Artist Snapshot: Janet A. Cook

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions.

by Stephanie Cassidy | December 3, 2019

interview janet cook artist[1]
Janet A. Cook in her studio. Photo: Gabriela Handal

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
Age 11. Two things happened: the family living next door, whose five kids had been my playmates, moved to another part of town, and I was left to my own devices for entertainment. Drawing was something I found I had the patience for, so I began to draw the world around me. My father who had always drawn little cartoons, fostered my interest, he bought my first set of pastels and took me to the National Portrait Gallery[2] and The National Gallery[3] in London. There, I saw a different type of cartoon, this one by Leonardo da Vinci known as the Burlington Cartoon[4], which really resonated.

Around the same time, a classmate brought a drawing to class, which made a good impression on the teacher. I decided to try that too, it somewhat backfired when my teacher opined ‘I had not drawn and painted it ‘. I took that as a sign of encouragement. Later on in middle school I had a wonderful teacher called Mr. Tomkin who was very supportive and encouraging. I recently found one of my school reports where he had written that he hoped that I would find a vocation that would employ my skills.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
Oh, they were delighted, laughed and told me to get a real job! So I started work in an advertising agency where my job title was “gofer,” i.e. go for this, go for that, pick up and drop off artwork all over the city of London. Slowly, they introduced me to the techniques of lettering, illustration and storyboard design. After a few months I felt I needed more education and secured a place at a college to study graphic design. My parents refused to support me financially, they may not have known about applying for scholarships or financial aid, but they were firm in the opinion; it was a waste of time for a girl to get an education. So I changed direction completely and went to work in IT. They had no real idea what computers were, but it paid reasonably well and gave me a skill, so they were happy. I decided that sometime in the future I would go to college and study an arts based subject. Four years later I was studying art history at university, and a few years after that, I was taking my first art classes. 

Who are your favorite artists?
Rubens for his imaginative, dynamic compositions and color. Thomas Moran and J.M.W. Turner for their dramatic atmospheric conditions and use of color. Joaquín Sorolla[5] for his colorful paint handling, particularly on his figures. Sharon Sprung[6] for her ability to paint flesh, and Mary Beth McKenzie[7] for her honest self-portraits. Dorothea Tanning[8] and Californian Douglas Schneider[9], both for their imaginative compositions that blend abstraction and realism. Peter Cox for dynamic figures, complex compositions, and colorful paint choices. Steven Assael[10] for his skill in drawing and dynamic method of painting. Adam Miller for his imagination and his ability to make contorted figures seem so natural… And, of course, Sargent and Michelangelo for their paintings and drawings.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
I really like graffiti, not the tags or the stenciled Banksy-type, more the Wildstyle[11] with its interlocking arrows, spikes, text, and decorative shapes with hard outlines; it’s difficult to read, but attractive to look at. I can’t pinpoint any one person in particular because of the anonymous nature of it.

Art book you cannot live without? 
Richard Schmidt’s Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting[12] and George B. Bridgman’s Book of a Hundred Hands[13]. Hands are always a challenge, and the book contains a lot of good examples. Schmidt’s book shares his techniques and wisdom from the fundamentals such as learning to squint, to the intricacies of learning how to guide the viewer through the painting using color, value, and edges. It’s a great book for whatever level you are at.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
A willingness to take risks with your work and to be steadfast in venturing outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to try something new, keep learning and be productive. If you feel uncomfortable, that’s a good sign that you are stretching yourself.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, consistently for about five years. Prior to that I would only sketch before I painted to familiarize my self with the subject and composition. My sketchbook habit began when I was recovering from surgery; I found it was more portable and comfortable to work small. Creating and finishing a small drawing in a short amount of time leads to a feeling of satisfaction, something illness can rob you of. 

I prefer to work in pen and ink, and I’ve developed a method working from light to dark so it’s easier to correct mistakes along the way. I sketch everywhere: on the street, subway, in museums, cafés, as well as from memory, imagination, and ideas for paintings. I don’t always sketch to create a finished drawing, so my book is messy and includes the good, bad, and the downright ugly. I see sketching as an opportunity to observe and to keep my hand-eye coordination in sync. Some good things have come from it too: I now teach workshops in pen and ink.

What’s your favorite museum in the entire world?
National Portrait Gallery[2], London, UK. I always enjoy looking at the collection, which dates from Tudor times and includes work by living artists.

What’s your go-to NYC museum?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art[14]

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Rubens and His Legacy[15] in 2015 at the Royal Academy, London, featuring a huge Rubens painting called The Tiger Hunt[16], a dynamic swirling scene of animals and humans entangled. Dating from the seventeenth century, it has inspired many an artist since its creation, including me; I included part of it in a painting.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
Probably something in IT, I worked in IT for ten-plus years and then created websites for another ten. I liked the latter because it was a merger of art and IT. I eventually decided to give it up and make a go at being a full-time artist.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
Be prepared to spend time on the marketing and business side, i.e. keeping good financial records, keeping an inventory, finding places to show work, mailing out invitations, entering competitions, keeping your mailing list up to date, updating your website, photographing your artwork, making frames, finding models, posting on social media and finding affordable climate controlled storage, before your significant other dumps you because of all the art paraphernalia around the apartment.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
There are two: Turner’s Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbor’s Mouth[17] because of the atmospheric effects. I love the push and pull of abstraction and realism coming together. A second is a postcard of a cropped eye and nose of a Rembrandt portrait, Titus, the Artist’s Son [18](c. 1657). Love the thick paint and subtle greys cooling the flesh, turning the form and adding contrast. Another reason I look at them so frequently is that one is on my Wacom tablet on my computer. The other is on the fridge and is micro-magnet size.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Evening sunlight enriching “local colors” with its golden light and casting long cool shadows.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Occasionally, I currently have the 1990s Buddha Bar album in the CD player. It’s uplifting, but mostly I listen to the radio: WNYC, in particular for news, and podcasts from BBC Radio 4 comedies, as well as the History of England and Rome, the Savvy painter, the Times “Daily” and Pandora’s Comedy channel. So a mix of fact and comedy.

What is the last gallery you visited?
Dacia Gallery[19], NYC, for Daniel Maidman[20]’s opening night. He has found a sweet spot using a limited value palette method of painting, which makes the work glow. The gallery represents a lot of figurative artists. It’s also my main gallery, so I try, when possible, to attend openings and to be supportive of my fellow artists.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
In short, all women in the arts from emerging, mid-career to established: Why? Because on average, only 30% of artists represented by commercial galleries in the U.S. are women. A recent data survey by the Public Library of Science of the permanent collections of 18 prominent art museums in the U.S. found that out of over 10,000 artists represented, only 13% were female. While these numbers are increasing slowly, women still have a long way to go. So for now, all women. (Source: “Get the Facts[21].”)

What are the art materials you can’t live without?
Vasari paint[22]: it’s luscious and highly-pigmented. Big round bristles, synthetic brushes, brights or flats in all sizes, particularly those made by Rosemary and Co.[23], and little round synthetics from Winsor & Newton. I also like to use Micron Pens in yellow, orange, and brown for my pen and ink drawings.

Do you paint every day?
I try to draw every day. It does not have to be great; I just do it. I carry a tiny Moleskin sketchbook and Micron pens with me, and I sketch on the subway. Should I see a scene that has a special appeal, I will draw it. However, daily life often interrupts, which is why a fixed schedule is important. I prefer to paint during daylight hours, and I like to work from life, but that’s not always possible due to costs and model availability. I have a show coming up in next year, so that’s making me focus. It also means becoming very anti-social, but it’s the only way to do it. Painting takes time, and you need large blocks of it.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
Probably when I worked in IT, maybe ten years. I would occasionally draw a card or poster to celebrate an event at work, but the time constraints of a full-time job and a 2 1/2 hour daily commute squelched any desire to create art. Having said that, I did paint the living room and bedroom using a rag rolling technique. Does that count?

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Draw something from life: a figure, sculpture, or an object. I may also work from a photo or visit galleries, museums, or just look through an art book or photos.

What are the questions that drive your work?
Have I captured an atmosphere or conveyed an idea? Are the values correct? Is it drawn well? Are the edges soft? Are they too soft? Is the composition working?

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Perseverance. A lot of events will happen throughout your life, some will boost your confidence, like winning a prize, and others will set you back. Either way, celebrate or mourn for a day, then get back to work. Always have a bunch of things going on, that way, if you get rejected from one, you will have the next one to look forward to.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Entry in to the UK’s BP Portrait Exhibition[24], but I shall keep trying.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
You get to see a wide variety of artists’ work, their working methods, and gain instant feedback about your own work, i.e. likes or the sound of crickets. It’s also great for keeping in contact with groups and for getting the word out about shows — both your own and others. Another positive aspect is that it can provide motivation to post artwork on a regular basis. I recently participated in Inktober on Instagram, a daily challenge to post ink-based artwork for the whole of October.

On the negative side, it’s designed to capture your attention and ultimately sell you stuff. This distracts from your creation time, so I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it.

Janet A. Cook[25] is teaching “Painting from Life, Portraiture[26]” at the Art Students League of New York.

  1. [Image]:
  2. National Portrait Gallery:
  3. The National Gallery:
  4. Burlington Cartoon:
  5. Joaquín Sorolla:
  6. Sharon Sprung:
  7. Mary Beth McKenzie:
  8. Dorothea Tanning:
  9. Douglas Schneider:
  10. Steven Assael:
  11. Wildstyle:
  12. Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting:
  13. Book of a Hundred Hands:
  14. The Metropolitan Museum of Art:
  15. Rubens and His Legacy:
  16. The Tiger Hunt:
  17. Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbor’s Mouth:
  18. Titus, the Artist’s Son :
  19. Dacia Gallery:
  20. Daniel Maidman:
  21. Get the Facts:
  22. Vasari paint:
  23. Rosemary and Co.:
  24. BP Portrait Exhibition:
  25. Janet A. Cook:
  26. Painting from Life, Portraiture: