David Riedel | A Quiet Dynamic

By Gussie Fauntleroy

As the pale light fades into dusk through north-facing skylights in his Portland, OR, studio, painter David Riedel sits quietly, watching a painting on his easel. His hands are in his lap. His tools at this moment are his eyes, closely observing how changes happen in the painting’s areas of light and dark—seeing how shadows and highlights fall on a brown clay jug surrounded by autumn leaves. What he’s hoping to see is the painting’s sense of mystery and depth increase in proportion to the studio’s disappearing light.

“It may be a quiet still life, but it’s very dynamic,” the artist points out, his eyes still on the easel. “It’s not a stationary thing at all. You have to be passionate about some idea, and then build in the tensions and energy and flow. There should be a lot going on. And the fascination for me is: How well can I see what’s truly there?”

As it turns out, since moving from northern New Mexico to Portland a few years ago, Riedel has had to work harder to see subtle variations in color and other nuances as he paints. For the previous 10 years he observed his paintings in the sharp, high-altitude light. That’s what filled the studio he and his wife, Rachel, built—along with an adobe house—on a mountainside north of Taos. When they moved to the Northwest, Riedel found himself facing a re-education in the effects of light.

“Up here, the light is soft and silvery, and I have to struggle to see things. There’s not the sharp distinction between warm light and cool light,” he explains. “I think it’s been really good for me. It pushes me to work harder to see, and the result is that I’ve learned to study what I’m looking at more closely, to be very observant and careful with color.”

Riedel’s hard work has paid off. Already an award-winning artist whose still lifes are collected nationally and internationally, he received the top prize—the American National Award of Excellence—at the Oil Painters of America national juried exhibition this past May. He also earned a merit award at this year’s Salon International, which is held each spring at Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX. And while still life remains his primary genre, the 53-year-old artist recently has also begun showing his figurative and plein-air landscape work.

Drawing and other creative activities have been central to Riedel’s life since childhood. He was raised in Indiana in the early 1960s, the son of a banker father and a mother who loved to sit down at the baby grand piano at night, playing elegantly while her four children were in bed. His was a “Norman Rockwell boyhood,” the artist remembers, with bike rides and playing in the nearby woods as daily fare. The exception for young David was periodic downtime mandated by severe asthma. Confined to bed for as long as a week at a time, he would spend his hours reading and drawing. “I learned to do those quiet things,” he relates.

Surrounded by beautiful objects, including antiques, Chinese scrolls, and landscape paintings, Riedel absorbed an aesthetic appreciation for such objects. And while he was always encouraged in his love of art, there were no role models for making it a career. So when he entered college at Northern Arizona University, he headed for the architecture department. But he soon switched majors, having realized architecture was no match for his growing interest in art. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in printmaking. He had a vague sense of abstract expressionism but did not possess the fine art fundamentals a future realist painter would need. For several years after graduation, in what he describes as a “time of great energy and little direction,” he created landscapes in pastels. “Hopefully,” he says, smiling, “those early pieces will remain forever lost!”

Then, in 1986, he was introduced to the Art Students League of New York. It was a career-sparking stroke of fate. He enrolled there and everything changed. “For me, the concept of painting, as distinct from drawing, was a revelation,” he recalls, noting it was not until he was 30 that he picked up a paintbrush. His first painting teacher, and one of the most influential figures during this period, was renowned still-life painter David Leffel. Sherrie McGraw and other instructors also made a strong impression, and important living artists such as Richard Schmid have left an inevitable mark on his work.

From 1986 to 1991, Riedel spent three to four months each year living in a friend’s apartment in New York City and immersing himself in art. “The Art League started teaching me the fundamentals of drawing and painting,” he recounts. “But just as important was learning how to go about learning—how to pull each painting a little farther along.” Completely engrossed, he would paint and draw 12 hours a day for weeks on end. When he was finally exhausted, he would return for a few months to an isolated cabin in a canyon near Sedona, AZ.

There, alone, the artist more fully absorbed and explored what he had learned in New York. “The contrast was wonderful,” he remarks. “Even now, to get out in a very quiet place, out in the woods away from everything and just car camp and paint for a week—that’s one of my great loves.”

Over the years Riedel has had ample opportunity to spend time in nature and paint on location. After Arizona he lived briefly in southern Colorado; in 1992 he moved to New Mexico to be close to a community of other artists in Taos. He met Rachel in a gallery in Taos and they were married in 1994. Then came a daughter, Danica, and soon David and Rachel began the “enormous, 10-year art project” of building an off-the-grid, passive-solar adobe house and studio from the ground up.

Today the family has settled in urban Portland, near the Willamette River. Especially on blustery winter days, Riedel finds a measure of wildness and solitude kayaking on the river. In a more contained way, his studio—in a former factory converted to art spaces—is a quiet place as well. The artist has covered the studio walls with neutral-colored fabric to reduce reflections that would interfere with shadows and color in his work. Around him are shelves filled with vases, pots, objects he collected during travels in Asia, and an assortment of dried flowers, branches, and leaves.

Things get shuffled around on the shelves over time, which often sparks the idea for a painting. Other works are born of a simple color combination or an intriguing shape. ENAMEL PAN AND PEACHES began when Riedel noticed the blue enamel pan he has used many times on camping trips. “One day it just caught my eye and I knew there was a painting there,” he recalls. In another instance, a branch of perfect red maple leaves hung drying on the wall for months before it became the inspiration for CLAY POT AND FALL LEAVES (shown at right).

However an arrangement starts, its journey to a finished painting taps into a wealth of knowledge the artist has acquired over nearly 25 years. Now, with technical painting skills under his belt, he is free to approach a work from various angles, depending on what interests him at the moment. “It’s never just stuff on a table,” he explains, referring to the experience of visually exploring an arrangement. “It’s all about the relationships. Sometimes I’ll decide to play with edges more, or I’ll set up a good framework of shadows and work on that, or I’ll think of the image in a more abstract way, as pieces of color. These are all just internal games I play in the process of painting.
“It’s never easy,” he acknowledges. “Each time I set objects on the table it’s a different environment or there are a different set of parameters I set for myself. So it’s always a challenge—which it should be.”

Another means of honing observational and drawing skills is to always carry a sketchbook, something Riedel did during his student years and is training himself to do again. “Creativity can’t just be limited to the studio. It’s your life. It’s part of everything,” he says. Echoing the advice of a respected instructor, he adds: “When you see it now, do it now. In other words, when you see something beautiful, don’t put it off; you might not see it again.”

Settling into a chair in his front yard, Riedel smiles ruefully as he discovers he’s just broken his own rule. Across the yard, a neighbor’s strikingly beautiful cat is grooming itself under a tree in the evening light. “Oh man,” he says, “if I had my sketchbook with me—what a fantastic pose!”

Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; Scottsdale Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; Total Arts Gallery, Taos, NM; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR; www.davidriedelfineart.com.

Group show, Mockingbird Gallery, December 4-31.

Featured in November 2009