Dan Gerhartz is making tracks … literally. Alongside those of white-tailed deer and grouse, he stamps out a trail in the snow, searching for a spot to set up his easel. Fall is quickly giving way to winter, and sugar maple, beech, and hickory stand barren as goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace hold up their dried flower heads to catch the flakes of snow. Dabbing the canvas with sienna, gray, and green, Gerhartz captures the way the snow—delicately cast in shades of gray—patches the earth.
For the past several years, the 33-year-old artist has been making tracks in the art world as well. He took home the Robert Lougheed Memorial Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s prestigious Prix de West Invitational in June and sold all four of his paintings at the show. Over the past 10 years, he’s been featured in solo and group shows at galleries across the country, received various awards at invitational exhibitions, and been inducted into the Nat-ional Academy of Western Art and the Northwest Rendezvous Group.
Obviously, success has come early to the Wis- consin native. Gerhartz says it’s all relative. “Compared to others I’m just a hack,” he says. “John Singer Sargent was painting circles around me when he was 21.”
Yet even the work Gerhartz did in his 20s shows a degree of maturity not reached by many painters until mid-career. He credits his early achievements to his parents, who stood by his side when he decided to become an artist. There were also a number of inspirational teachers along the way.
Gerhartz grew up in Wisconsin south of Lake Winnebago and north of Milwaukee near the town of Kewaskum, where he now lives with his wife Jennifer, son Nicolai, 5, and daughter Anastasia, 1. Like other kids, Gerhartz enjoyed hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. But it took a rainy afternoon indoors to pique his interest in art: A teenage friend suggested they pass the dreary day by drawing, and it was then that Gerhartz found his lifework. He enrolled
in a high school art class, where his teacher taught the fundamentals while also making art intriguing for students.
After high school, Gerhartz attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago from 1983-85, where he focused on figure drawing but also took a few commercial art courses. Following graduation he worked briefly as a commercial artist but found the nature of the work rigid and limiting. There was no freedom for his imagination.
“It’s hard to be inspired by someone else’s ideas,” he says. “I just couldn’t get excited about it. I work best from my own inspiration.” So, during his free time, Gerhartz chose his own subjects and refined his technique. “Away from work I painted the urban life of Milwaukee as well as the farm land around home,” he says. “My challenges were learning to use oil paint, getting used to painting my subjects in natural light instead of from photographs, and learning to simplify the overwhelming detail of landscapes.”
Soon Gerhartz decided it was time to find gallery representation. He began corresponding with art dealers and was invited to show his work at Talisman Gallery in Bartlesville, OK, and Grapevine Gallery in Oklahoma City. That’s all it took—he left the commercial field in 1987 and moved back to Kewaskum to hone his skills.
During this time, Gerhartz took several painting trips with Colorado artist Richard Schmid [SWA JUN 98]. “He showed me how to get beyond the colorful, flashy presentations of commercial art designed to sell a product,” says Gerhartz. “Schmid taught me how to see the more subtle relationships of color and value, how to paint edges to get a proper sense of form and volume, and how to capture the natural feeling of outdoor light and air.”
Gerhartz also studied the old masters, poring over works by John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, and Anders Zorn. Most of his paintings at the American Academy of Art had been figurative, and therefore he related to Sargent and Sorolla, who had done much of the same. “I looked to Sargent for his expertise in execution and a certain virtuosity of style,” he says. “I admired Sorolla’s ability to capture the colors of outdoor light.” Gerhartz also appreciated Zorn’s ability to create a spectrum of colors from a limited palette.
Many more painters caught the young artist’s eye: Carl von Marr, Ilya Repine, Nicolai Fechin, and Jules Bastien Lepage along with the Art Nouveau work of Alfonse Mucha and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Gerhartz studied them closely, hoping to pick up their competence in draftsmanship as well as their ability to capture light and transfer emotion from subject to canvas.
The lessons learned are evident in Gerhartz’s paintings. His colors are mixed subtly enough to maintain a degree of purity, the brushwork confident, and the application of paint appealingly spontaneous.
Gerhartz chooses subjects that allow him to explore artistic problems of color. “In music, it’s the relationship of the notes, not the individual notes, that is important,” says Gerhartz. “In art, color relationships are the important thing.” To create his color symphonies, he also explores emotional relationships. In Lupine, for example, he sets up a three-part harmony using purple, orange, and green around a figure. “These colors illicit a harmony I see often in nature,” he says. “They’re all complements of the primaries.” The dominant theme is light, but dark colors are also woven in, thus hinting at the temporal nature of beauty. By carefully choosing color and light, as well as subject matter, Gerhartz manages to capture varying moods.
Many of Gerhartz’s figures are dressed in dramatic styles: long, diaphanous veils, hooded capes, and pirate-sleeved blouses. Gerhartz says he often invents the clothing simply for its aesthetic appeal. “A velvet cape is more exciting to me than a vinyl windbreaker,” he says. “I draw from an assortment of shapes and colors that appeal to me. There’s a flow, a sort of lyrical quality to those fabrics.”
Gerhartz is now focusing on two new goals. First, he wants to explore a full range of emotion in his paintings. “In the early years, it was a matter of learning to put the paint on the canvas,” he says. “Now it’s more an issue of how to accentuate the emotion of the piece.” Before beginning, Ger-hartz thinks about the harmony he wants to achieve in the painting, then determines the colors and objects that will best capture that emotion. “I want to paint emotion so that it is irresistible, to be able to paint any one—sadness, joy, anger, love—in a way that draws the viewer in without compromising the strength of the emotion.”
Gerhartz’s second goal is to draw people to the God-given beauty in the world without being “overtly religious.” He admires the writings of C.S. Lewis and the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa, who both professed their faith through action. To Gerhartz, the point is not to preach but simply to allow the life he leads and the work he does to reflect his beliefs.
“It seems in life that we are pendulums, swinging back and forth, sometimes close, sometimes far, but seldom are we right at equilibrium. Often what I’m doing in my art has almost nothing to do with an underlying message. At other times I feel as if I’m hitting my audience in the face. The challenge is to get to a balanced point.”
If recent awards and sales of his work are any indication, Gerhartz is certainly finding his equilibrium. And it seems likely he’ll keep his balance for years to come.