Dan McCaw | Pushing Boundaries

By Rosemary Carstens

“When I was young, I painted the beauty I saw in the world around me. As I got older, it became more important to paint the felt world—to dive beneath the surface and represent the internal, intrinsic qualities of my subject matter.” This statement by master painter Dan McCaw reveals his evolving philosophy over a career spanning more than 40 years. His highly acclaimed work is revered by aficionados of both impressionism and expressionism—a rare achievement—and he strives to extend his art’s visual message to his work as mentor, teacher, and author.
McCaw is one of America’s most respected contemporary impressionists, and early in his career he became known for his romantic portrayals of women and children bathed in a golden glow.

Mother & Child, oil, 40 x 30.

Impressionism has been described as “poetry of light,” and McCaw’s paintings in this style contain an unquestionable lyricism, a melodic quality that makes a distinctive statement in such works as MOTHER AND CHILD. This painting exemplifies the artist’s ability to sensitively portray his subjects, as well as his knowledge and mastery of color. Overall effect is emphasized rather than details, delicacy and subtlety rather than power. The viewer is invited to connect the dots, to narrate a story framed by his or her own experiences.

Maryvonne Leshe has represented McCaw at Trailside Galleries in Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ, for nearly three decades—a clear indication of her enthusiasm for his work. “The sheer joy and exuberance that Dan experiences in creating his art is contagious, and the expressive content of his paintings emanates an energy that is palpable,” she says. “His subject matter is imbued with rich color and texture, to which he adds the mystique of suggestion. Added to the mix is his unique insight and myriad ways of interpreting the subject—and therein lies the difference between mere painter and truly inspired visionary artist.”

Although McCaw is still working figuratively, in recent years he’s moved to more personal interpretations. He increasingly accentuates essential shapes to capture his subjects’ inner landscape, trumping mere physical beauty. The artist credits such masters as Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Gustav Klimt, Antoni Tàpies, and the post-World War II abstract expressionists for setting him on the road to less literal representations. McCaw feels that “a lot of creativity just needs a breath of encouragement to lift its wings,” and the inspiration he has taken from these artists has pushed his own work to new heights.

In a recent series of his expressionist paintings, each canvas features a solitary figure, almost shadowlike, somewhat distorted or elongated, with arms at its sides. There is a sense that the figure is waiting for what happens next. To the artist these figures represent the characteristics within all of us that are pushed back into the shadows as we go about meeting life’s daily demands. They await their opportunity to spring forth and flower.

Seated Figure, oil, 48 x 36.

In such painterly scenes as SEATED FIGURE, McCaw expands our understanding of so-called objective reality to access the heart and soul of his subject. He began by eliminating nonessential detail, using rich, dark hues to heighten the effect of the figure’s luminous glow, and employs a flurry of lost edges to achieve its ethereal, poetic imagery. As he explains, “Harmony of shape, design, and texture were more important to me than specifics.” As he translates the figure’s facade to reveal its true authenticity, he invites his viewers to join him on a journey.

Quang Ho, a master painter himself and owner of Gallery 1261 in Denver, says that “McCaw reaches out to just beyond the normal comfort zone. This takes his works to delightful and surprising new places. He goes way beyond the subject matter and is dealing with paint and visual dialog on a personal level. When all that happens on a structurally sound foundation, good things happen for art.”

McCaw did not grow up surrounded by art, although he began sketching and drawing in early childhood. He was raised in the hardscrabble Irish-Catholic mining town of Butte, MT. Life there valued toughness over artistry, and it was assumed he might follow in the footsteps of his ironworker father. After high school he spent a year and a half “wandering the halls” at Montana Institute of Technology, wondering what to do next. He married young and supported his family by working in construction in the San Francisco Bay Area while he attended San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, taking classes as he was able. His ability soon won him a scholarship. As he puts it now, “Those were rough times, but colorful, really colorful.”

He and his wife, Stacey, moved to Los Angeles a couple of years later, where they raised five children and still reside. Upon arrival he went to work as an illustrator for a commercial art firm, but all the while he longed to pursue a fine-art career and attended night classes at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. (He later taught there for 17 years.) McCaw’s natural inquisitiveness and willingness to explore served him well, as his knowledge of artists and techniques expanded. A number of the great European artists captured his attention, especially Joaquin Sorolla, whose exquisite works are particularly distinguishable for their depiction of light and their design. They inspired McCaw to focus on honing these skills in his own work.

As he became firmly rooted in Los Angeles, McCaw realized he was always meant to be a “city boy.” He still occasionally spends time at his family’s Montana home near Glacier National Park, but he responds most to the constantly changing action of a metropolis. “I love the buzz of urban settings—that buffet of cultures, architecture, and art that you only find in major cities,” he says. “I need the energy of spinning around to see it all as you walk down the street.”

Today McCaw shares a grand 5,000-square-foot work space—once a ballet studio—with his sons John and Danny, both accomplished artists in their own right. Danny’s style is representational and impressionistic; John’s is abstract. Their father loves the energy of their studio and the opportunities it presents for sharing ideas and music. He feels that he learns as much from his sons as they do from him.

Cool Light, oil, 12 x 16.

Beneath its vaulted, 14-foot-high ceiling, the studio is a treasure trove of art. Finished and unfinished paintings of all sizes are stacked five and six deep along the walls surrounding each man’s work area. A kaleidoscope of bold hues and shadowy tones meet the eye in an impressive array of interpretive compositions. In one section, groups of paintings featuring Dan’s enigmatic abstract figures gather like relatives at a family reunion. The upstairs loft is jammed to capacity with filing cabinets, bookshelves, desks, computer equipment, boxes filled with odds and ends, exercise machines, and a punching bag—there’s barely a square foot of open floor space. This is a truly lived-in studio, a no-holds-barred bunker where creativity and exploration reign.

Change, pushing boundaries, and keen observation of everything around him are at the core of McCaw’s personal belief system and his philosophy as an artist. He pushes himself to keep growing and learning. He has not only achieved substantial recognition as an artist but also spent many years as a teacher and published art books. His first, A Proven Strategy for Creating Great Art, was instructional, but the one he’s presently laboring over expresses his deeply held convictions about the creative potential of every human being. The Purple Tree is the story of how children begin with an inexhaustible supply of imagination and creativity but, as they receive such input as “trees are green and the sky is blue,” their natural tendency to experiment is suppressed.

Over a lifetime, McCaw says, most people are barraged with messages that suggest that conformance is good and individual deviation is not. In the new book, he points out that people become more fearful as they grow up, more dependent on affirmation from others, and more resistant to change. The Purple Tree is a road map meant to encourage people to embrace change, seek new worlds, and explore unusual solutions. “Change drives creativity,” he says. “It’s like stepping in wet cement—the more you stand in one place, the more difficult it becomes to move on.”

Ultimately McCaw is a painter on a quest, tilting not at windmills but at artistic boundaries. Guided by a restless inner compass, he continually explores his own emotional landscape and that of his subjects, taking his viewers on journeys into unexplored territory. There is no doubt that those who most appreciate fine art will want to come along for the ride.


Gallery 1261, Denver, CO; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head, SC.

Featured in April 2011.