Andrew Denman | The Drive to Succeed

Andrew Denman paints his future

by Elizabeth L. Delaney

Andrew Denman, The Vanishing Act (Amur Leopard), acrylic, 18 x 24.

Andrew Denman, The Vanishing Act (Amur Leopard), acrylic, 18 x 24.

This story was featured in the December 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  December 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Ask young children what they want to be when they group up, and you’ll often get answers that are imaginative and slightly unrealistic. But every once in a while, a child recognizes his or her true path from the beginning. They just know. Andrew Denman was one of those kids. He knew as a small child armed with a set of colored pencils; he knew as he claimed the role of “art kid” in school; and he knew as he organized his first exhibition while still a teenager. Now, as an award-winning artist working full time to pursue his passion, he knows the benefits of following his dreams.

“I don’t remember not being an artist,” says Denman, who felt that innate desire to create while growing up in Lafayette, CA. Always encouraged by his parents, young Andrew sought out every opportunity he could to hone his talents and advance his journey. Perhaps serendipitously, Denman lived close to the renowned Pacific Wildlife Galleries, where he became something of a fixture, visiting regularly to look at the art up close and to learn what he could from gallery artists. Over the years, he forged friendships and working relationships with noted wildlife artists Robert Bateman, John Seerey-Lester, Carl Brenders, and Terry Isaac, as well as with painter and instructor Morten E. Solberg.

Denman’s tenacity became increasingly apparent when, at the age of 15, he mounted his first solo show at a local library and again when he signed with a commercial gallery the following year. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine art from St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, and less than a year later, he had his first solo gallery exhibition. That show sold out, and Denman was off and running. Consequently, making art has been his sole profession, and he attributes that to the innate drive that emerged so soon in his young life. “I am very grateful I got the early start that I did,” he says. “It was a real blessing to know what I wanted to do so early on.”

Denman also loves to teach, and not surprisingly, he discovered his penchant for it early on. He credits his junior-high art teacher with sparking his interest, and following his lead, in his teens Denman began offering lessons to younger kids. He continues to teach today, holding several workshops a year. He maintains that sharing his gifts with others offers mutual benefits. “Any good teacher knows that there is an interchange of ideas between teacher and student,” he says. “If both are open to the process, both stand equally to learn from the other.”

Denman’s lifelong love of painting parallels his ongoing, deep affection for nature, and as such, animals have dominated his artwork since adolescence. “The natural world is an inexhaustible source of inspiration,” says Denman, who has traveled around the globe to explore the wilds of England, Africa, and Trinidad, in addition to the western United States. However, finding new subject matter is often as simple as stepping into his own backyard. Raptors, songbirds, coyotes, and even the occasional mountain lion populate the area surrounding Denman’s California home, giving him frequent opportunities to cross paths with the creatures that inspire his work.

Painting wild animals is not simply a visual homage for Denman. Each composition is the result of an actual encounter between artist and subject—a narrative recounting the “authentic experience” he holds so dear. And while the artist is indeed drawn to an animal’s physical beauty, more than that, he responds to its behavior and attitude and the story they suggest. “While every piece begins with an experience in nature, my work is as much, if not more, about the artistic and conceptual process that happens later in the studio,” Denman explains. “In this way, animal subjects are not so much my subjects at all but rather springboards for metaphor.”

For Denman, animal encounters are near transcendent, and as he interprets them with paint and brush, he seeks to communicate that profound connection to viewers. “The most spiritual I feel is when I’m out in nature,” he says. “The most honest, visceral work comes from that connectivity. I don’t simply want to paint animals. It is important to me to translate what I see into an experience that is unique, beautiful, and lasting—one that tells the viewer as much about me as about the subject I am painting.”

As he describes it, Denman’s creative process is long and involved. He does not do many plein-air studies, preferring instead to photograph the animals he meets, taking time to observe each one’s unique demeanor and absorb the essence of the interaction. In this manner, he believes he can best convey not only the aesthetic richness of his subject matter but also the poignancy of his experience. “I do not want my work to look like photographs but rather like the considered and reasoned journey of an artistic mind expressed on the board as something beautiful,” he explains.

Denman begins each composition with a detailed drawing. Following that, he lays down the foundation—a thick layer that includes the looser, abstracted elements. He then goes on applying additional layers of gesso and paint, sanding and building the pigment as he proceeds, exposing the ridges and cracks of the strata within the figures and patterns. Finally, he adds delicate detailing to the multilayered, now smooth, surface, which has evolved into a refined collection of rich colors and subtle textures. Denman paints almost entirely in acrylic, which he chose for its ability to withstand his very active painting process, in addition to its flexible applications ranging from impasto to transparent. Of his meticulous process, Denman says, “What I love is that, for as long as I have been doing it and refining it, there is still a great distance between original application and final result that allows for surprises to occur.”

While Denman consistently adheres to a decidedly realistic representation of his subject matter, he also infuses elements of stylization and abstraction into his paintings. “It’s about isolating and positioning the animal deliberately in the environment,” he says, and to that end, he often juxtaposes naturalistic animals against spare backgrounds to maintain focus on the figures.

Other scenes feature backgrounds swathed in decorative patterns, highlighting the contrast between natural and manmade. These design choices further serve to introduce a nonobjective environment for the animals that is not associated with any specific context. As the organic and geometric lines interact, they create tension throughout the canvas, which engages viewers visually as well as intellectually.

Similar to his handling of backgrounds, Denman frequently considers color nonobjectively as well. Paintings of bison and elk in the morning light, for example, offer a new way of looking at the iconic creatures: their colors are presented in a fresh context and their volume, texture, and forms re-examined. “The question to ask is not, ‘What color is it?’” says the artist, “but rather, ‘What color does it look like it is?’” In scenes like these, Denman utilizes natural light to ignite drama and also to reveal and intensify the subtle hues hidden within the larger scope of shapes and surfaces.

Just as he layers physical elements onto his canvases, Denman also fits multiple narratives into his work. He weaves together the literal story line with his conceptual interpretation to depict the complexities of the aesthetic and emotional results of human-animal interactions. He remarks, “An artist’s job is not to give answers but to ask the questions.”

Denman still lives near his childhood home and continues to enjoy the broad array of wildlife the area has to offer. In addition to showing in galleries, he regularly participates in the Western Visions show at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY, where he was appointed the Lanford Monroe Memorial Artist in Residence in 2009. His work appears in various museum collections as well, including those of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Wisconsin’s Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, and the Nature in Art Gallery and Museum in Gloucester, England. Denman is a member of the Society of Animal Artists and the International Guild of Realism.

“I hope my passion for the subject is evident,” says Denman, reflecting on his enduring drive to share his vision through art. Looking to the future, he plans to examine the abstracted facets of his animal-based work more deeply, magnifying the relationship between realistic and stylized subject matter. His next project consists of a series of paintings that explore animal subjects in a symbolic, cultural, historical, and religious context.

Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY; The Gallery at Sculpture by the Lakes, Dorset, England; Creighton Block Gallery, Big Sky, MT; Picture This!, Alberta, Canada; The Greenwich Workshop, New York, NY.

This story was featured in the December 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  December 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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