Ken Daggett braves the New Mexico landscape to capture its natural beauty
by Elizabeth L. Delaney
This story was featured in the July 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Ken Daggett is as much a product of his persistent work ethic as of his passion for art. A professional painter for 15 years, his success represents his penchant for learning, as well as his desire to seek out and conquer challenges to both his intellect and creativity. “Art is a lifelong challenge,” says the painter, “and I’m living my dream.” Daggett’s pioneering spirit and thirst for fulfillment led him to leave a comfortable but narrowly focused career, and nearly 15 years later, he has realized his self-perpetuated destiny.
Daggett grew up in Southern California and got his first taste of art making from his grandmother, who introduced him to painting when he was just 5 years old. He continued to develop his creative interests, taking art courses and winning awards throughout high school and while attending Orange Coast College. However, as he puts it, he “never got much out of it.” Ultimately, Daggett pioneered his own learning, garnering the lion’s share of his knowledge through inquiry, observation, and trial and error. As an adult, he honed his painting technique largely on his own for 10 years, during which time he opened a window-cleaning business and also went to school. As his skills progressed, he began to work as a freelance architectural illustrator, teaching himself to master the watercolor skills that were necessary for the job.
“I worked seven days a week, at least 15 hours a day, for 15 years,” he says of his time as a professional illustrator with a fine-art avocation. “But my ultimate dream was to travel and paint national parks.” Even before he became an illustrator, Daggett was planning to paint full time someday. “The most pivotal point came when I made a conscious decision to do whatever it took to become a fine artist. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to try, try, try, and never give up.’” He began saving every penny and practicing painting every chance he could get. His defining moment came in 2001, during a trip to Taos. With his work already on view in one gallery there, Daggett decided to pull up stakes and move to New Mexico, taking up his own gauntlet to transform his career and creative life. Intrigued by the rich, varied, and sometimes harsh New Mexico landscape, Daggett instantly felt both at home and challenged in the new and unfamiliar surroundings. “I took a leap of faith and just did it,” he says. Today, Daggett doesn’t have to go far to encounter ideas for a composition, and he works predominantly within a 50-mile radius of his home and studio. “I try to find something that hits me visually,” he explains. “I’ll pull over and say, ‘Wow, I have to paint that.’”
Daggett paints en plein air virtually without fail, completing each piece on location, usually two or three per day. “When I first started painting, I tried to work from photographs or from memory. I found that photos didn’t do it for me,” he explains. Consequently, Daggett enjoys the rigors of working in the elements, and he often battles wind and cold to capture his subject matter. Fall and winter are his favorite seasons, and even on the harshest days, he can be found outside painting—bundled in winter layers and often retreating to the car for a moment of warmth.
“I work fast, because I have to,” he says, citing the constantly changing light, wind, cold air, and other weather conditions. (He had to change his medium from watercolor to oil some years ago because his paints would freeze onsite.) “The challenge is trying to capture the scene as it’s happening,” he says. It is a test he relishes, however, as it allows him not only to capture a specific moment in time but also to condense various elements of the day into one scene. Further, he can quickly and accurately convey his own action-oriented experiences to viewers. Such a process lends an element of extra authenticity to his paintings, which, like good produce, come straight from the field: genuine, fresh, and unaltered.
A member of the Boy Scouts in his youth, Daggett has a long-held and deep appreciation for the wilderness. He feels at home in rural settings, where he finds inspiration in the primal beauty of nature as well as in the inherent struggles of dealing with it. “I love the serenity of the outdoors. I love the drama,” he explains. At first overwhelmed by painting outdoors, he reconcentrated his aspirations and continued working and experimenting until he reached the level of technique he desired. “Learning to paint plein air was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” he admits. “But I never gave up and put all my effort into it.”
Daggett’s creative process is multi-faceted, incorporating discovery, spontaneity, and exploration at every turn. Among the many things he enjoys about the Taos area is the complexity and variation he finds within the landscape. He chooses his subject matter as he encounters it, often hiking straight into the wilderness with paint, tools, and canvases up to 60 inches wide. “What’s better than being right there?” he says of his painting expeditions. “I love the challenge—to be out there and see the whole day changing before your eyes and figuring out how to capture it. Nothing beats it.”
A prolific observer and researcher, Daggett constantly studies various painting techniques and styles, both historical and contemporary. Two of his biggest influences are Edgar Payne, whose work he looks to for compositional concerns, and Alvaro Castagnet, whose painting style has helped free him from the constraints of his background as a highly technical illustrator. Daggett looks to the Impressionists as well, fascinated by their unparalleled ability to capture the essence of the moment. He recently has begun studying color theory and is drawn to the work of the Tonalists in particular. Working within a limited palette of four to six colors further challenges him to maintain visual focus and thematic cohesion throughout his landscapes.
Daggett describes his style as representational, verging on impressionistic—an attribute that he constantly works to attain. His background as a technical illustrator demanded precision and uniformity, along with as much detail as possible. However, Daggett has found that his oil paintings do not have enough “life” when he attempts to interpret the subject matter in such a detailed fashion. “Recently, I’ve been moving more and more away from describing every detail,” he says. “There’s just more to the painting when you don’t describe everything.” To that end, Daggett now paints exclusively with a palette knife. “Using only a palette knife takes away some of your control,” he says. “It is out of control … and beautiful.” Looser paint application and reduction of detail both serve to create visual cohesion across Daggett’s canvases. Such a process also allows him to paint more quickly, and thus more expressively, creating a decidedly modern bent to the traditional, bucolic scenes.
“I am basically trying to capture the beauty and drama of the landscape,” Daggett says when describing his modus operandi. “It’s also a very personal, mental challenge. I love it because it’s such an unending learning process.” The constant change of scenery, along with the task of creating visually engaging compositions, are as enchanting for Daggett as the finished products surely are for his viewers.
Daggett’s subject matter reflects the diverse landscape that surrounds him. But whether he paints mountains, forests, gorges, or water, his goal is to present the region’s inimitable light and sense of place. MORNING ON THE RIO GRANDE articulates an air of freshness as the day begins, calm and still across a vast landscape. Conversely, STREAM THROUGH THE ASPENS maps out a microenvironment within the woods, capturing the energy of flowing water and swaying grasses and trees. TAOS JUNCTION WINTER STUDY and SNOW AND SAGE reflect Daggett’s newfound intrigue with snow and its lustre, as well as the sense of peace it creates within the scenery.
“I have the best of both worlds here in Taos—the wilderness plus the comforts of home,” muses Daggett. Yet despite his contentment, he remains invested in continuing to learn and grow as an artist. “I’m always trying to find something new and better,” he says. When he wants a real challenge, he sequesters himself in his studio, referencing only his memory as an exercise to free up his style and to capture another layer of beauty and spirit within the landscape—one that lies beneath the details of the elements. However, Daggett does not plan to curb his plein-air activity, which will always endure as his primary challenge and creative outlet, and, perhaps more importantly, his first love.
“For me, painting is a never-ending challenge, and I will spend my life gratefully pursuing that challenge. I learn and grow with each new painting.”
Featured in the July 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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