’m in my studio alone. I produce six or eight paintings a year. I’m not even watching the sales happen, so I don’t know if at the gallery there’s a conversation about “Oh, this is the guy who painted Katy Perry.”

There are a few concrete things I can point to. One is that the National Portrait Gallery in Washington recently acquired a painting I made of Katy. So I can certainly say that came out of our project.

In terms of the notoriety, it’s funny and it’s interesting….Say, I’m on an airplane and someone asks me, “What do you do?” If they have children of a certain age [laughs], I know that I can say, “I’m the guy who painted the cover of Teenage Dream.” And they’ll know my work….I’ve been to Katy’s concerts and [the audience] is overwhelmingly preteen girls, so of course their parents end up knowing all about her.

It was a fun way to play with pop culture. And to be able to be a part of it, instead of just making references to it. As you know with Pop Art, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein made references to pop culture. But I think with this Katy project I was able to have more of a conversation. I’ve even made a few paintings based on the video for Teenage Dream that I worked on. I took that as a jumping off point and then changed certain things, so there is this actual back and forth, this dialogue.

Between film medium and painting?
Yes, between mediums and between source and final product.

Was the music video for “California Gurls” your first time directing?
Technically, I wasn’t the director. A guy named Matt Cullen was. He’s wonderful. He’s part of a company called Motion Theory in Los Angeles.

After I had already been working with Katy on the album cover, making paintings with her, [Cullen] called me up. He said, “You know, Will, I’m directing the [“California Gurls”] video and I’ve got my office covered with pictures of all of your paintings. We’re basically trying to make this look like Katy is walking around the world you’ve created over the last ten years.”

He asked me if I would be willing to come out and essentially advise them on making [the video] authentic in terms of my work. So I was called “Artistic Director.”

Thank goodness, because directing looked so hard. I couldn’t believe what Matt had to do. But my job was really terrific. I wound up building some props and sets and directing other people on how to do so. In the end, we shot the whole thing against green screen and I dropped in a lot of my photos, source materials, from old paintings to make backdrops.

How fantastic that the director looked at your paintings and saw a continuous world.
And to be good enough to call me and to hire me. Because, honestly, artists are referenced constantly in advertising and videos and not asked to work on [them]. And in this case, they did…and I really appreciate that.

Going back to when you were an art student studying painting in the South of France, has your career turned out as you hope it would thirty years ago? What would most surprise your twenty-year-old self about your current life?
That’s such an interesting question.

And difficult, I know.
In some ways, not. It sometimes surprises me how much I have exactly the life I hoped I would have—which was a real long shot in a way.

When I got to New York in 1983, Mary Boone Gallery was like the hottest thing there was. David Salle, Eric Fischl, Ross Bleckner, Julian Schnabel, and all the biggest artists were showing there and it just seemed like the happening place. So I kind of set my sights on that gallery—even though there was nothing pointing to that ever actually happening.

By 1999, serendipitously, Mary came to my studio because one of the people she had started representing had liked my work. And she liked my work and so I’m working with Mary Boone.

You know the classic dream of the artist in New York is to have a big loft space—which I have…it’s almost cliché—and, most importantly, to be able to wake up every day and go to your easel to make your work. To not have to have another job at this stage. I went through periods earlier on where I did have to have another job—but if my twenty-year-old self could see me now, it would definitely put a smile on my face.

Can you think of anything else you’d like to add?
Um, I want to go back to La Napoule.

I’ve found that I really like doing residencies, and La Napoule was my first. I’ve probably done a half dozen since then, or maybe a few more.

What do you find beneficial about residencies?
When I’m in residency, I get to be a bit of a madman and wake up really early and go to work late into the evening. I get a real pleasure out of doing that for a short period of time. It’s kind of an unsustainable life. In a way, it’s a monk-like existence that allows me to totally self-indulge in my artwork without the interruptions of daily life.

I think being thrown out of one’s usual surroundings is stimulating to the creative mind.

Will Cotton is represented by the Mary Boone Gallery in New York. “Will Cotton: Vistas of Candyland” is on display at the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning through March 18, 2015.

This interview originally appeared on the LNAF website.