Recreating reality through art | Sunday Observer
Kos Cos

Recreating reality through art

9 April, 2022

Kosala Gunasinghe A.K.A. Kos Cos is a multidisciplinary, experimental artist from Sri Lanka based in Hong Kong. His artistic practice is focused mostly on abstract painting and he observes his personal outlook, exploring themes of society, gender and the contradictions of traditional values by modern day liberated standards of the digital age.

Kos’s highly experimental work of art is a fair example to prove the basic fact in art that just only the aesthetic beauty does not make it a work of art but it should be a selective recreation of reality for the purpose of communicating some aspect of what it means to be human or how we perceive the world.

Understanding Kos’s work of art is easy, all it requires is an open mind and a big imagination. Swirling shapes, an array of colourful figurative patterns, or maybe pure energy and cosmic flow are common in his expression. As he explains it was a conscious decision he made to follow experimental, abstract style in his art.

“I choose to express my creativity by creating a visual experience that is more free and unencumbered by the weight of objects,” Kos says.

This is an exclusive interview by Sunday Observer with Kos Cos about his exciting artistic journey:

Q: Could you please recall the beginning of your journey as a painter?

Cos: I consider myself lucky to have been born to my parents. I had a normal childhood just like other children growing up in the suburbs of Colombo, Sri Lanka during the late 70s to mid 80s. Life was slow-paced and simple - with lots of greenery and nature.

In my mid teens we moved to Mount Lavinia which is a coastal town, that's where I developed my relationship with the sea. I still love the sea and my childhood obsession with the sea, drew me to live close to the sea when I grew up.

I had a bunch of great friends while growing up, playing cricket was our favourite pastime. I remember being more focused on my studies until high-school. I gradually lost interest in academia and got more focused on the usual ‘teenage activities’ at that time.

My parents wanted me to be an engineer so they pushed me into related studies – and definitely not for art. So I never studied art formally, although later on, my father sent me to one of his friends - an artist - to learn political cartooning.

However, my home front was always a creative space and influenced me greatly. My mother used to make patchwork using textiles in her free time. All this was done at this table with lots of colourful textiles next to her sewing machine. I watched her combining colourful pieces of textiles to create fantastic wall hangings and so on.

I feel this influenced me on colours. My father had his own outdoor advertising agency. I have vivid memories of this when I was 7-8 years old. I remember going to my father’s workshop after school to see artists working on outdoor advertising billboards.

Here, I had the opportunity to see painters creating advertisements from babies to movie stars, milk powder to cigarettes on giant billboards. In addition, there were also many art materials available to me, which I used to paint drawings and make crafts.

Sadly, that was the end of the era of hand-painted outdoor billboards and everything went digital thereafter. I believe I was very fortunate to have that exposure to watch and learn. Looking back, those outdoor billboards were a heavy influence on my early portrait works.

Q: You are a Sri Lankan born artist operating from Hong-Kong. What made you to shift there?

Cos: I wasn’t planning on moving to HK; it was an opportunity that came out of the blue. One day I received a call from one of my best friends, who used to work at the same advertising agency as me in Sri Lanka. He asked me if I'd like to come and work in Hong Kong, I said yes and told my parents that I was going away for two years. So here I am, in Hong Kong and it’s been 21 years now.

When I came here, Hong Kong was at the peak of advertising at that time, with agencies producing world renowned, award-winning creative Ads. It was also much ahead in multimedia and web; which was a new learning area for me with new software and a new way of thinking to work with this new media.

Working with top creative directors inspired me to think out of the box. Having to learn new tools and also think differently to fit new media was a challenge for me initially.

Even at that time, Hong Kong was Asia’s top art hub with many international and local galleries, artists and exhibitions. This was a lot of exposure for a young artist and I feel it greatly influenced my art-works. Personally, it was a big change in scenery compared to Colombo/Sri Lanka. It was a great opportunity to learn, to do experiments and grow as a person.

Moving from Sri Lanka to Hong Kong was like entering a futuristic city with super tall glass and concrete buildings, massive colourful neon signs and infinite energy was an amazing experience. It was definitely sensory overload. Even food was an alien experience because of the bland taste (as Sri Lankans love spices!) served with two sticks (chopsticks).

With the massive expansion of digital and social media, I felt it is the end of ‘creativity’ of the advertising industry. In fact, I sensed this change many years before. It was at that time when I decided to return to my canvases to express myself without boundaries.

Eight years ago, I was fortunate to have my work recognised by a gallery in Hong Kong. After that I started to show my work regularly in galleries across Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

In 2019, I finally decided to fully focus on art as my career and went to open another studio in Belgium with my creative partner.

Q: Who are your greatest influences?

Cos: Artistically, Norman Rockwell was a great influence during my childhood, but then as I grew up my influences changed from Andy Warhol, Henri Matese, Edgar Degas, Basquiat and George Condo. Right now, my biggest influence is Howard Hodgkin.

Q: Do you have a formal education in art or are you self-taught?

Cos: I did not go to any art school or anything like that. Even though art was one of the subjects that I liked the most when I was young, it was never presented to me potentially a serious career. I studied cartooning under one of the top cartoonists at that time - S. C. Opatha who was one of my father’s friends.

After seeing my talent, Opatha offered me to learn cartooning under him, so I went to his home to learn cartooning for two years on every Saturday. Still, it was more of a hobby.

The rest is self taught, I feel there are both advantages and disadvantages of being a self taught artist. Well, formal education could have saved me from many technical mistakes that took many years for me to realise in the process and on the other hand, self-learning process is a blessing for an artist as you are not taught what not to do and therefore you have the liberty to experiment various styles and methods until you discover what works best for you. After all your trials and errors, the whole process becomes unique to you.

Q: You have been working in both advertising and the film industry before you established yourself as a painter in Hong Kong. How did these two industries affect your painting career?

Cos: When I started my first job in advertising at Bates strategic in Sri Lanka, advertising used to be a very glamorous and creative industry one can be in. I then moved to Hong Kong where I got the opportunity to work in the film industry, which was fun and inspiring.

With the spread of digital and social media, I realised that ‘creativity’ was starting to fade away from the advertising industry. In fact, I sensed this change many years ago. It was at that time when I decided to return to my canvas to express myself without boundaries.

Q: It is evident that you follow quite a dominant yet free style in most of your work. Have you arrived yet at the judgement phase about your style?

Cos: Yes I have experimented with many different styles over the past few years and I found that dominant, bold and free style which represents me closely.

Q: Also you have shown your skills in different mediums, such as acrylics, oil painting and charcoal. Which medium you like the most and why?

Cos: All of these mediums have its own unique advantages and out of all oil paint is my main medium. I love working with oil paint because of its flexibility, vibrancy and durability and also the smell makes me high when I’m working, but I still start with charcoal to sketch on the canvas or sometimes acrylics as a base colour.

Q: Can you take us through your process? Percentage wise, how much time do you spend preparing for the painting and how much time is the actual painting itself? Is preparation an important part of your process?

Cos: I would say its 70/30. Firstly I would invest some time in finding an inspiration or a subject to paint. Once I found my subject I would spend a fairly a decent time to research and study. After I gather enough information on my subject, I confidently start sketching and then to the canvas. Working on canvas is the easiest part for me. So yes, for all of my works, the preparation part is crucial.

Q: Do you have a particular audience or market in your head, at the time of your creative process?

Cos: I don’t like to block or limit myself by thinking of a specific audience or a market. For me painting is my freedom of expression without any boundaries. Therefore, I love to keep my freedom of creativity throughout the process.

Q: Was there a particular moment where you could tell that your skills had just crossed over into being a very good painter instead of a pretty good painter? What did you do to make that leap?

Cos: I’m not sure about calling myself a ‘very good painter’. It’s a process of making your own voice, so I always try to push my limits, explore new subject matter and it is a continuous process. So, I can’t pinpoint a specific moment in my evolution.

Q: Could you offer some specific examples of the great master paintings of the past that you admire the most?

Cos: ‘Two Dancers Resting’ by Edgar Degas,

‘Heavy Red’ by Wassily Kandinsky,

‘The Painter's Music, The Musician's Art’ by Kenneth Noland,

‘Patrick in Italy’ by Howard Hodgkin and

‘Night and day’ by Howard Hodgkin.