Daniel Keys | Bountiful Beauty

Daniel Keys paints still lifes and other subjects from life

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Daniel Keys, Autumn Interior, oil, 30 x 40.

Daniel Keys, Autumn Interior, oil, 30 x 40.

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

In 2005, when Daniel J. Keys was still a teenager, he bravely walked into a gallery near his home in Fresno, CA, and asked the owner if she would represent him. The owner surveyed Keys’ florals and then replied with an unequivocal “no.” Then the gallerist asked Keys a crucial question that spurred a major turning point in his fine-art career: “Have you ever painted from life?”

Until that time the 19-year-old had only painted from his imagination and memory. The gallery owner sent him home with a mission: Find serious artists whom you admire, study their creative processes, and paint from life. “An artist can either take criticism and rejection by getting offended or take the advice,” Keys says. “I chose to take the advice and use it as a launching pad.”

The budding artist knew where to begin his next chapter. Because he had displayed an early interest in art, his grandmother had given him a subscription to The Artist’s Magazine when he was only 11 years old, and Keys remembered a cover story about an artist named Richard Schmid. He was only 15 when the article was published, but the paintings had made such an impression that he had often pulled it out to peruse the images. Hence, the day of his rejection, he went to Schmid’s website where, serendipitously, the revered artist had posted a statement about the importance of painting from life.

For the next four years Keys toiled away in his studio, diligently painting from life while also studying Schmid’s book, Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting—and More. Then, in March 2009, when he was just 23, Keys had what some might call his “big break.” American Artist magazine (which has since ceased publication) chose him for a cover story—quite an accomplishment for someone so young. Offers to represent him from major galleries began to flow his way. That same year Keys was selected for Southwest Art’s annual “21 Under 31” story spotlighting emerging talent. Keys was fast developing a reputation as the representational art world’s new wunderkind.

Today, at 31, the award-winning artist is best known for his complex still-life compositions. His signature works display lush, colorful palettes in tableaux brimming with an abundance of flowers, vases, winter squash, fruit, and porcelain bowls. In these expressive, elegant paintings, such objects often fill the entire picture plane. Although the California artist also paints landscapes and figures, Keys began his painting-from-life odyssey in the still-life genre because, in part, it was the easiest subject matter over which he could have complete control. Nothing moves, and the light doesn’t change.

In fact, Keys likes to joke, “I guess I have always loved the great indoors more than the great outdoors.” Nonetheless, he now readily plunges into the elements to capture scenes with all the light changes, atmosphere variations, and annoying pests that plague plein-air painters. He has even painted an array of snowscapes, for which he recently ventured into frigid climes near Yellowstone National Park. He now finds such excursions fun, having discovered a few helpful tools, such as hand warmers. When he and his painting cohorts head into snowy terrain, they stuff their hats, gloves, socks, and pockets with these long-lasting, air-activated warming packets.

Tyler Murphy—owner of Montana Gallery, which has represented Keys since 2013—is one of Keys’ regular painting buddies and has observed him in action on location. “Daniel always shows us a fresh view of things we’ve all seen before,” Murphy says. “Time after time he selects unique angles and lighting situations. He has consistently produced high-caliber art ever since he first gained recognition.”

Keys was born in Fresno, CA, the son of two nondenominational Christian ministers. Keys’ mother home-schooled him and his siblings. The children studied the usual subjects taught in public schools, including math, science, and language. However, when Daniel was 11, his father, spotting his talent in art, suggested he use his birthday money to purchase a set of paints. While he continued to study all the traditional subjects, as Keys grew into his teen years he was also allotted time to paint. He believes that he would not be the person or artist he is today if he had attended public school. “That isn’t to say I would be worse off,” he explains. “But given all the distractions and pressures that no doubt flood into the life of a public-school student, I certainly would not have had the clarity of mind to make a decision to be an artist as early as I did.”

In addition to his early art interests, Keys was also passionate about gardening. “I grew whatever I could get my hands on,” he says. “When my siblings and I accompanied my parents to the store, we could choose a new toy if we behaved. I always chose something from the garden center.”

Thus, by the time he walked into that Fresno gallery at 19, he had a familiarity with most common flowers and could paint them from memory. It seemed natural to blend this passion into his art when he began painting from life. “The love for flowers and plants is still very much a part of my life and art,” Keys says.

It is indeed difficult to know when an “emerging” artist graduates and is considered “established.” But Keys will tell you that one thing is certain in his mind. At 31, his wunderkind status no longer applies. So when Brad Richardson, owner of Legacy Gallery, approached him to do a solo show last year at Legacy’s location in Scottsdale, AZ, Keys decided it was time to shed his old art-world identity. “I can no longer be referred to as a kid. So I decided to focus the show on the artist at 30. And I did 30 paintings,” Keys says. “Now my work has to stand on its own.”

And stand on its own it did. The show was a near sellout, with nearly half of the works sold before the show even opened.

While Keys considers himself a self-taught artist, since 2009 when he first met Richard Schmid, the younger artist has painted alongside the older, legendary artist. And like his mentor, whom he calls “Mr. Richard,” Keys is now passing his knowledge on to the next generation. In January, in conjunction with the Scottsdale Artists’ School, he presented his fifth annual Palette Project, a free, two-day workshop for artists ages 16 to 21. “I am always looking for ways to give back to the art community,” he says.

As this story was going to press, Keys was also hard at work creating paintings for his second solo show at Legacy Gallery in 2018. He likes to have themes for his shows, but he hasn’t yet settled on one for next year’s. “Last year’s theme was ‘30’ in celebration of that milestone. So, perhaps in keeping with that theme the next one should be titled ‘32.’ That would be a lot of artwork, though,” he concludes.


Tell me about the subject of this painting. Ryan Mellody is a dear friend and fine artist, and he has often joined the painting trips that I and my friends have taken over the years. He has been the subject of paintings more than a few times. He has a striking coloration that is fun to paint, and he is a good sport about posing when he isn’t painting.

What inspired you to paint it? We have this running joke with Ryan. We’re fascinated by how his ears “glow” when he’s backlit. He’s aware of this and will even position himself to capitalize on it, giving us all a good laugh. On this particular morning in London, Ryan and I were having breakfast, and I noticed the pure cadmium red glow of his ears as he sat with his back to the window.

What challenges did you face? Because it was painted from a photograph, keeping the painting as loose and spontaneous-looking as possible was the challenge. I purposely chose not to get carried away with detail. My goal was to make it look as though it was painted directly from life, with a sense of the fleeting moment. I loathe stiffness in a figurative piece. After I had a grasp of life-painting, I could look at a photo and see what was missing or distorted.

Tell me about your color choices. Even though there are many colors throughout, the cool natural light ties everything together. My favorite bit of color is in the ears, of course. It’s pure cadmium scarlet.

Tell me about the composition you chose. I carefully placed everything to maximize the sense that this was a naturally occurring scene. It was arranged to look like it had just happened. It’s important to me that my paintings have a sense of randomness.

What message, feeling, or memory do you hope viewers take away from the painting? This was my first visit to London. I was seated across from a great friend, with whom I’ve shared many painting adventures, and I was captivated by the natural, cool light and complicated color patterns before me. In that moment, I joined the countless ranks of artists who, when stricken with inspiration, are forced to say, “Stop! This would make a great painting.” These are moments most worth painting to me because they’re real. And they make the ordinary somehow worth more than a passing glance.

Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, Jackson, WY, and Bozeman, MT; Montana Gallery, Billings, MT; Gallery 1261, Denver, CO; West Wind Fine Art, Colorado Springs, CO; A Sense of Place Gallery, Fresno, CA; Highlands Art Gallery, Lambertville, NJ.

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

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