Doug Dawson | The Art of Problem Solving

Doug Dawson embraces the creative journey in his sensitive pastel paintings

By Elizabeth L. Delaney

Doug Dawson, Cape May, oil, 24 x 33.

Doug Dawson, Cape May, oil, 24 x 33.

This story was featured in the March 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

“The pleasure is in the new problem you’re trying to solve.” So says Doug Dawson, the Colorado painter who began his adult life as a scientist before embracing a sometimes quiet but lifelong call to make art. While on this journey, Dawson has learned to infuse intellect with intuition, discovering a methodical yet fluid way to interpret the surroundings that intrigue him in an array of richly complex lines, light, and color.

Early on in his artistic career, Dawson believed that the beauty and emotion contained in a piece of art existed only in the finished piece; that the conclusion was the only thing that mattered. These days, the seasoned artist draws and paints for the sake of exploration, of testing solutions to a visual problem until he finds resolution in the various shapes and hues that populate his experiments. He has evolved to a place where he can merge all the facets of his experiences and appreciate the process of creating rather than simply reveling in the outcome of creating. For Dawson, the value surely lies in the journey, not the destination.

Born in Oak Park, IL, Dawson realized his love of making art at a young age, when, as a child, he was able to capture true likenesses of people. Despite this skill, by the time Dawson got to college, he had decided to pursue the field of biology. Aside from several art classes he took to complete course requirements, Dawson placed his art largely on the back burner. He earned his undergraduate degree from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and from there enrolled at Drake University for graduate school. After completing a master’s degree, he accepted a position teaching biology in the Denver public schools and moved to Colorado.

It was not until he had been a science teacher for several years that the lure of making art began to weigh on Dawson with more urgency. Recognizing that he could no longer ignore the call, he turned his focus back to art, eventually transforming from biology teacher to art teacher while simultaneously picking up his pastels and paints and investing in his own fine-art career. “It was a matter of giving in to it,” says the artist. “I finally concluded that art was more important to me than anything else.”

After six years, Dawson left his full-time teaching position to redouble his focus on his own fine art. He continued to teach part time at the Colorado Institute of Art and at the Art Students League of Denver, where he still teaches today. “Teaching has always been a really important part of my art, because I have found that I learned so much about art from trying to help other people learn,” says Dawson. “Trying to help others caused me to look deeper into the materials, principles, and techniques.”

Indeed, teaching remains crucial to Dawson’s life and work. In addition to giving classroom instruction, he leads about 10 workshops annually across the country. While traveling to teach, Dawson frequently takes the opportunity to explore the landscape and find subject matter for his own work, and over the years he has learned to glean material from almost anywhere. This, in turn, facilitates his communication with students. “To try to help other people understand how to do it and what direction they should take often means you have to look at things that you wouldn’t consider looking at if you were just in your studio painting,” says Dawson. “It forces you to take a broader view of how art works.”

Dawson is a founding member of the Art Students League of Denver, where he is being honored with a retrospective exhibition this month. Additionally, he is a member of the American Watercolor Society, Plein Air Artists Colorado, the Pastel Society of Colorado, the Pastel Society of the Southwest, and the Pastel Society of America, where he was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2008.

Although Dawson made the transformation from scientist to artist, his prior field of study still informs his artwork, most notably in the way he handles subject matter. He explains, “I tend to have an experimental approach to things. I tend to bring that kind of scientific way of thinking about things to it.” While also relying on his aesthetic instinct, Dawson finds it beneficial to firmly identify the problem he wants to solve on the canvas. He routinely accomplishes this first by looking through his collection of images clipped from magazines and other printed materials over the past two decades. This way he can study a new principle or theme to address in his art, using it as a launching point. “Creativity comes in two forms: it’s either taking an existing thing and changing it, or combining one idea with another,” he says.

Dawson paints in oil when the mood strikes, but he is known primarily as a pastel artist. He wields pastels deftly to produce highly pigmented landscapes that evoke depth and complexity within the many layers of color. He works in an impressionistic style that is less about capturing light effects than it is about loose, expressive application of pigment and creation of texture. “I’m motivated by the idea of creating an exciting surface that engages people,” he says.

Despite this loose, textural style, Dawson manages the creation of each piece methodically. Foundational color schemes are important tools for him, and he considers the underpainting as the element that “sets the mood” in any piece. It anchors the color story while also adding vibrancy. Sometimes Dawson starts a piece with a monochromatic underpainting to create a general overcast or sunny sensation. Other times, he applies initial colors that are the opposite of the upper layers to create greater contrast and drama.

Dawson works en plein air from time to time, but for the most part he prefers to create in his studio, often from photographs he takes while exploring places he visits for workshops. He nevertheless attempts to incorporate the energy of working on-site into his studio pieces. “I like the boldness and the vitality of plein-air painting, and I want my studio paintings to have that same kind of feel,” says the artist.

Dawson began his career largely as a portrait artist, where he found gratification in his ability to understand and resolve the subject matter with efficiency. “One of the things about painting people that interested me was that it was the simplest way to try to express a feeling,” he says. “I thought my whole purpose as an artist was about trying to communicate my emotional response to the people and things around me.” Portraits provided Dawson with a concrete, subjective form to depict. They allowed him to extract and portray the literal and figurative disposition of the subject through his own artistry, and there he found resolution.

All that changed one day when he was assigned to teach a landscape class. Dawson had to re-orient his approach to channel his emotions and experiences in a more objective, abstracted form. Ever the scientist, he pushed on with the experiment in search of the best manner by which to impart his subjective experiences through the external filter of his surroundings. Thus he began to expand his focus, building subject upon subject, one step at a time, as his mentor, painter Ramon Kelley, had advised him. A light fixture turned into a still life, which evolved into a larger window scene and then the façade of a building. Soon he was painting urban nocturnes and landscapes, pouring into them the same passion and verve that he once thought could only be expressed in portraiture.

Now, Dawson follows his internal compass when uncovering subjects to depict. He seeks out things that move him or simply looks for the next formal aesthetic challenge—a hypothesis to prove in visual form. Despite his scientific attitude, he tries to retain an element of emotive, intangible ardor in his work. “The task of the painter is, in my opinion, to move the viewer,” says Dawson. “I judge the success of a painting primarily by whether I feel like it moves me; and if it moves me, I have the hope that it might move viewers.”

Dawson likens visual art to music—another art form that he feels can reach people on the deepest emotional plane. He regularly views his own work in terms of songwriting: figurative objects are similar to the lyrics in a song, whereas underlying abstractions function as the melody. This way, he fuses formal elements with supporting ideas and feelings to create vivid, thoughtful, aesthetically captivating scenes. “The highest achievement that a visual artist could strive for would be to create a painting or drawing that moves somebody as powerfully as a really powerful piece of music does,” he says. “That’s the goal in my mind. I’d like to create a painting that causes somebody to think about it a week or month later, something that gets into their head and touches them.”


Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Total Arts Gallery, Taos, NM; Saks Galleries, Denver, CO.

This story was featured in the March 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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