Dan McCaw | An Expressionist for Our Time

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

For Dan McCaw, painting is a journey, a trip through the heart and mind to reach the ultimate destination: the core of his artistic soul. The journey has lasted more than 25 years, and McCaw says he is still traveling. But the California-based painter has come a long way from the early days of his career, when he was working several jobs and barely scraping together enough money to buy a few brushes. Those were also the days when he was attending the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, enthralled by the mere idea of being able to render an object realistically.


Today McCaw is an established painter well known for his romantic portrayals of women and children illuminated by golden light. For the past decade he has also delved into other subject matter—still lifes, urban scenes, and interiors—with equal relish. A recent one-man show at Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale, AZ, includes scenes from a trip to Paris.

Unlike the early days of his career, he is now able to spend seven days a week in his studio doing exactly what he pleases creatively—a way of life that he fully appreciates. “I feel so blessed to be able to spend the days immersed in my own self-expression. It’s an amazing gift,” McCaw says. Many painters would feel blessed simply to be able to work in McCaw’s studio, a cavernous, 5,000-square-foot space with exposed brick walls and a vaulted, 14-foot-high ceiling.

On this particular day, paintings of Paris cafes and California beaches lean against studio walls. But as McCaw pads across the shiny hardwood floors, he walks right past these canvases. Instead he points out paintings by two other artists who share the studio—his sons John, 34, and Danny, 24. “Danny paints on one side of my easel. And John paints at the easel behind me,” he says, gesturing towards their individual work areas.

His son’s artworks represent the two different sides of McCaw’s own artistic personality—representational and abstract. Danny is developing in a similar fashion to his father as a representational painter. John is an abstract artist concerned with design, surface quality, and aesthetics. “I hope to follow in the footsteps of my two kids,” McCaw says with a smile. “I admire the freedom and daring of Danny’s youth, and I find the sophistication of John’s abstract art intrinsically moving.”

In fact, as the years have passed, McCaw has found himself drawn more and more into the world of abstraction. Although he is a representational artist, he explains that his chief challenge these days is taking expressionistic liberties while on the path to find his personal voice. The elements of abstraction—color, design, and shape—now move him emotionally in a way they didn’t earlier in his career. McCaw says he pays attention to everything from how one color crashes against another to the thickness of the paint.


For inspiration, McCaw embraces paintings by a wide variety of artists. “I like the tightness of Wyeth; the looseness and abstraction of Tàpies; the technical ability of the Russians; the design and sensitivity of Klimt; the personal voice of Bonnard and Vuillard; the color of Rothko; and the simplicity of Franz Kline,” he explains.

In McCaw’s recent book, A Proven Strategy for Creating Great Art [2002 International Artist Publications], he describes his varied approaches to subject matter. “I am constantly changing, growing, and finding new directions, so even the subjects I’ve painted dozens of times before get a different spin every time,” McCaw writes. “Some days I want to be more realistic, and other days I want to be very abstract. I create from the feeling I have at the moment. This kind of stylistic diversity is what keeps my work and my life interesting.”

To demonstrate his many artistic sides, he presents four different versions of a still-life painting. A flowerpot sitting on a table is rendered in color palettes from bold to muted. Styles also vary, from a sharply delineated vessel with flowers in some versions to splashes of colors and abstract shapes in others. Indeed, one of the most important things to know about McCaw’s artistic philosophy is that the painter does not believe in photographically rendering subject matter. He strives, instead, to impart his own expression or interpretation, whether the style he chooses is representational or more abstract. “Rendering—the ability to draw accurately and use light and value to make objects appear three-dimensional—is important. Without that skill, paintings fall apart,” he says. “But for me, rendering is never the ultimate goal. Rendering is there to serve my higher purpose—giving voice to my opinions and ideas. I look at painting more like sculpting—pushing and pulling paint around the canvas.”

And for McCaw it is not always what he puts in a painting but what he chooses to leave out that is important. For example, he usually chooses not to reveal details of facial features. It would make the figures too identifiable, he believes. Instead he prefers to allow viewers to participate or enter into the painting without having everything spelled out for them. His approach is similar to that of a poet who relies on allusions rather than a reporter who depends on facts and details, he says.

The models for many of the figures in his paintings are those people he knows best—his wife, three daughters, and five grandchildren. McCaw’s early reputation grew from these paintings of his family—especially mothers and children by the sea—which came naturally to him, he says. He has always believed that the strongest connection, when it comes to relationships, is between a mother and her child. He was also drawn to beach scenes because they offered him an opportunity to explore light and color. It was familiar territory, too—he and his family spent many hours basking on the sunny Southern California beaches near their home.

McCaw himself grew up far from the beach, in Butte, MT, an Irish mining town. It was a wild and colorful frontier known for its bars, prostitution, and gambling—a tough little town populated by hard-working miners. In spite of the rough-and-tumble macho culture that surrounded him, McCaw says he managed to hang on to his artistic interests. His mother, a creative and imaginative soul, encouraged and nurtured his talent from an early age. McCaw remembers opening her dresser drawers and discovering stacks of little oil paintings she had created in her spare time. It made quite an impression. “She always encour-aged me to search for and find my own gifts,” he recalls. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended Montana School of Mines but moved to San Francisco in 1965 after receiving a scholarship to the Academy of Art. He stayed two years, until he ran out of money to support his growing family. After landing an illustrator’s job in a Los Angeles design studio, he settled in Southern California. At night he attended Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, and he also studied with Sergei Bongart, a prominent painter and teacher who introduced him to the work of Joaquin Sorolla. After four years, though, he grew frustrated with creating art for an employer and quit to pursue a career in fine art. To support himself he taught part-time at the Art Center.


McCaw was 38 when he sold his first painting at an art show in Prescott, AZ. Not long after that he began showing his artworks at Trailside Galleries and Lynn White’s Shriver Gallery in Taos, NM. Soon it was difficult to keep up with the demand from his collectors.

Thinking back on his development and evolution as an artist, McCaw says that in his youthful painting days he felt as if he was carrying an enormous knapsack on his back. As he got older, he refined what was important to him in life and in his work. “I started to put in the knapsack only what was key to the journey and to discard the rest,” McCaw says. “I have simplified my paintings and my life. I don’t spend as much time worrying about things like a scratch on my car. For one thing, I don’t have as much time as I did when I was young. Now I pay attention to things that can enhance my day or direction—the beauty of a scene, how a shadow slips across a building, or the rhythms of people crossing a city street.”

What many collectors might find surprising about McCaw is that while he paints wonderfully pristine scenes of mothers and children, and though he grew up in Montana, the land of the big sky, he is in love with the big city. The mountains are beautiful, he says, but after a week spent visiting his sister and brother in Montana, he’s ready to hear the horns, jackhammers, and sirens near his home. “It ignites and inspires me. Give me New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles any day,” he says.

His inspiration also springs from other artists, especially those who take chances. “They are the motivators that get me off my chair,” he says, explaining that creativity for him percolates in an environment of uncertainty and risk. It means that as an artist he is constantly traveling and never arriving. “What’s important is the journey—the anticipation, the surprise, the adventure, and the creativity experienced along the way,” he says.

Stay away from what is safe. Creativity is born in frustration. These are words he lives and paints by. It is also advice he offers his sons, both poised at the beginning of their careers. He is intent on passing down all his experience to the next generation of artistic McCaws. Often he refers to “blowing under their wings”; as he knows firsthand, an encouraging parent, a dedicated instructor, or a word of praise can change the course of a life.

When asked what his goals are for the future, he again refers to John and Danny. “I think my goals for myself these days are to see that my kids get all the guidance I can give them artistically—which is, mainly, not to be afraid to put down what’s inside of them,” he says. “I want to open doors for them and see them fly as high as they can.”

McCaw is represented by Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head Island, SC; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; American Legacy Gallery, Kansas City, MO; Courtyard Gallery, Rancho Mirage, CA; and Wendt Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA.

Featured in May 2003