Revealing the Layers of ‘Snow Hymn’: The Experimental Processes of David Donovan Jensen

Artists, Bicycle Fine Art, Feature Article, Original Painting

David Donovan Jensen
Snow Hymn, 2015
Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 78 x 68 in.
*Currently on view at the New York Design Center, 200 Lexington Ave., 10th Floor, NYC

Bicycle Fine Art artist David Donovan Jensen created Snow Hymn in 2015 as part of his ongoing Hymn series. He came up with the Hymn title for this series as a result of listening to a large amount of what he affectionately refers to as “crazy old Russian hymns.” David appreciates abstract painting “that have some sort of ‘in’ that invites you into the work,” and has also expressed appreciation for Agnes Martin, whose titles he feels act almost as short poems.

David first added a power sander to his artistic tool box a few years ago. Invited to set up studio space in his friend’s welding shop, he was immediately drawn to a power grinder and eager to incorporate it into his process. After testing the effects of the power tool on his painted canvases, David found that his work responded well to the tool’s ability to bring the various deeply buried layers to the surface. Speaking of the process, he has likened the resulting works to “giant leaf rubbings,” whose textures are brought to the surface of the canvas by the sander and become recordings of the studio surfaces on which they rest.


View of David Donovan Jensen’s Snow Hymn (78 x 68 in.) at the New York Design Center
Design vignette styled by Christi Stevens

David, who lives and works in Minneapolis, creates his paintings by applying innumerable layers of acrylic washes, spray paint, and pastel to un-stretched canvas. He has stated that, when he started working on Snow Hymn in 2015, he was worried he had ruined the piece after only a few layers. It was only after he continued pushing and pushing his materials and techniques to their limit that he finally became satisfied with the look of the finished canvas.

Following in the tradition set by masterful artists like Claude Monet and Andy Warhol, David is familiar with working in series. His most recent installments in the Hymn series were created partly out of timely necessity, as his works are composed of dozens of layers that need to completely set between each application, and partly from choice, as the required drying time allows him to work on many paintings at once. As a result, Hymn series works of varying stages of completion are always hanging in his studio. This provides David with constant visual stimulation and results in a series whose character is both consistent and constantly maturing.

David Donovan Jensen
Snow Hymn, 2015
(Detail 1 of 2)

In addition to being a painter, David is also an accomplished videographer and has collaborated with artists prominent in the Minneapolis art scene to create music videos, some of which have been featured in Rolling Stone,, Pitchfork and Time Magazine. David approaches painting and videography with the same dedicated philosophy, focusing on individual shots and applying the same experimentation with light and beauty present in Snow Hymn.

As a result of his process of applying dozens of layers to his canvases, the colors in David’s paintings are complex and nuanced, an aspect of his artwork mirrored in his complicated and abstract compositions. This detail image of Snow Hymn highlights David’s process of working with spray paint, pastels, and acrylic paint, all of which are mixed together to create a color palette and texture that would have been impossible to achieve with a single medium.

It should come as no surprise that one of David’s favorite contemporary artists is Robert Irwin. Irwin’s treatment of and respect for light as a subject matter in its own right is paralleled in David’s own work, which focuses on creating the impression of light. Inspired by the quiet thoughtfulness present in Irwin’s installation work, David’s paintings explore similar issues of light and space in a more tactile medium. His work achieves a cool emotive power reminiscent of Irwin’s sculptures, although crafted with layers upon layers of spray paint and pastel.

David Donovan Jensen
Snow Hymn, 2015
(Detail 2 of 2)

A true series, each of David’s Hymn paintings are titled according to the mood, object, or presence they evoke; two such examples are Body Hymn and Wave Hymn.  Many of his earlier paintings also shared a similar scale, most typically a four foot square. According to David, this size appeals to him because of its relationship to the viewer’s physical dimensions: “a body fits nicely in front of the view. It’s a human scale. Snow Hymn starts to get a bit bigger, a little more epic.”  Snow Hymn was one of the first larger paintings David created, and its epic scale presented him with a unique set of challenges.

While he attempts to plan out a painting before he starts, David is careful to leave space for the painting to breathe and grow as it will. Having matured and learned from his artistic process, David enthusiastically embraces the point where the paintings start to take on a life of their own. He has remarked that he will “start [by] thinking that [the painting’s] going to look a certain way, but it never does. It’s a fine line of letting it lead me, and leading it.” When working on a piece, David likes to bring it right up to the edge of being overworked, toeing the line right before his piece becomes too chaotic. However, it is not necessarily a bad thing to overwork a painting;  David has remarked that “if it’s lost, it frees you up. If it’s already lost, there’s nothing to be scared of. If you hold on too tight, you’ll never make anything new.” Regarding Snow Hymn, “I’m glad I took that chance.”

Posted by

Lisa-Thi Beskar, Art Advisor & Curator