Plein-air painter Dave Santillanes holds an intimate conversation with nature
By Rosemary Carstens
“My goal isn’t to render a literal representation of a scene,” emphasizes Colorado landscape painter Dave Santillanes. “Instead I try to convey its essence, simplifying its components without compromising its specific sense of place.” Working steadily over the past decade, Santillanes is increasingly recognized for his ability to translate his knowledge of wild places into beautifully crafted works of art.
Santillanes laid the foundation for his career at Colorado State University, where, in 1995, he completed a bachelor of fine arts degree with an emphasis on graphic design. Following graduation, he spent time in the skiing industry and worked as a wildland firefighter before taking a position as a Photoshop artist at a photography lab. All day long he sharpened his eye for color and value at the computer, and every evening he painted and honed his fine-art skills. Unlike many artists during their developmental years, he purposely avoided classes—where instructors might influence or shape his personal style—until his own way of “putting paint down” was firmly established. Then, in 2002, he signed up for a five-day workshop with noted artist Skip Whitcomb in Rocky Mountain National Park. “Skip refocused me on design. Instead of composing a painting as you would a photograph—keeping everything in—Skip influenced me to create paintings out of what I saw. To pick out one thing that really inspired me and focus on it.” From that moment forward, Santillanes’ work coalesced into its present poetry of place—the intimate conversation with nature that is his signature.
The choice of nature as the artist’s subject matter and fundamental inspiration springs from his lifelong love of the outdoors. Growing up within minutes of the dramatic peaks, rivers, lakes, and meadows of the Rocky Mountains and the vast open expanses of the Pawnee National Grasslands, he and his family spent plenty of time camping, hiking, fishing, and bow hunting. He still looks forward to getting outside and enjoying nature: “I love painting outdoors. Although I do studio works, too, my usual approach is to use my plein-air pieces as a guide for them. Outdoor painting is meditative—and I don’t think I can do an honest landscape now without having painted on location.”
Driving a couple of hours, then biking or hiking rough trails even farther into remote areas—with a 35- to 40-pound artist’s pack on his back—is all in a day’s work for Santillanes. His determination and energy are remarkable. Once, after driving two hours to get to a high mountain trailhead, he realized he had forgotten his hiking boots, and he was wearing only flip-flops. Fortunately (or unfortunately) he had left his golf shoes in the car. “My ankles still hurt from carrying my heavy pack on that 12-mile, round-trip hike. But since it was my one day to get out and paint, I wasn’t going to be denied!” he says.
Santillanes describes himself as a “hands-on kind of guy, a problem solver” whose strength as an artist lies in his ability to capture nature’s elusive color, fleeting light, and atmosphere. His increasing mastery of these components comes from hours of direct observation: “Seeing a scene is only part of the story,” he says. “Being there creates a spiritual awareness of my surroundings that allows me to ‘speak’ with complete sincerity in each painting.”
Certainly Santillanes brings something deeply personal and emotional to his work. For example, RESILIENCE, painted in the Ventura River Valley near Ojai, CA, was the unanticipated result of an early morning trip into the valley, during which he meant to capture the entire, grand expanse of the landscape as the early light filtered through. Instead, a flowering yucca grabbed his attention and became the more intimate means for expressing the valley’s character. The hardy little plant showing off its bloom against the soft, painterly brushwork in the background reveals the artist’s sensitive awareness of how evocative a singular detail can be.
Good, cohesive design is the bellwether of fine art. It attracts the eye from a distance, even when the subject matter is not yet discernible. The British art critic Clive Bell was renowned for his claim that the value of art lies in its ability to produce a distinctive aesthetic experience, one so profound that the viewer experiences some measure of what the artist felt at the moment of creation. Bell’s perspective was that “Art is the creation of significant form, and simplification is the liberation of what is significant from what is not.” Santillanes does this intuitively. It is the strong design elements of a scene that he roots out when beginning a new painting, looking first for patterns of dark and light, shadow and form, and noting how the lines intersect.
Whether in his studio (surrounded by piles of field studies) or working en plein air, once he has his composition firmly in mind, Santillanes usually proceeds from background to foreground, laying in cooler hues first and then working in deeper, warmer colors as he moves into the foreground. His goal is to capture a specific instant, to transfer the emotions he feels in nature’s presence to canvas. To achieve this, he creates a sense of immediacy with his loose, lively brushwork. Early in his career, he experimented with using a palette knife to lay down paint more boldly but felt it didn’t achieve the alla prima energy he sought. He still employs the knife occasionally, but his growing skill with the brush has become a hallmark of his paintings.
SPRING RUNOFF, which depicts evening light along Michigan Creek near American Lakes in Colorado, won the bronze award at the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition of Traditional Oils in 2010. The painting illustrates the artist’s strong design sense and ability to portray a scene’s atmosphere. The crisscross of diagonal patterns, evoked by the distant mountains and the fallen logs intersecting the river, serve as counterpoint to the sharp, dark verticals of the surrounding forest and mountain shadows. Our eye is drawn from the foreground detail to the distant peaks against the sky above. We can almost feel the air cooling and hear the quiet hush as shadows slowly draw a curtain across the light of day.
When not putting in twelve-hour days in his studio or outdoors, Santillanes also teaches. Because his personal style is so appealing, his recent workshop at Evergreen Fine Art in Colorado sold out, with a long waiting list for the next one. According to Barb Hadley and Phil Shanley, owners of the gallery, Santillanes’ advancing popularity is all about his “talent and very distinctive style, which can be recognized from across the room. Dave has a wonderful ability to distill a scene to its vital elements; he doesn’t overdo [it].”
While painting the never-ending beauty of the Colorado landscape will no doubt continue to be a mainstay of his work, Santillanes has been invited to the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art plein-air show for the past two years and has been very well received. He’s also intrigued by what he might paint in remote regions such as Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, as well as other parts of the world.
“Being invited to paint in the Grand Canyon the past two years has been a high point in my career so far,” says Santillanes. “Painting a few feet from the edge of a 400-foot drop-off is a moment that makes me pinch myself—as in, ‘I can’t believe I get to do this!’” Each morning, Santillanes (not usually a morning person) was up and out at 4 a.m. to get in several hours of plein-air work before the monsoons moved in midmorning. After a week of painting, the work of the 30 participating artists is exhibited at the Canyon’s historic Kolb Studio. This year, Santillanes’ enthusiasm and passion were rewarded with nine painting sales on opening night.
In the past few years, the artist has netted some prestigious awards. In addition to a Judge’s Award at the Grand Canyon show and the 2010 bronze award from the Oil Painters of America, Santillanes has won the People’s Choice award at the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters Show, and, at the 2011 Crested Butte Plein Air Invitational, he was awarded Best of Show. Crested Butte’s Oh-Be-Joyful Gallery owner Shaun Horne reiterates why he is so pleased to represent Santillanes: “Dave has an atmospheric style of description and an exploratory method of design that combine to make an easily distinguishable body of work. His paintings are beautiful, with a deep, lustrous spatial quality. We think he’ll continue to be very successful.”
Santillanes is a young artist on the move. His impressive work ethic and the sophistication of his paintings provide a fresh look at nature’s wonders, one we’ll be enjoying for many years to come. E
Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; Oh-Be-Joyful Gallery, Crested Butte, CO; Wild Spirit Gallery, Pagosa Springs, CO; www.davesantillanes.com.
Featured in December 2011.