Dan Beck | A Painter’s Playlist


By Rose Fredrick

As Dan Beck opens the door to his studio, the pounding grunge music of the rock band Bush comes pulsating out. “Wait a second,” he says, striding toward the stereo. He clicks off the music, but instead of quiet, a hum of white noise takes over the long, narrow room above a furniture store on the south side of Denver, CO. “Mind if I have a cigarette before we get started?” he asks as we walk past a coffee table and couch strewn with photos and art books. Paintings in various stages of completion lean against walls and furniture legs; tubes of oil paint and stacks of canvases and frames are scattered about. Beck, looking much younger than his 52 years, stands and smokes next to a small, noisy fan that sucks the fumes from the room. After a while, he stubs out his cigarette, takes a swig of Dr. Pepper straight from a liter bottle, then says, “Okay, where should we start?”

We start in 1974, when Beck was 18, just out of high school and free. He left home and took to the road, hitchhiking across the country a couple of times, doing all kinds of jobs—construction worker, ranch hand, furniture refinisher, and mover. He read incessantly and saw the world through the eyes of his literary and musical heroes;

Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hess, and Bob Dylan were his constant companions. And though he kept his own journals throughout his 10 years of wandering, he saw the world not just in words, but also in pictures, sketching scenes of his life and travels.

He eventually joined the army for a four-year stint that took him to Germany. Stationed at a military base where he was exposed to a culture of corruption and the seedy underbelly of society, he recalls that time in his life as surreal. When his tour of duty was over, Beck left the army and decided to use his GI Bill to go to college. He enrolled at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs—but not for art. “I never knew that living people were artists,” he says, “that you could do that.”

Though he didn’t know a career in art was possible, he continued to sketch. One day, while at his work-study job in the college library, a woman came up to him, saw his drawings, and suggested he study art. “I said, ‘Where is there an art school?’” he recalls. “That was the first time I’d ever heard of it.” The very next week he quit school and moved to Denver, which landed him in the epicenter of contemporary realism in the Rocky Mountain West, near prominent artists such as Ramon Kelley, John Encinias, Kang Cho, Mark Daily, and Michael Lynch. “All those artists. I was just floored,” he remembers.


Beck spent the next two years studying at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where two influential instructors—Jim Valone and Bob Thomas—helped shape his career and build the artistic foundations that support him to this day. Valone had been a student of the abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann, and he brought Hofmann’s concepts into the classroom. In particular, that included Hofmann’s famous push-pull theory—the idea that landscape painting does not have to be made up of actual objects like trees, lakes, and sky, but instead can depict the tension between the essence of those things in abstracted forms of space, color, and planes. The theory still resonates with Beck.

Like parched earth, Beck absorbed the influences of art history, but it was a simple statement from Thomas that changed his path forever. “I was painting some free-form stuff that was kind of dark and expressionistic. And Thomas said something really odd to the class. He said that all art should have some ray of hope,” says Beck. “I’m listening to a guy who was a Vietnam vet, and I’m remembering my own experiences, because I’ve been on the road and I’ve seen some heavy stuff. But when you get involved with doing dark stuff in your art, then you’re living it again, and you’re giving it back to the world.” Thomas’ comment touched Beck and made him realize that if he was going to give anything back to the world, it would have to have some element of beauty. After all, when he looked back, Beck realized that it was often just witnessing a simple, lovely image—perhaps a craggy tree on a windswept hill—that got him through tough times and helped bring some sanity back to his world.

Beck considers himself a naturalist, relying on light and how it plays off his subjects. He also uses a subtle mix of realism and abstract expressionism to convey his thoughts. “I think everything is abstract. Everything,” he says. “If it isn’t, something is wrong; it’s not very interesting.” And though he paints a variety of subjects, from still lifes to landscapes, it is his figurative work that is consistently recognized and garners awards. Beck has received awards of excellence from the Oil Painters of America and Salon International, an exhibit held each spring at Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX. The historic artists he most admires are figurative painters, particularly Nicolai Fechin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “Renoir was able to paint ideas,” notes Beck. “I like that, painting ideas.”

He believes the artist’s job goes deeper than faithfully rendering what he sees. “I think ultimately what we are really trying to do is to parallel in painting what we feel about life,” he observes. “If something moves you, you don’t ignore it. The rhythms of things, the mystery of life, and the atmosphere, for me, translate into more of the spiritual side. It doesn’t have to be how the viewer sees it, but how I see it.”
And how he sees things, he acknowledges, is uniquely his own projection onto his subject matter. He recalls a girl in art school who seemed like a dark, moody character, which, during his own dark phase, was just what he wanted to paint. But as he observed her, it occurred to him that it wasn’t just some brooding quality that attracted him; it was her beauty. “There is a transience to beauty. It’s fleeting. To be an artist who can paint that quality without making it look trite—somehow get it into the work—that is what I’m after,” says Beck.

A self-proclaimed social klutz and “really bad communicator,” Beck says his paintings are his way of having a conversation. It’s a dialogue that depends on feedback from others, whether from fellow artist friends such as Ron Hicks and Ernie Gallegos, or collectors who call to talk about his paintings. “I’m totally connected with the way people see my work. It’s like a comic telling a joke, and the joke is not done until the laughter comes,” he explains. “My art is all about communication.”

He says one of the hardest challenges he faces is keeping the energy going. That’s why he likes working with models. Models bring a different energy to the studio, they understand the process, and they, too, seem to need the feedback they get from the artist. “It’s not just a job. We’re not walking in here to fill in the squares,” says Beck. “I need the motivation, the interaction.”

While it may seem counterintuitive for an artist whose paintings have a gentle and romantic sensibility, Beck loves to crank up the stereo while he paints. Rock music, he says, reminds him of Impressionist painting. Just like Impressionism was heavily influenced by all the art that came before it, rock also borrows from earlier genres—classical, jazz, gospel, blues. “I actually relate more to music as if it were a painting: the warms and cools, the rhythms,” he explains.

On any given day, Beck listens to everything from grunge to Motown, John Lee Hooker to Bruce Springsteen. But one particular song has always held more meaning than all the rest. “The first time I heard ‘Like a Hurricane’ by Neil Young was when I was in the army in Germany. At the time, I remember thinking, if I ever get to be a painter, I want to paint like Neil Young plays the guitar in that song. He was controlled but crazy at the same time.” Beck leans back in his chair and adds, “I love that part of painting when you are in the moment.”

He is represented by Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Concetta D Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; Sanders Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Heddenart Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ.

He has an upcoming group show at Waterhouse Gallery, November 22-December 22.

Featured in November 2008