Art Conversations In the Studio

Closer to that Feeling: Dan Climan's Deep, Flat Paintings

By Adam Wray

Sep 7, 2023

Closer to that Feeling: Dan Climan's Deep, Flat Paintings

Photographs by Liam Goslett 

Artist Dan Climan is a bit of a romantic. The 35-year-old painter’s work is in love with the mundane: a white pick-up truck speeding towards the horizon; a dalmatian trotting down a driveway, its shadow lengthened by late-afternoon sun; two figures, hands on hips, wading into thigh-deep water. He speaks of wanting to capture the little bits of wonder sparked by scenes glimpsed fleetingly, to recast them as something sacred and worth preserving.  

Climan was born and raised in Montréal, where he’s returned to build his practice. His style is technically unconventional, inspired by the youthful ephemera of trading cards and skate decks. While he does have a formal fine arts background, the way he puts paint to canvas owes as much to commercial artforms like sign painting, graphic design, and tattooing, all of which have paid Climan’s bills in the past. He relies on masking—blocking off sections of his canvas before applying paint—to achieve a sharp style adjacent to a billboard’s monumental flatness. When I look at Climan’s paintings, I see a Pacific coast sunset, the way its colors seem to sit stacked in hazy layers rather than fully blending. 

Still, despite his domestic-pastoral subject matter, there is tension in Climan’s work that demands closer inspection. Spend time with his work and you begin to sense you’re witnessing a decisive moment, or the moment right before the decisive moment, like the entire world of the painting is teetering on the brink. In this way, his work reminds me of Canadian great Alexander Colville if he’d been raised on comic books and broadcast hockey. 

I caught up with Climan at his studio to learn more about how his practice developed and how he hopes it will evolve. 

Tell me a bit about your early memories of art and visual culture. What were you attracted to as a kid?

From a really young age, I had a hard time with school. The only thing I excelled at was drawing. We had this back room in our house that was maybe 12-feet-by-12-feet where my brother, myself, and my cousin would all draw all the time. Hockey players, scuba divers, all the things that we were into. My mom would save all of the drawings and post them on the wall, like a giant collage—this entire room was just plastered, wallpapered with drawings. I think sitting there and looking at the work every day, it was like someone had taken something that you made and told you that it was good and given you this validation. That kind of fed into this creative cycle. 

I believe you studied at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver. What was that experience like?

It was amazing to leave Montreal.

You would've been 18?

I was 18, yeah. Went from snowy Quebec to the west coast. I lived two blocks from the ocean, went to school on this beautiful campus in the middle of Vancouver, underneath this bridge on this little island. I met all of these young people who were into skateboarding, fine arts, industrial design, photography—like-minded people. I ended up living in the same building as this DJ who threw parties, and after seeing some of my drawings he offered me a job doing a couple flyers. Before you knew it, I just did flyers for a living. There was this feeling that l could use these skills to be creative and make money to support myself. Even if someone tells me what they want me to draw and what I have to put on the flyer, I still do it my way, and that's it. 

How long did you end up spending in Vancouver?

I was there from 19 to 27, so eight years. I finished university and stuck around. I did some sign painting but never did an apprenticeship—I like to figure things out my own way. I kind of came up with my own formula of projecting letters, then tracing them onto tape, and then cutting them out. You get a bit of professionalism, but there's also all these little imperfections that give you a sense of the person behind it whose hand is a little off. In my last year of university I did all of this work about reappropriating hand-painted signage. 

Could you tell me more about that?

I was trying to bring these old characters back to life. There was an old chicken spot in Vancouver called Juicy Chicken that had an amazing mascot, this place Mr. Mattress that had an amazing mascot—I had this connection with these characters and I felt that they should be celebrated, so I made these five-by-five cutouts of them, then painted them and displayed them in a gallery. It just took them out of their normal element and put them on this hierarchy of something that should really be looked at and appreciated. I think that same thinking has crept into my current body of work, which is much more cars, dogs, and landscapes. Things that are digested in everyday life. 

Your work has all those elements of Canadiana—beautiful vistas, dogs, someone looking through binoculars and an old truck—but there also seems to be a bit of tension in them. Are there whole before-and-after storylines that go into your paintings?

Yeah, I'm purposely setting up those situations. When you think about being young and sitting in the back of a car, driving around the city, you gravitated towards the stuff that's a little bit uncomfortable, whether it's somebody who's spent some time in the street, or there's a car accident, or there's just somebody moving out of their apartment and they're moving boxes into a car. You just have this little bit of wonder, these small moments of trying to piece together a story without any information. I like to romanticize that in a painting that you could look at for your whole life and never really have the answers to, but you like the way it feels, or you like the thought process that it evokes.

Years ago, in Hong Kong, I did signage for a sandwich spot called Sundays. I did all these wooden cutouts, and one of them was an old telephone, maybe two feet tall. It was in my studio on a day that I had people visiting. There was a five-year-old kid who came in, picked up the telephone, and kind of smiled and held it to his ear, and later in the afternoon, there was a 60-year-old man who came in and did the same thing. Whatever I'm doing, I’m hoping to appeal to both a five-year-old and to a 60-year-old without having to explain to them why I did what I did. There's an intuitive feeling as to why I make what I make. I'm not questioning it. I just do it and if it's right, it feels good. Then I just get closer and closer to that feeling. The more I know how that feels, the more I know how to find it. 

Where does that leave your practice these days, then? You're almost exclusively painting?

Maybe 98 percent. I'll take on a graphic project if it's something I'm really excited about. I feel so fortunate—I wake up every day and want to paint. I go to bed every night and I want to paint. I take screenshots and photos of stuff all day, and if I’m feeling a little uninspired I'll go back through them and feel completely overwhelmed because there'll be 50 things there that I want to paint. 

These people just walked by with their dogs—the relationship between the person, the landscape, and the dog, that's my art. The story that I'm never going to know, that's not actually being told to me unless I take the time to try to find it. It's not much deeper than that. Also, because I work in this calculated way, I can make images fairly quickly. It's from this tattoo background where you have all of these steps to finalize an image. 

Do you think your background in tattooing shows up in your painting?

It does in my process. I do a sketch, then, from the sketch, I usually put down some kind of mask, whether it's vinyl or just tape. Then I'm projecting my sketch, which is almost like putting the stencil onto the skin, then I'm tracing most of my lines with an X-ACTO knife, which is going over a stencil with a tattoo machine. The process of creating an image, transferring an image, and then filling in the image, that's exactly the same as a tattoo. I'm not a classical painter who has a white canvas and just grabs a brush and goes for it and makes something beautiful. I think because I have this graphic design background I'm more of an image-maker than I am a painter. It's almost like using Photoshop filters. I have a system. I know what works. 

Was that a trial-and-error thing? Or were you actively inspired by Photoshop filters, the idea of making a digital process analogue? 

It’s 100% making a digital process analogue.

How did you get into tattooing? 

When I was in Vancouver and a tattoo really caught my eye, it seemed every time I asked it had  been done by James Acrow. He's a well-known graffiti artist from back in the day, an amazing artist. I started to get tattooed by him. After going back week after week after week, showing him drawings that I'd done, he took me under his wing and let me clean his shop one day a week. One day turned to two days, two days turned to three days. I cleaned his shop and hung out for two years before I even touched the tattoo machine. I got my base there. After working with him for a long time I moved to Montreal and worked at a shop called Bait & Schlang.

I wish more career paths did old-school apprenticeships the way jobs like tattooing does.

You just learn what hard work is. You develop a good work ethic. I started off delivering the newspaper in my neighborhood. I worked at a ski store, I worked construction, I worked in a restaurant, washing dishes and serving. I've done all of these little odd jobs. I'm proud that I've done it because it's grounding. You don't always get that out of making cool paintings out of your house. One thing I love about tattooing is that there's no set way that a tattoo shop has to run. You learn how to be your own boss. You learn to deal with your schedule, to deal with clients, to promote yourself. Those are amazing skills to have. The harder you work, the more you get out of it. You build some backbone and you build some culture.

You build some backbone or you don't do it anymore.

Then somebody else starts working there and you move up this weird social hierarchy. 

It's funny because I probably didn’t like working construction while I was doing it, but I'm very nostalgic for the time in my life where I was working construction.

There's beauty in work with a beginning, a middle, and an end, where you can go home and kind of forget about it. What I'm doing now, you can never turn it off. There are days where you wish you could, but you just can't. I think something that's kind of added to my success is accepting that I'm not always going to feel good about my work. I'm accepting that sometimes when the creative highs are high a lot of stuff that I'm happy with gets made, and then there might be months where nothing's coming out. I used to get upset about it, but the more people I talk to who make things, they all feel the same way. Learning to give yourself some time to actually chill in a world that’s go, go, go. We measure our success by what we see other people doing. Not all the time, but it's definitely in the periphery with social media, just wanting to do more, to progress. It's nice to step back sometimes and think about what I’d think if I was 16 looking at myself now. 

What does progression look like for you?

I would love to make bigger work that's not based on needing to sell the piece. I'd like to make something that's 20-by-20. I'm interested in how my paintings make people feel in a physical space. I want to know what it's like to look at a 20-by-20 landscape that has a sunset that just punches you in the face. I'd like to do some more prints, too—something that's accessible to everybody. I don't want people not to be able to have my work. That's it. I just want to spend a shit-ton of time in my studio. I love being in my studio.

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