Ghost Ranch Shadows, oil, 24 x 30.
By Lynn Pyne
Five years ago Joyce Dant loaded a rental truck with painting supplies and furniture and headed to Santa Fe. She went alone, with her family’s blessing. “My husband called it my sabbatical. I called it my midlife crisis,” Dant says with a laugh.
Dant, a plein-air painter of southwestern landscapes, passionately wanted to immerse herself in her art. Feeling isolated in her desert home east of Mesa, AZ, she dreamed of exchanging ideas and mutual struggles with a lively community of artists. She had a craving to learn more, see more, and feel invigorated.
“I had gone as far as I could go by myself,” Dant recalls. “My husband said, ‘Why don’t you go to Santa Fe for a month or two?’” Her husband, Mike, was two years from retirement as a high school English teacher, so he needed to stay. Their two daughters were grown. “I said, ‘If I’m really going to do this, I want to go for six months or so,’” Dant recalls. “We talked about it, and he said, ‘It would be just awful if you got to be a little old lady without ever pursuing your dreams, doing what you wanted to do, or knowing how far you could have gone with your painting, because you had never taken a chance with it.’”
Agave, oil, 20 x 30.
Thus encouraged, Dant rented a studio apartment in Santa Fe. Her departure raised a few eyebrows. “I think a lot of people thought, ‘Those poor Dants they’ve separated,’” she says. “Our kids were really supportive, but they also wondered, ‘What’s going on with our folks?’”
Dant joined a life-drawing class, went to art walks, met many artists, and painted—sometimes from the first morning light until she could no longer see at dusk. “At the end of six months, I called my husband and said, ‘I feel I’m just getting started!’ So I stayed for another six months,” Dant says. “Then, at the end of a year, I thought I’d done as much as I could do by myself I was ready to go back home.”
When her husband retired, the couple moved to Santa Fe and built a home on 2 1/2 acres of high desert where piñon trees, junipers, and grasses grow. Big windows in Dant’s studio face north to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The scenery of northern New Mexico provides a rich source of inspiration for Dant, who is drawn to rugged rock formations, canyons, water, and sunlight. Ancient Native American ruins also appeal to her. Less frequently, she paints florals, mainly wild southwestern blooms such as cactuses, hollyhocks, and yucca flowers.
When painting on location, Dant works quickly, knowing she only has an hour or two before the light—and thus the image—changes. She paints in a small format, usually on a 12-by-16- or 9-by-12-inch canvas, and takes photographs. Her goal is to design an effective composition and capture the basic colors, shapes, and play of sunlight in the scene.
“An advantage of painting on location is that the color in photographs is never quite right,” Dant says. “It’s just not the same as actually being at the scene, mixing color, and putting it on canvas right there, where you can be more truthful to what you’re really seeing. Unless you’re using a zoom lens, a camera never sees the way your eye does anyway. Also, when you’re on location, you tend to be more creative and flexible.”
The same is true of color, which vitally concerns Dant. Her paintings such as Into the Light and River Glow focus on subtle nuances of color and detail only the eye can see. “When you look into a shadow outdoors, you see all the stuff that’s in the shadow, but when looking into a shadow in a photograph, you just see a dark area,” she says. “I want to show all the rocks and little bits of grass down in the shadow.”
Because of her subject matter, Dant uses many earth tones and grays but, surprisingly, she has none of those colors in her palette; they’re mixed from bright colors. To make brown, she might mix thalo green and cadmium red, but she stops before the colors are totally blended so tiny bits of bright green or red still show in the mix. She then scoops up the paint with her brush and lays it gently on the canvas without crushing the colors together. The result is a canvas that displays brilliant flashes of color, giving the painting a glint and liveliness it wouldn’t have had if Dant had used a homogenous burnt sienna or umber. If a bright color needs to be toned down, Dant uses its complementary color to do so. The only non-bright color she uses is black, and then only in combination with other colors. “I want the colors I use to be lively,” she says.
Dant paints realistically, but she shares the Impressionists’ goal of capturing the feeling of a place and the quality of the light. She is especially conscious of sunlight and its effect on color intensity. “I just love sunshine,” she says, “so I’m frequently playing with how it strikes things, both in the sunny and in the shadowed areas.” Her oil Hollyhocks depicts sunlight reflected on or glowing brilliantly through the petals and leaves. “When light bounces off a color and comes to your eye, that color loses some of its intensity, but when the light shines through an object to your eye, then the color is intensified,” she says. “If you walk through a forest of aspen trees in the fall, the yellow leaves look like golden coins, and that’s because there is a stained-glass effect when the sunlight shines through them.”
Dant applies paint in rich, thick layers, in contrast to the past when she applied it so thinly it resembled a stain. Also, she is now painting more with acrylics, which appeal to her because of their vivid color and faster drying time. “I like switching back and forth,” she says. “I find that when I play with acrylics for a while, I feel refreshed when I come back to oils—and then the same thing happens when I switch from oils to acrylics.”
Dant and husband Mike have been married 35 years now, and she looks back on her solo year in Santa Fe as a love story. “That year was very beneficial to me and came at a time when I really needed it. It was something I couldn’t have done without his support,” she says.
She adds with a smile: “So now I don’t have to look back when I’m a little old lady and wonder what might have happened if I’d followed my dream. I did it and grew from the experience, and I’m still growing.”
Photos courtesy of the artist and Ray Tracey Galleries, Santa Fe, NM, and Scottsdale, AZ; and Dearing galleries, Taos, NM.
Featured in February 2001