Dan Young paints intimate glimpses of his Colorado homeland
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the September 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art magazine September 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art magazine September 2012 digital download here. Or simply click here to subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
Ask Dan Young to recall the earliest hints of his future career as a landscape painter, and he resolutely avoids mentioning the omnipresent sketchpads and boxes of crayons that most artists remember. Sure, he loved drawing; when he was still in grade school, his mom–an accomplished amateur artist–bought him an inexpensive set of oils. “But I never really thought I had a calling,” he asserts.
What did call to him were the meadows and woodlands, lakes and streams, slopes and peaks surrounding his home in Grand Junction, CO, on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. “I come from a big family, and we didn’t go to Disneyland every year,” he says. “In the summer, my mom just opened the door, kicked us out, and said, ‘Have fun.’ My dad loved to camp and fish, and we took countless summer trips in the mountains up here. My brothers and I grew up out in the wilderness.”
Nature was simply a part of his identity, just like his ability to pick up a pencil and draw “a pretty decent rendering of something I saw.” But after high school, he figured he’d have to find some sort of practical way to support himself. “I got odd jobs, and I went to an automotive school,” he says.
Then, a couple of years later, he bumped into an old friend who had studied at the Colorado Institute of Art, a two-year college in Denver that offered programs in the practical, professional application of artistic skills, including commercial art, illustration, and design. Young enrolled and instantly felt he’d found a new calling. “The beauty of the school,” he says, “was that it taught you there were ways to make a living doing art.”
That proved abundantly true when, immediately after graduation, he was hired as an illustrator in the Dallas-based advertising department of the Mervyns department store chain. “My job was to draw, every day, the dishes, towels, bedspreads-whatever they were selling that wasn’t fashion-for the upcoming advertising flyer,” says Young. “And they paid me way too much money for a punk kid out of art school.”
Two years later, his employers decided to close Young’s department, and he was out of work. “But I had a portfolio full of commercial illustrations, and I started picking up freelance work. It really took off for me.”
He thrived as a freelancer in Texas for the next three years. During that time, he says, “Every summer, I’d sneak off back home and do a little fishing.” In the summer of 1989, the weather was beautiful, the fish were really biting, and Young felt the tug of his homeland. “Then and there, I decided to return home and just be a painter,” he says. With a laugh, he adds, “It was probably a good thing that I didn’t know how foolish I was.”
To be sure, Young faced a steep learning curve, not just in his painting skills but also in the business of being an artist. Fortunately, he had some savings from his Texas years, so he was able to “put my heart and soul in it, driving around in my truck and painting ferociously.” Toying briefly with the idea of painting western- themed images, he soon discovered that “the call of the landscape intrigued me.” He found inspiration in the evocative works of early 20th-century landscape painters including Emil Carlsen, Chauncey Ryder, Edgar Payne, and Hanson Puthuff, all of whom fell under the broad umbrella of impressionism.
Young also gradually gained direct guidance from a group of fellow Colorado landscape painters, particularly Skip Whitcomb, Len Chmiel, and Michael Lynch, as well as Matt Smith in Arizona and Clyde Aspevig up in Montana. “There was no desire to paint like them,” he says. “But I sure liked talking shop with them. They really helped me when I was getting established. They’re some of the best painters today, and to be considered one of their peers and friends has definitely helped my career.”
Within three or four years, Young’s career began to take off, as gallery owners spotted his works at local art fairs and asked to represent him. He began to develop a clearer idea of his goals as an artist, a personal philosophy that continues to evolve. “When I first started, it was about painting pretty pictures,” he confides. “Now, I want to make paintings. A painting isn’t about copying nature. It’s more about my viewpoint as an artist, and making the viewer more involved in that experience.”
By way of explanation, he mentions the occasional painting trips he makes with his fellow artists. “We’ll all set up our easels and paint the same scene. When we’re done, it’s wonderful to see that, though we might use similar colors and values, the design of the different paintings will be all over the place.” No artist views the same subject quite the same way. (Young adds that, while many of his works are painted on location, sometimes in one session, he doesn’t consider himself a plein-air artist. “Finishing a painting in the open air isn’t my goal,” he says. “It’s just that I gather the best information to get the details right when I’m standing out there observing.”)
Meanwhile, Young also began to find even more meaning in the subjects he chose to paint. “It became a mission for me to paint the wonderful little rural scenes that are beginning to disappear in Colorado as beautiful old sprawling ranches get sucked up by golf courses and housing developments. I feel like I’m on a race to paint these quaint little scenes before they go away.” He is quick to add, however, that he’s no opponent of responsible changes. “A lot of the developers do a beautiful job to safeguard the beauty of the land. And I have to be aware of the fact that a lot of second homeowners buy my work. Those are the people putting food on my table.”
Young often alters the actual landscape dramatically in his paintings. Take, for instance, THE LATE SHOW, a post-rain sunset scene of a flooded field and a stand of cottonwoods just down the road from his home in the Western Slope town of Silt. “Did I change it? Absolutely! Was the color that intense? Probably not,” he says of the foreground maze of watery channels and the background line of trees with a break revealing faraway blue mountains against a bright-orange sky. “Before I painted it, I did half a dozen little drawings until I had a pretty decent roadmap of how I was going to lead the viewer through those patches of water to the cottonwoods. I try my darnedest to make the viewer go where I want.”
In FALL NEAR TELLURIDE, painted last autumn from a vantage point between the ski resort and the town of Rico, Young wanted the viewer to climb the Rockies. “I changed the shape of the mountains and the angles big-time, along with the snow, and I tweaked the light pattern coming down the mountain so it would hit the spruce trees in the foreground. I want the viewer to step into the painting, come through the field, go up along the pines, and up that mountain.”
Asked where he hopes to go in his own creative journey as an artist, Young replies that he’d like to tackle “more challenging paintings.” The challenge he refers to is one of simplification-leading almost, but not quite, to the point of abstraction. “I’m somewhat impressionistic, because people know what they’re looking at without all the details,” he explains. “And I don’t want to be an abstract painter. But abstract work does excite me. I’d like my paintings to be somewhere in the middle, where viewers know what the subject is but the painting has a more abstract impact to it. I’m trying to let people experience how I see the landscape, beyond the way it might be traditionally painted.”
By way of example, consider Young’s COAL CREEK, a work that hovers at the meeting point of impressionism and abstraction. “It’s all a variety of simple shapes and sizes that I blocked in, adding highlights to give the rocks form, without a lot of cracks or other details. Some of them are just dabs of color. Viewers know that they’re rocks, and their imaginations do the rest of the work.”
Engaging the viewer’s imagination, and conjuring emotions as a result of that engagement, is the heart of what he is trying to do. “I remember someone coming up to me at a show and saying that one of my paintings reminded him of his grandfather’s farm. He could smell the hay,” Young recalls, pausing as if still moved by that encounter. “One of my most important goals is for someone to look at one of my paintings and get an emotional response. If I can connect with the viewer on an emotional level, then I’m successful.”
Ann Korologos Gallery, Basalt, CO; Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; Glennie Coombe Gallery, Paonia, CO; Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; Simpson Gallagher Gallery, Cody, WY; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY.
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