By Reed Glenn
Although painter C. Michael Dudash lives in Pennsylvania, his heart currently resides in the Old West—and its more colorful, less complicated times. His paintings OLD FRIENDS and THE LAST HAND smolder with the scent of wood fires, kerosene lamps, tall-grass prairie, and sage. Warm golden tones bestow an antique quality to the work.
But Dudash’s roots aren’t quite so far from his western subject matter. He grew up in the small town of Mankato in Minnesota. “I grew up with big sky,” he says. His parents had artistic and musical talent and encouraged their five children’s abilities. His mother attended art school for a year, but chose motherhood instead of an art career. His Hungarian father was a musician and had wanted to be an architect, but applied his creative design and building talents to carpentry.
Dudash describes himself as “a life-long musician and draw-er.” In addition to painting, he plays guitar and piano. After graduating from high school in 1970, he spent a year at Macalester College in St. Paul as a fine-art major, but left school to pursue music. Five years on the road as a full-time musician took him to New England, where he met his wife-to-be in Vermont.
“At that point I decided to go back to my other talent, which was art,” he says. So he returned to Minnesota to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “I was only in art school for a semester when McGraw-Hill [Publishing Co.] offered me a job. Although I had some formal art education—life drawing, drafting, and some painting—I had no training as an illustrator. I learned on the job at McGraw-Hill for a year and then was basically on my own.”
Dudash left the company, and he and his wife, Valerie, moved back to her home state of Vermont. He found an agent in New York and began producing illustrations for Readers Digest, TV Guide, the movie industry, and other outlets. “I started winning awards and was pretty successful. I only planned to do it for a couple of years, because I always wanted to be a painter,” he says. But like one of his inspirations, renowned 20th-century illustrator N.C. Wyeth (father of artist Andrew Wyeth), he met success quickly, and the work and its rewards were too good to pass up—especially since he was now supporting a growing family.
Working in oil on linen, he created paintings used as posters for such top films as Pale Rider with Clint Eastwood, Waterworld with Kevin Costner, The Quest with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and others, including Silverado, The Two Jakes, The Jungle Book, and re-releases of Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life. Clint Eastwood owns the original painting for the Pale Rider poster.
Universal Studios, Warner Bros., MGM/United Artists, Disney Studios, and other film-industry giants were among his clients. In the 1990s he designed a number of commemorative stamps for the U.S. Postal Service and the United Nations. His extensive client list includes such companies as Eddie Bauer, Nike, and AT&T.
But the great age of illustration from original paintings was coming to an end. “For the last 100 years, representational art has been used for all types of commercial products,” says Dudash. “Then came stock photography, and, around 1990, computers.” Stock photos caused a “big bump” in the illustration field, and then digital manipulation had an even greater impact, he says.
“About 10 years ago, most markets in commercial work were starting to disappear for painters. If you’re a representational, fairly realistic oil painter, there’s not much of a market for it anymore with illustration. Everyone is using digital and manipulating photographs. Now everybody’s a designer and art creator. A lot of the work I used to do—book covers, TV guides, movie posters—is going electronic. I’m very digitally literate. I taught myself and was doing some digital rendering. But it’s not the same as getting your hands dirty and really painting. I was long overdue to switch anyway, but the marketplace really gave me the push. Illustration was fading fast and representational painters were losing ground.”
In an interesting turn of events, however, representational art is now more important in galleries than in the illustration field, says Dudash. It used to be the other way around. “For the last few decades, representational fine art was not a big industry, not a huge market in galleries,” he says. Many artists were experimenting with abstraction, and buyers wanted that cutting-edge work.
Now, however, “The pendulum has swung the other way with people wanting beautiful representational paintings in the home,” says Dudash. “There’s also a whole new art-buying public—not just the super-wealthy, but also the upper-middle class, such as people with second homes. They are fairly conservative and first-time buyers in the art market. It’s also the first time a large segment of the population has had disposable income to buy art. But now, of course, this is taking a big hit with the recession.
“When I got out of illustration about eight years ago, I was just having fun doing all kinds of things and wasn’t concerned about subject matter,” he continues. “When I started showing at Legacy Gallery, they took me on as a still-life/landscape guy, doing mostly New England scenes. Then I started painting western subjects and they flew off the wall. I’ve been pursuing it pretty seriously for a number of years now.
“I don’t know what triggered it,” Dudash says of his western subject matter. “I always loved history and the themes of western art. They felt good with my way of thinking and approach to life: family, faith, salt of the earth, and history. They all come together in western painting. I love the great costuming, the storytelling, the figures.” One painting, he says, seemed to be the catalyst for the switch. “It was myself in a western outfit holding a gun, smoke around me, in a stable kind of setting. I had a lot of fun doing that painting. It sold right away, and people took notice. Then I met a couple of re-enactors who modeled for me, and it all came together in terms of sales.”
He began traveling in the West, gathering information and reference material. After living in Vermont for 33 years and raising their children there, the Dudashes relocated to 17 acres in the rural horse and hill country of western Pennsylvania five years ago. “There’s a bison ranch about 20 minutes from me and a couple of rodeos,” Dudash says. “Oddly enough, there’s a kind of affinity for that around here. There are a lot of re-enactors in Old Bedford Village and across the state. You wouldn’t really think of that in this area. But it is western Pennsylvania.”
Dudash also chose the area because it was the location of a Christian ministry he’d been involved with for several decades. “It’s taken me to Kenya, where we’re building schools,” he notes. Over the years he has also done many illustrations for the Christian book market and a series of bible-themed paintings, several of which hang in the collection of the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, TX.
Dudash describes his painting style as “tight, but loose,” which is evident in his painting BIG ROY. He still has the illustrator’s eye for accuracy, detail, and an instant message, but also a painter’s sensitivity to texture, mood, and feeling—finely expressed in SPANISH BEAUTY #2, which glows with the dreamy sensuousness of a Gauguin, Renoir, or Monet. Dudash says his biggest artistic influences came from the early golden age of illustrators during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s and such individuals as N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Haddon Sundblom, Harvey Dunn, and Dean Cornwell, plus classical painters John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Nicolai Fechin, and the Impressionists.
In addition to capturing a lovely moment, LOVING CARE offers a glimpse of his still-life expertise, perhaps his most contemporary, creative, and expressive genre, but one that is on the back burner for now. “I’ve been trying to find new subject matter in this season of my life. I’m still on a bit of a search. We’re empty nesters now, the kids are grown, and we’re relatively free. I have a feeling that I’ll be mixing it up a bit. But for now, I’m riding this for a while. I feel really good about it and I’m having a lot of fun with it. And we’ve been thinking pretty seriously about heading west.”
Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Robert Paul Galleries, Stowe, VT; Art Obsession Gallery, Tokyo, Japan; www.cmdudash.com.
American Art Invitational, Saks Galleries, Denver, CO, December 3-31.
American Miniatures Show, Settlers West Galleries, February 12, 2011.
Legacy of the American West Show, Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, March 10-20, 2011.
Featured in December 2010