Dave Santillanes interview

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Although Dave Santillanes’ parents were non-artists, he credits them for having the greatest influence upon his life and career. “They provided me with many of the tools necessary to be an artist,” he says, “ingenuity, resourcefulness, a hard work ethic, and above all, constant support.”

All these have made Santillanes the artist he is today…a brilliant painter and consistent award winner. His work is unique and easily distinguishable. No longer wishing to paint like his art heroes helped him find his own way. He marvels at the work of Sargent and Sorolla, for example, but doesn’t believe their work provides answers for his own.

He makes a distinction between being a good painter and being a good artist. “Two very different things,” he believes. “‘Artistry’ describes a painter’s ‘vision’ as opposed to any kind of technical ability.”

I think all of us would agree that Dave’s work not only exhibits masterful technical ability but also a deeply felt artistry.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Dave and his wife, Heather, at the Plein Air Convention in San Francisco last month, now I have the distinct pleasure of sharing his interview with you. Enjoy!  (Click images to enlarge)

Why are you an artist?   I’ve always had a passion for it but figured I would do something along the lines of illustration or graphic design.  I worked a bit as a Graphic Designer after getting a degree in the field but quickly realized it wasn’t going to be for me. I needed the freedom to create what I wanted, so I guess that’s why I’m an artist… total freedom!

What major challenges did you have to work through in order to establish your career?   The biggest challenge was finding time to paint while working full time. Obviously, painting presents it’s own set of challenges but I figured if I just put in enough time at the easel I could overcome them. There were times when I would get home from work, take a quick nap and then paint from about 8pm to 2am.

If you were just beginning your professional career today, how would you go about it?   I wouldn’t change much. I waited until I was already making a living as an artist before quitting my day job – a realization that came about because the small company I worked for couldn’t pay me regularly my final year there – so I was already relying on my art income.   But waiting until I could support myself naturally allowed me to stay true to myself as an artist.

The only thing I might’ve done differently is I probably wouldn’t have gone to college…at least not for art. I think becoming a painter and an artist involves much more self-reliance and self-motivation (even being a graphic artist didn’t necessarily require a degree), and the technical ability to paint can be achieved in shorter order through workshops.

Your work is very distinctive and easily recognizable, what made that happen for you?   Being a little bit bull-headed helped – just wanting to figure things out on my own. Early on I avoided adopting specific techniques by artists whose work I admired and instead focused on big picture principles of color and design, this allowed me – through trial and error – to develop my own way of putting down paint. I’ve only taken one workshop, but it was at a point where I had already established my own “style” so to speak.

When you’re painting, plein air or studio, what do you want to communicate; what do you want the viewer to take away from your work?  How I feel about the subject; often this is a peaceful reverence for the scene.

“Blue Waters” – 16″ x 12″ – Oil

“High Places” 30″ x 40″ – Oil

It seems to me that you give a great deal of thought to your paintings, even before laying brush to canvas, what is involved in that thought process.   Before beginning a painting (especially in the studio) I’ll consider how I would’ve explained in words the actual scene and the experience of being there; it wouldn’t be a literal explanation: i.e. “There was a rock and 10 feet to the left was a shrub and beyond that a lake.” It would have much more of my personal feelings about the scene, i.e. “The mountains rose like spires from the lake in the late afternoon light”. After that, it’s a matter of how to tell this story in paint and what parts of the story do I subdue or leave out completely in order to get to the good parts.

In my workshops I’ll often ask my students what the title of their painting is… it’s another way of getting at the heart of what is inspiring them to paint it.

“Desert Bouquet” – 24″ x 30″ – Oil

I am very attracted to your cool, atmospheric palette. Are you painting what you’re seeing or are you emphasizing the atmospheric perspective even more in order to accomplish your compositional goals?  I do push atmosphere a bit realizing we are constrained by a 2-d surface while trying to represent a 3-d space, and in some cases the more I push the background the more focused the subject becomes. It helps tell the story more succinctly and perhaps, poetically. I even use a lot of the same atmospheric principles in a still life or figure painting in order to create space or focus interest.

My paintings follow the notion that if “everyone’s shouting no one is heard.

Along with the cool color scheme of your palette, you have a very sophisticated eye for mixing grays, please explain your use of grays and their importance in creating quality work.  My paintings follow the notion that if “everyone’s shouting no one is heard”. I use grays to allow other more intense colors to be heard. Often, I’ll use grays to mute color chroma in the background, allowing them to sit back and let the foreground do the shouting.

“Break in the Silence” (Study) – 16″ x 12″ – Oil

“Fading to Gray” – 22″ x 46″ – Oil

“Early Snow” – 30″ x 30″ – Oil

What techniques do you use to gray color?   It’s a complicated question and I have different techniques for different places on the canvas. For distant colors and especially distant blue shadows I begin by pre-mixing a neutral gray and adding that to the parent color, in this way I’m cutting in half the amount of warmth I’m adding while still muting the chroma, this allows the object to stay in the background. An alternative method would be to add the complement (orange) in varying degrees to neutralize the intensity of the blue… but, what I’ve found is that this will warm the blue so much that it will launch that object forward in the painting. In other words, I’m looking for blue-gray not gray-gray – which is much warmer. Understanding these subtleties in grays allows for a whole new realm of color, and while a neutral gray is a “warm” color in the background it becomes a “cool” color in the foreground. The complexities of color relativity fascinate me.

Your paintings exude an appealing peacefulness. A lot of that has to do with your color choices, but how much of that is representative of your personality and temperament?   I would say quite a bit. I usually seek out quiet places and will often hike into the mountains alone to paint for a couple hours. It’s pure peace when you can sit by a waterfall and not even be noticed by a passing deer.

How do you go about selecting your subjects, what are you looking for? I never know exactly what I’m looking for until I find it, but it’s most often in a place of quiet solitude. I’m always drawn to scenes where the light and atmosphere create the design.

“The Coming Rain” – 32″ x 24″ – Oil

“Moored at Ballachulish” – 24″ x 32″ – Oil

“Stage Harbor” (Plein Air Study) – 9″ x 12″ – Oil

You tend to gravitate to similar subjects, is that a result of your childhood, current environment, maturity as an artist…or what?  Yeah, I tend to like what I like and can’t be talked out of it. Maybe it’s maturity as an artist and a person… or perhaps just old age. I don’t ever tire of some subjects – like mountain lakes and waterfalls. I think I still have a lot to say about them.

How do you determine the color scheme for a painting; do the tube colors on your palette always remain the same?   Yes, I always have the same colors on my palette – basically a warm and a cool of the primaries. However, when I’m out painting, I generally let the color of the distant shadows determine the overall color scheme. As long as I relate all the subsequent colors correctly to this starting point I should have a harmonious painting. That starting point will vary based on time of day and location.

What colors are generally on your palette?   Warm and cool of all the primaries plus a couple of “convenience” colors: Orange and Viridian. My palette includes Gray, White, Cad Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Orange, Cad Red, Alizarin Crimson, Transparent Red Oxide, Viridian, Blue Azure, and Ultramarine Blue.

Please put these words in order: color, drawing/edges, technique, composition, values, concept, framing.   Concept, Composition, Values, Drawing/Edges, Color, Technique, Framing

“Abundance of Spring” (Study) – 10″ x 18″ – Oil

Are there compositional principles you always adhere to?   I only subscribe to one very loose and general principle guiding composition, I would call it, “Creating Shape-Variety and Balance”. In other words, you don’t want all shapes being equal and you don’t want all the major shapes unbalanced in one corner of the canvas (although the negative shape created may possibly balance this – so you can see where composition can get really interesting.)

I think this principle addresses some of the more well-known rules, like not centering the subject. To me this rule is less about individual objects being centered and more about the two equal sized negative shapes created on either side of the object. These shapes would create a very static composition. But, it also opens the door to the idea that you CAN center an object if you pay attention to those negative shapes and make adjustments accordingly.

Do you have a particular way you think about color/color theory?  I would call it the “Theory of Color Relativity”. To explain this, I often tell my workshop students that the first color they put down on their canvas is never wrong (although it might be “problematic”). It only becomes wrong if the next color makes it wrong. It’s a way of saying that color out of context has no meaning, but putting another color next to it gives both colors meaning.

“The Explorers” (Study) – 12″ x 24″ – Oil  (Stage 1)

“The Explorers” (Study) – 12″ x 24″ – Oil (Stage 2)

“The Explorers” (Study) – 12″ x 24″ – Oil

Please explain your painting process.   I start with the major shadow shapes and work my way from background to foreground. At this point I should already be able to “feel” the atmosphere. Then I mix general light family colors next to the shadow families on my palette. For the background, I’ll even use the shadow color as a starting point and develop the highlight from this by simply warming it and keying the value lighter. This keeps me from making too drastic a leap to the light family, especially in the distance.

I use photography to supplement outdoor work,  but my use of the photo has changed over time and I’m now completely content with a bad photo and a good plein air study.

What three things have made you the artist you are today?   Painting outdoors,  being a problem-solver, and being a little bull-headed.

How do you market your work; how do you use your website and social media to sell paintings?   I try to post regularly. I’ll often post work before it’s even dry. I think this gives followers of my page the bonus of being the first to see it, and if it’s headed for a show I’ll detail that info with the painting for promotion.

How do you determine your painting prices?  I try to weigh many factors, chief among them: What are other artists with similar reputations selling their work for? I use price/square inches as a reference point for different sizes, but with flexibility for perceived demand.

I notice you really limit the number of works displayed on your website, even the archived paintings; what is your reasoning?  I just think there’s value in limiting what’s out there. It makes for a stronger showing. It puts more importance on what’s next.

If you were stranded on an island, what three books would you want with you? Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting” (it’s such a boring read but full of info. I might actually read it cover-to-cover if there’s nothing else to do); “A River Runs Through It”, and a good biography (i.e. Benjamin Franklin or Einstein – Walter Isaacson).

What are your artistic goals for 2019?    I’m hoping to do some larger more monumental paintings…50 x 70 or even larger. I also want to do more figure painting. I’m looking to broaden the places where I show my work… currently it’s mostly in the west.

**Thanks, Dave, for an honest and insightful interview. We can learn much from you. In order to see more of Dave Santillanes’ work, click HERE.

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John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Living Master. To view his art and bio, please click HERE.


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