sea stoke, issue three

Still yet to consider himself as an ‘artist’, Conrad Comer made the plunge into the art world after going through a rough period in his life. He had hit rock bottom, triggered by working a job only for the money, that he no longer enjoyed, which in turn started to affect everything around him. Having to take time off due to the stress, his wife asked him what he really wanted to do, and all Conrad could think of was to paint. So leaving behind the corporate world he picked up his brush.

Interview by Gary Parker  //  Typography by Leticia Nguyen  //  Photography courtesy of Conrad Comer
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Can you give us some insight into your formative years? Did you have a creative upbringing?

To answer the second part in short—no. My dad was an ex-professional football player, whose knees packed up before money came into the game. He retrained at night school, getting a degree in Chemistry, becoming a paint and wood stain chemist. Which did mean we had a lot of thinners and paints in the garage. I don’t think I ever saw my mother or father do anything creative. That sounds a little rough, but it really isn’t a criticism. That’s just how it was.

I have two older brothers, and we were extremely competitive in everything. I do remember my brother drawing cartoons, probably before I even started school, and a desperate need to be as good as him. He still paints today, but each piece takes about three years to complete. I suppose drawing was just something I did from as early as I can remember.

Did you ever have any formal training?

No. I did it at school, and ended up taking A levels (UK version of HSC), in Art and Art History, but I was always very surprised that we were never taught any of the technical elements of painting. I went to a pretty bog standard comprehensive school, so resources were limited. I only started painting with oils after I left school.

After my A levels, I was offered a place at Leeds University to study Fine Art, but I turned it down and ended up going to Exeter to study Sport Science. The plan was to become a Physical Education teacher. Which is what happened.

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“Surfing is an addiction for me…like a lot of surfers, if I don’t get wet on a regular basis, I’m difficult to live with.”

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You are originally from England, what prompted your decision to move to Australia?

Why wouldn’t you? Well, my wife and our dog actually lived in New Zealand first. We had been living in Cornwall, where I was lecturing sport psychology. I was surfing as much as possible, but the weather was grinding us down. Ten months of winter is too much for anyone.

I’d spent a year in Melbourne in 2003, and loved it. I was brought up playing a lot of cricket and rugby, so previously my only contact with Australians was through sport. Not necessarily a perfect relationship.

My wife had also lived in Melbourne, so we decided on neutral ground—Sydney. We initially lived in Maroubra for about a year, and then did a year in Burleigh Heads. I was following the work (I’d changed careers, and moved into medical sales, selling heart valves in operating theatres), but we ended up back in Sydney on the Northern Beaches, and we love it.

For me, the surfing is a primary focus, and we have so many options here, in so many conditions. It has to be a pond not to be able to get a wave. Burleigh was beautiful, and the waves can be amazing, but it’s always a battle when it’s good, and my wife was over the whole ‘Gold Coast’ thing. We still miss the UK, and there will always be things we prefer, but on balance Australia has so much to offer, it’s hard not to be sold on the place.

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So the ocean obviously plays an important role in your life and your artwork?

I’ve always thought that there were three elements when it comes to our affiliation with our environment. Like a Venn diagram, we naturally lean towards the urban landscape, the mountains, or the ocean. Some of us gravitate towards two, but rarely are we evenly attracted to all three. I spent a year trekking through South America, and climbing a few mountains. It was great, but it really made me realise that the sea was in my blood. I just don’t enjoy being too far away from it. Surfing is an addiction for me. It could be the negative ions, or the grand space, or the salty air. I don’t know exactly, but like a lot of surfers, if I don’t get wet on a regular basis, I’m difficult to live with.  

Naturally, this obsession spills over into almost all aspects of my life. I’ve struggled to keep it out of my artwork. I’m not particularly good at painting the ocean, or water, or surfers, or any sort of free space really, which makes it difficult if that’s what you’re most interested in.

When did you decide to take your artwork more seriously?

When the shit hit the fan. I’d spent almost five years in medical sales, working for some of the largest global corporations, and I can honestly say, I hated every minute of it. We had started a family, and we needed money. We had two dogs, two children and one income. I had to make money, and the industry pays well. But, it nearly killed me. I was on call for much of it. Going into theatre to assist in orthopaedic cases, and then running ablation systems in open-heart surgery. But it was the mentality that was killing me. The greed and material culture that supports the business made me grow to hate the very business that I was being paid to support and represent. 

Over time it gradually destroyed my confidence and self-esteem, and before I really knew what was happening I was in serious trouble. Call it a burn out, or a breakdown, or whatever you like—in the end I came close to taking my own life over it. Sometimes we just get lost. The pressure to be successful in every part of our lives is unrelenting, and unobtainable. Money becomes more important than anything else, and we just lose all perspective.

In the end, when I was at my very lowest point and had to take time off work because of stress, my wife asked me what did I really want to do? And the only thing I could think of was to paint. So, I quit the industry, and picked up a brush.

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Do you still have a ‘real job’ as some might call it…or are you a full time artist these days?

I’ve been a full time artist for about eight months. And made almost no money at all. Saying that, I juggle the painting with looking after two boys under four, which isn’t that easy; and I am going back to work as a sport psychology lecturer in June. I’ve been out of it for nearly six years, but it feels like the right time. And it’s an area that still really grips my interest. It kind of goes hand in hand with the portraiture, I like to observe others, and when you combine that with neuroscience and psychology, it’s just fascinating stuff.

I will only be lecturing part time though. I’ve made the move to be an artist, and I don’t want to give up on it just yet. It’s a tough gig. To make a living out of it, even a meagre one, is near impossible. So it takes a lot of self-belief and commitment. Especially, when you have people depending on you financially. 

When you’re not painting, what do you do in your down time? 

Life has pretty much been a BK/AK scenario. Life ‘before kids’, was a very different dimension to life ‘after kids’. If I’m not painting or writing, then I’m on kid duty. Surfing is squeezed in when there is room. I don’t surf on the weekends anymore, so I can commit time to my wife and the children. Living in another country, rearing very young children, without any family support, requires a great deal of unity between myself and Abby (my wife). She is an absolute rock. A really amazing girl.

You paint with oils on canvas and wood predominantly. Has this always been your preferred medium?

I guess so. At school we used gouache and acrylic. I never really liked them. Mainly because it took me months to complete a painting, and acrylic is not very forgiving. I started using oils in my early twenties and I’ve never really looked back. I love the flow you get with oils, and now I work so much faster they really give you a lot of freedom. I’ve always sided on the Renaissance and Impressionist painters, so it’s just a natural medium for me to work in. Love it!

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What do you love, and what do you find most challenging about being a practicing artist?

What I love is the freedom to be who I really am. That’s pretty rare these days, and a very difficult thing to obtain. I’m not there yet by a long way. If it doesn’t become financially viable, it can’t last. But doing something you love is like winning the lottery.

Apart from the financial side of things, I guess the main challenge of being an artist is producing the piece that you have in your mind, on the canvas. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and it becomes even more frustrating. Trying out new techniques and styles that turn out really crap is also annoying as hell.

How would you describe your creative process?

I’m not sure I have one.

You have a few different styles throughout your work. As an artist, what do you like about not confining yourself to just one style?

It’s a luxury I have at the stage I’m at. I have friends who are much further down the line. Tied into galleries, reviews—the full artist CV. They would really struggle to change their style. They would risk a lot. If you’re not making any money out of your work, you can do whatever the fxck you like. That’s where I am at the moment. It’s an accelerated learning process for me at the moment. 

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Your seascapes have a beautiful ‘aliveness’ about them, creating a feeling I think every surfer can relate to. What sparked your choice to explore this style of painting the sea?

I’m not a fan of the palm tree, crystalline, stereotypical surfscape. It’s just not that honest. I guess there is nostalgia with these pieces from my early days surfing in the UK. Freezing, wild winds, with huge, bleak, dark, skies. That was surfing for me, for a long time. In a strange way, I still really like going out on those rough winter days. It’s days like those that make you feel alive. Mind you, give me two weeks on a boat in the Mentawai Islands any day.

Portraits show how somebody once looked in the eyes of the artist portraying them. They can show a personality and a life, a character different to that of a photograph. Firstly, how do you choose your subjects and what is your process of capturing what you see in that particular moment in time?

Firstly, I don’t do sittings. My portraits are taken from photos. The better the photo, the better the portrait. I’ve also found that they definitely come out better when I take the shots. That’s not to say that I am even a remotely good photographer, it’s just that I seem to be able to subconsciously know what will work for my canvas. Interesting faces are usually attached to interesting people. Finally, light is the key. I focus more on tonal differences than colour. So, it’s really important to get good light contrast.

Where do you draw your inspiration from, past and present?

I still don’t see myself as an artist, and ‘inspiration’, is a very artistic word. I suppose I’m inspired by other artists, by writers and by people who stand up for their principles. 

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Are you drawn to any particular colours? Has this changed over the years?

Yellow ochre, burnt umber, raw senna. That sort of thing. Earth colours mainly.  I have used some brighter colours in more recent times, but it’s probably against my natural tendencies.

Do you have a ritual you follow to get the brush strokes flowing?

Um, not really. Start fast, play some mellow tunes, and remember to walk away every now and then to get some perspective. Sounds like a good philosophy on life actually.

Has any other people’s work influenced or affected your own practice? Any specific names and reasons why?

I love Caravaggio and Rembrandt, and Gustave Caillebotte’s use of light is exceptional. I’m not really very arty, so I don’t go to many galleries. The best seascape artist alive today is Wolfgang Bloch. If I hadn’t seen his work, I wouldn’t have been able to paint a seascape.

Your latest project, ‘Board Men’, which we are featuring a sneak peak in this issue, is an amazing project. What sparked the idea for this?

Boards! I am a board addict. I love them, much to the disdain of my wife. The surfboard is a functional piece of artwork. Some are more artistic than others. For a large proportion of surfers out there, a surfboard is much more than a watercraft for ripping into waves. Within the surf culture, there are so many individual sub-cultures flowing, each with its own bias towards what is good. What is cool.

For myself, there is a ride-style factor that walks hand in hand with my anti-competitive sentiments. It’s not that I don’t like competition, but it has more to do with the cost of winning, compared to the real value of what is gained by winning. And really, I just don’t see surfing as a sport anyway. It’s always felt like someone was trying to hammer a round peg into a square hole just to make a dollar. I know we all have to survive, but I don’t want that to tarnish my vision of surfing.

I ride boards that are a statement to that alignment. Handcrafted, sanded and glassed by people who care about the individual piece of art they create. The project is simply to paint the portraits of a handful of these people, and write a little about the experience of meeting them.

Have you got any idea of where this project will lead?

Ha. Probably nowhere. I’m doing it because I want to, not because there is a carrot at the end of it all. We’ll see how far I can get. If it takes off, I might turn it into a book. That would be nice.

Do you have one shaper in particular dead or alive who you would do anything to paint their portrait?

I like painting older people, and I really like light on dark skin. Maybe the Duke. Not sure if he shaped, but he would’ve been good. There are so many influential guys still out there. Maybe I could get an art grant to travel through California painting shapers. That would be about as good as it gets.

I read your favorite animal is a pelican? Why is this, and what else can you tell us about yourself that we might be surprised to learn?

Did I say that? It’s my favourite bird. They surf really well. They’re just very cool characters. I think I wrote a blog about them on my website, so you can read it there. Dogs are probably my favourite animal, I have two of them. You can learn a lot about humanity from our relationships with dogs. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Hmmm. I once had a knife fight with a bandit in Peru. That was a surprise. I also played ‘Two Gun Pete’, in Edgar Wright’s first movie. He went on to be a highly successful director. I did not go on to be an actor.

Do you have any ideas about what you’d like to achieve with your work and what direction you’d like it to evolve in moving forward into the near future?

Survival. I suppose I just want to get better and better at it. If people like it, that’s great, if not, well, I’ll have a lot of work laying about the place. The dream is to do this as a career. I want my children to see that it can be done. To see that you don’t have to convince yourself that doing something just for the money is OK. It isn’t. It isn’t OK. Doing something for the money is the first shovel of dirt in burying your integrity. I’ve seen it first hand, and it’s carcinogenic. 

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Head here to check out more of Conrad’s work, and also check out Conrad’s latest series “Board Men” here.