Douglas Aagard | In Living Color

Douglas Aagard captures the brilliance of the western landscape

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Douglas Aagard, Vibrant Morning, oil, 36 x 48.

Douglas Aagard, Vibrant Morning, oil, 36 x 48.

This story was featured in the July 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  July 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Recently, as the sun rose over the front range of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, landscape artist Douglas Aagard snapped photographs of the scene that unfolded before him. As the sun climbed, it illuminated a cottonwood tree until it was aflame in brilliant yellows and golds. Moisture suspended in the air softened the scene. “I just couldn’t take my eyes off that tree,” Aagard says. “It was so gorgeous. It seemed as if the tree glowed from the inside, with a gemlike quality of light around the edges.”

Aagard titled the painting VIBRANT MORNING. It’s a quintessential Aagard piece that displays his mastery of color and light. Next month the artist’s light-infused landscapes are on view in solo shows at both Manitou Galleries in Santa Fe, NM, and Meyer Gallery in Park City, UT. Each show includes 20 to 25 new paintings that feature the fields, farmlands, deserts, and high-mountain aspen trees of New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

Meyer Gallery owner Susan Meyer is enthusiastic about Aagard’s work as well as his upcoming show. The gallery has represented him for 18 years, and Meyer has watched from the sidelines as the artist’s works have evolved from monochromatic brown palettes into eye-popping, colorful oils. “Imagine standing in front of a traditional landscape painting,” Meyer says. “Next to the painting you see a control panel with a dial marked ‘color’ and one marked ‘light.’ You turn both dials to the highest level possible. That would describe a classic example of Douglas’ work. His color intensity pushes realism close to the perimeter of expressionism without actually crossing over.”

In addition to featuring color and light, Aagard’s paintings demonstrate his penchant for creating rich, lush textures. He works almost exclusively with a palette knife, wielding the tool to apply, layer, and push paint around the canvas. For Aagard, generously applied paint adds the desired depth and an extra dimension to his works. He uses a brush only for sketching out a composition, laying down a base color, and rendering fine details. “Often, creating the texture is just as much fun as the composition,” Aagard says. “The composition is always first. But I enjoy looking at all the strokes, seeing how they interact, how the strokes make up shapes, and the shapes make up objects.”

Aagard grew up in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, an idyllic setting for a young, curious mind. He is fond of describing the valley as an area where “the people are few and the adventures are great.” He often spent summers visiting his grandparents’ dairy farm and helping with the animals, which included a flock of 1,000 sheep. He fished and explored the wilderness near his home whenever possible. “I had three creeks within walking distance and the Bitterroot River within biking distance,” he says. “Canyons there are cut deep, with massive cliffs on the sides. They are populated mostly with pine trees, but there are bunches of aspen and cottonwood here and there. In the evening after the sun went down, if I looked north, I could see the mountains with shades of blue becoming lighter and lighter after each canyon, ending with Saint Mary Peak near the town of Lolo. That was my favorite part of the day.”

In his early teens, he began drawing landscapes, as well as dogs and horses, in pencil before he went to sleep every night—the spectacular canyons with their massive cliff faces filled Aagard’s imagination. “I would hike the mountains with friends and just be blown away by the grandeur, and at home at night I would try to draw things I had seen,” he says.

Aagard remembers one occasion in particular when he and some friends decided to duck out of church services and hike to a nearby creek instead. It turned out to be a religious experience of sorts. The boys stood near the edge of a cliff overlooking a canyon. There was a gentle rain falling, mist in the valley, and clouds rolling over the cliffs. “It was so beautiful, I couldn’t find words to describe it. I just knew I wanted to be part of it,” Aagard says. “I guess art is how I do that today.”

In high school his favorite class was art, and so, after graduating in 1985, he enrolled first at Snow College in Ephraim, UT, and later at Salt Lake Community College to continue his art studies. But over the years, Aagard says, he has essentially created his own custom-
made course of art study. His stints in college were brief. He credits Utah-based watercolor artist and educator Harold Petersen with imparting to him a new way of seeing. “I started looking at things in a whole different way,” Aagard says of their time together. “I began looking at shapes and negative spaces. I started to look at things like an artist looks at things.” During this stage of his art education, he painted in watercolor and depicted the subject matter of his youth—landscapes and farm animals. He eventually added rodeo scenes and cowboys into the mix.

By 1992 Aagard was married and beginning to raise a family, and he needed a viable means of support. Luckily, he possessed a natural ability in carpentry and cabinet-making for his day job. In his limited leisure time, he painted. And he soon entered paintings into shows, ranging from the Utah State Fair to the more prestigious Spring Salon at the Springville Museum of Art. By the end of the decade, Aagard was showing his landscapes in Park City, UT, at the Kimball Art Center; in 1998, he signed on for representation with Meyer Gallery.

The new millennium ushered in a major turning point in his career. In 2000, Aagard attended an exhibition at the Alpine Art Center in Alpine, UT. He remembers walking around the room and perusing the paintings. At one point, he turned to look at works from a distance on an opposite wall from where he stood. A stunning landscape by Gary Ernest Smith caught his eye. “It was an evening painting with the shadows and the shapes of the hills in the distance,” Aagard recalls. “It was a high-desert landscape with sagebrush. It nearly knocked me over. I couldn’t believe a painting could do that to me. One had never affected me like this.”

In that moment, Aagard said to himself, “I’ve got to do that. And someday maybe I will.” Thus began his serious, dedicated journey into the world of oil painting. He sought out Smith for advice, asking the artist how he could improve his works. Smith said to him, “Why don’t you use some color?”

Aagard recalls thinking, “I thought I was using color.”

As this story was going to press, Aagard was busy in his studio packing up paintings for his August shows. He has now pursued a full-time career in fine art since 2001. In 2005, he designed and built a studio over his garage, only a few steps from his main residence in Payson, UT. The simple, almost minimalist, space features natural maple wood floors, a high, vaulted ceiling, and white walls. Pine wood trim frames the studio’s doors and windows, and a bank of windows on the north admits treasured north night into the room.

On most days, you can find Aagard here. Sounds of ’80s rock music by the Eagles, Journey, and Pink Floyd waft through the air, breaking the silence of an early morning. “The music gets me going when I need a pick-me-up,” Aagard says.

When he needs additional inspiration or motivation, he escapes into the nearby fields and national forest to sketch or take pictures for reference material. He is always searching for the emotion a subject evokes in him. “Connecting with nature is an important part of my work,” he says. “I always want to convey the spirit of the moment, how the sun felt, and how the light added to the scene. For me, it’s not really about technical accuracy as much as it is about the emotional connection.”

In some ways, the artist says, he has accomplished many of the goals he set for himself in his earlier days. And he has a few new ideas percolating for the future. One thing Aagard knows for certain is that, of his many talents and jobs in the past, only his fine-art career has offered him complete satisfaction. “Art is the only occupation that I could entirely give myself to—to fully invest myself physically, mentally, and spiritually,” he says.

Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT; Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Dick Idol Signature Gallery, Whitefish, MT; Kneeland Gallery, Ketchum, ID; Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY.

This story was featured in the July 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  July 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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