By Gussie Fauntleroy
As the morning sun slants across buildings and houses in a small farming community near Fresno, CA, painter Daniel Keys makes the short daily walk from his home to his studio, a few blocks away. He opens the front door and steps inside. Immediately his attention is drawn to several lovely groupings of objects, each of which could become a still-life arrangement.
Keys’ studio is actually a small, neatly kept older house, furnished with antiques, leather-bound books, Chinese vases filled with fresh-cut flowers from the artist’s garden, and other carefully chosen objects he has collected over the years. In the kitchen are porcelain pitchers, cups and saucers, an old-time coffee grinder, and a slightly dinged antique copper teakettle reflecting the colors around it in the morning light.
Arranging his collection of still-life objects in such a home-like environment provides Keys with continuous inspiration. It also creates an attractive and comfortable setting for presenting art talks or visiting with friends. And it leaves space in the large painting room at the back of the house for artist friends or students to set up their easels and paint alongside him.
“I’m always looking for things that go well with other things—that’s what still life is. And these endless combinations produce wonderful subject matter,” Keys observes.
Just 25 years old, the award-winning painter is remarkably self-assured and exceptionally committed to his art. Having begun his formal fine-art career just a few short years ago, Keys has quickly drawn the attention of gallery directors and collectors who appreciate the quality and beauty of his paintings, which look like the work of a mature painter fully in control of his medium. Indeed, the narrative of Keys’ artistic development reaches back many years.
Keys grew up in the town where he still lives, the middle child of parents who both serve as pastors in two nearby churches. Home-schooled throughout his childhood and teen years, he had plenty of opportunity to incorporate art into diverse academic subjects, and he was encouraged by his parents at each step. But when he was 5, he believed his older brother—who gained attention by drawing—was “the artist of the family.” His younger sister was adored just for being a little girl. So the question young Daniel naturally asked himself was, “What can I do?”
The answer began to emerge when his mother handed him paper to draw on in church one day. “I don’t remember what I drew, but I showed it to my parents and they were pleased,” he recalls. “So I thought, Well, I guess I can do this.”
During the next few years Keys became increasingly good at drawing, fueled by what he now considers the quintessential boyhood dream: becoming an animator for Walt Disney Studios. That dream was sidetracked at age 11, however, when his father encouraged him to use his birthday money to buy a set of acrylic paints. He took the set home, made a painting—and was completely discouraged by the experience.
For several months the paint set stayed in a closet. Then for Christmas a relative gave Keys a subscription to The Artist’s Magazine, a gift he admits was not at first especially thrilling. That is, until he was paging through the first issue and came across an article on renowned still-life painter Richard Schmid. The pictures stopped him in his tracks, and he read the article straight through.
“I loved it. I was captivated by what Richard Schmid was doing,” Keys relates. From then on he was single-minded about art. As a self-described “bit of an odd kid,” he found he was different from many of his peers in other ways as well. He didn’t care for sports, he enjoyed reading, and he loved growing flowers. Today many of the flowers in Keys’ paintings come from his own garden, providing him with a more intimate understanding of their shapes, colors, anatomy, and even the science behind the way they grow—all of which informs his art, he points out.
At 15, Keys settled on fine art as his career path. “I think being home-schooled allowed me to make that decision early on and pursue it without distractions. It gave me a head start. My parents were able to recognize that desire in me and created the environment for it to grow, like a greenhouse,” he notes. “I’m extremely grateful. I thank God for that every day.”
During his later teen years Keys searched out and studied additional articles, library books, and websites with works by Schmid. Although he had no formal painting lessons—and no first-hand exposure to important original artworks until about a year ago—he was determined to teach himself to paint like Schmid, a master of alla prima painting. This method of painting always involves wet-on-wet oil paint and often sees a piece done in a single sitting.
Although his mind was made up, it wasn’t until Keys was 19 that he began seriously exploring ways to transform his passion for art into a career. Having grown up with the Internet, he used it as an invaluable tool for further learning, networking, and finding ways to put his art out into the world. Meanwhile, he set up his studio and enjoyed painting, gradually developing his own artistic voice. These days he continues to paint alla prima. Smaller works are done in one sitting, while for larger paintings he mentally divides the canvas and completes one section at a time while the paint in that portion is wet. This method keeps the image feeling spontaneous and fresh, he believes.
Keys has developed his own style but continues to hold in high esteem the artist whose work so intensely inspired him. He has had the opportunity to spend some time with Schmid and enjoys the older painter’s input as an artistic advisor. And while still life remains the genre that best fits Keys’ artistic sensibilities, he also paints landscapes and the figure, and aims to hone his skills in those areas as well. (He also confides that after focusing so single-mindedly on his art, he now feels ready to expand his world by dating and eventually considering marriage.)
Keys and his mother, who lives nearby, share a longtime interest in antiques, and the young artist often borrows pieces from her for his paintings. Likewise, she borrows objects from his studio to decorate her home, and both are always on the lookout for beautiful items with a special timeless quality that seems to contain the histories of those who have owned them over the years, he explains.
“I only paint what I’m personally drawn to—things I’m just captivated by, things that resonate with me and that I feel I have to paint. In the experience of painting them I sort of grow attached to them. Then when I paint them again, they’re even more meaningful.”
The copper teakettle is one such item. While creating a recent still life of the kettle and an arrangement of autumn fruits and vegetables, Keys found that the knowledge he had stored from previously painting the kettle gave him a new level of confidence, with “no moments of delay because of not knowing how to approach the subject,” he reflects, adding, “No one notices improvement more than an artist with his own work, and I notice it in the ease of the process. The execution of this piece was such a pleasure.”
Other works bring their own forms of satisfaction. In TEACUP WITH BLOSSOMS the viewer’s eye is drawn to the white blossom in the very foreground of the painting, then wanders to the other foreground blooms, to the orange and the teacup, and finally to the spray of flowers that fills the background. “I enjoy causing the eye to move and not be abruptly interrupted by an object,” he explains.
Similarly, in WHITE PUMPKIN WITH VINES, the viewer’s attention is swept along in a graceful circular movement. Starting at the pumpkin, the eye follows the vines up, around, and back down the canvas and finally by a cup and small bowl to the pumpkin again. Keys created the arrangement on the spur of the moment, intending to paint one morning but having no set subject in mind. “I got really excited about it,” he recalls. “The color and play of light was so appealing—not vivid colors, but a lot of subtle color. It’s different from other things I paint.”
Regardless of subject, Keys sees his art as inherently connected with and affected by his deeply held Christian values and beliefs, which are an integral part of who he is. “I’m a happy person, so I paint things I find joy in,” he affirms. “If I see something I think is beautiful, I want to paint it beautifully so someone else can see that, too.”
Gallery 1261, Denver, CO; Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; www.danielkeysfineart.com.
Small Works group show, Gallery 1261, December 10.
Featured in November 2010