Dennis Doheny | My Way of Speaking

Dennis Doheny shares his world through his paintings

by Elizabeth L. Delaney

Dennis Doheny, Along Figueroa Mountain Road, oil, 24 x 30.

Dennis Doheny, Along Figueroa Mountain Road, oil, 24 x 30.

This story was featured in the May 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  May 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

“I’ve always been fascinated with art; it was just the natural direction I went in.” So says California painter Dennis Doheny, who embraced his love for drawing and painting at an early age and has never veered far from his chosen course. An ardent love for the land, coupled with an intense desire to communicate its intrinsic beauty, have driven Doheny to capture nature’s purity on canvas in lucid colors and radiant light. A childhood full of creativity, followed by a 20-year stint in commercial art, paved the way for Doheny to realize his purpose of speaking poetry and prose through paint and brush.

Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Doheny spent his childhood literally surrounded by art. “It was what I grew up with. Art was the norm,” he says. His father, a rancher by trade, also collected western art and displayed the cowboy and landscape paintings throughout their home. A formidable self-taught artist in his own right, the elder Doheny proved key to nourishing young Dennis’ gift. He taught his son to draw, schooling him on fundamentals like perspective and composition and encouraging him to hone his talent. Later, it was Doheny’s father who initially secured gallery representation for his son after showing his canvases to noted art dealer and historian Jean Stern.

Doheny showed with Stern at Petersen Gallery of Beverly Hills, then went on to show at galleries in Carmel and Lake Tahoe, among other places. By the 1980s, he decided to cast a wider professional net. He taught himself to use an airbrush and began working as a freelance commercial artist for such clients as Disney, Universal Studios, and McDonnell Douglas. Though he enjoyed his technical work, Doheny never gave up his painting, and by the mid-1990s, amid the rise of computer graphics in the industrial arts and his own increasing need to paint more, he decided to re-enter the fine-art arena in earnest.

Today, Doheny lives in Santa Barbara, CA, painting the coastline, mountains, and other inimitable vistas that have inspired him throughout his life. An avid outdoorsman, he routinely travels the state on excursions to the beach or the Sierra Nevada—places where he feels especially at home and that speak to his creative spirit. “Most of my paintings are of areas I’ve been traveling to for a long time and I know fairly well,” he explains. “I’ve been visiting these places for 40 years.” He is constantly in search of subjects to paint and often discovers them while traveling. However, Doheny believes that some of his most engaging work is the result of things he stumbles upon when he isn’t looking. “Oftentimes a subject pops up out of nowhere, where you’d least expect it,” he says. “Those are often the best paintings.” Further, he never paints a scene that he does not feel connected to from the outset: “I don’t start a painting unless I have some kind of emotional draw to it.”

Doheny’s body of work includes a variety of landscapes, captured at different times of day and in all seasons. Growing up in a ranching environment, he has always loved depicting outdoor scenes, and in fact, he started his career attempting to paint western motifs similar to the ones he saw in his father’s collection. When he couldn’t quite connect with that genre, he sought advice from his father, who told him, “You don’t want to do cowboy scenes unless you’re a cowboy. You miss the intricacies. Paint what you know.” From that point on, his artistic focus turned to landscapes, which freed him to impart his passion for the natural world sincerely and instinctively, with richly hued pigments and intricate dimensions of light.

Doheny routinely works in the field, immersing himself in whatever scene has inspired him, making plein-air sketches and taking photographs as reference material for his studio work. Once he begins a new canvas, he lays out the composition, then applies a thin wash of pigment followed by additional layers of paint, working in the details as he goes. Perhaps most crucial to his process, he lets the piece dictate every step forward. “Each painting takes on a life of its own,” says the artist, who endeavors to paint without any preconceived notions. He is open to experimentation, and his process changes with each piece, as he watches a painting “fall into place.”

“I’ve always been a realist,” says Doheny of his painting style. Influenced by the early California artists as well as the Taos Founders, he imbues scenes with lines and shapes that retain a striking naturalism while also boasting dynamic, lively colors. He works in oils, maintaining a limited palette of six or seven hues to ensure that each composition has a cohesive color story.

“I’m trying to communicate what’s in my own head as best I can,” Doheny explains. “Everyone has their own way of speaking, and this is my way of speaking.” Communicating in such a manner allows Doheny to channel his own experience with his subjects and affords viewers a deeper connection, both visual and emotional, to his tableaux. “I’m happy if someone connects to one of my paintings,” he says. “When it does affect somebody, that’s a really serendipitous feeling. I think people are responding to something they have seen or felt in their own lives. And I think the light has a lot to do with that.”

Whatever scene he paints, conveying its light quality is of paramount importance. He strives to harness and express light and to precisely communicate how that light not only illuminates, but also interacts with, the objects it defines. Ultimately, Doheny treats his subject matter as a vehicle for light. “What I’ve really been most fascinated with is light,” he says. “And I think it’s one of the trickiest things to paint. Just to make it read the way it should is important to me.”

Doheny’s naturalistic representations of the landscape articulate its physical beauty, while his impressionistic color applications suggest its essence—that enigmatic luminescence that we don’t simply see but feel. He brings his compositions to life through a deft handling of details, careful to balance hard and soft, tight and loose. Whether the wide array of blues in ocean water, the elaborate range of purples that light up the evening sky, or the golden reflections of a brilliant moon on the water, each scene presents a thoughtful examination of where the artist has been and what he has seen in an elegant coalescence of facts and feelings.

He infuses a bit of tension into each piece as well, cropping compositions to make them slightly asymmetrical. He explains that such a strategy keeps the elements from becoming too constrained or stagnant, and remarks, “I don’t want to do a scene that’s too perfect. It can look like a postcard if everything is too perfect in a painting.”

Doheny’s style has not changed much over the years, although he admits he has become more painterly—something that presented a challenge for him in the beginning. Wanting to stretch beyond the strict photo-realism of his earlier commercial work, he experimented with and refined his paint application, eventually achieving a softer, more organic style. Still, his time as a technical illustrator has continually served him well when dilemmas arise. “You need discipline for fine art,” he remarks, “and commercial art taught me that. When I first started out, I didn’t have that discipline.”

A signature member of the California Art Club, Doheny has won numerous awards from that organization and at the annual Prix de West Invitational in Oklahoma City. However, he shies away from citing such accolades as imprimatur for his talent, believing that he is still a work in progress and that art itself carries with it certain subjectivity. “There’s no right way to do it. I don’t think there’s good art or bad art. I think that different people respond to any piece of art in different ways.”

When asked what he is trying to communicate overall, Doheny replies, “There would be a different answer to that for every painting. It would probably come down to the light—making the light seem feasible.” In the end, he settles on a simple but genuine answer, stating resolutely, “I’m trying to find out the best way to say what it is I’m trying to say.”

William A. Karges Fine Art, Santa Monica, CA.

This story was featured in the May 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  May 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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