A brief interview with artist Glenn Dean, on finding inspiration from the past, what the sea and the West have in common, and portraying the connection between people and land.
Where do you trace the beginnings of your interest in art?
I doodled as a small child. I made my first real painting effort at the age of 13 (of an ocean wave). My mom was a painter too, not by trade, but she has been painting most of her life. My interest in art was encouraged all along by my parents; however, I didn’t begin to follow my interests in art until I was in my mid to late teenage years, where I mostly drew lots of strange cartoon-like creatures for fun.
When you were 17 your parents moved to Arizona — is this when you became interested in Southwestern/Western subject matter?
I did my first outdoor landscape painting in Arizona. I was about 19 or 20 years old. It was an awful painting and a completely different experience than what I was used to, but with this one experience came the realization that fine art required discipline and dedication in order to achieve better results. I loved being outside and the idea of trying to paint nature really appealed to me. From there I began to work and study more and more, every chance I got. There was (is) so much to learn, which lead me to discovering many artists over the years that followed. The Early California Impressionists were some of the first to influence me in a profound way, and among them were many artists that painted throughout the West/Southwest. Seeing their incredible paintings opened my eyes to the beauty of the landscapes that were all around me in the West. I began traveling to different states on painting excursions, in search of these landscapes that I had only seen in these historic paintings.
There are occasional seascapes in your body of work, but mostly (especially recently) your subject matter seems to be predominantly (south)western. Why are you most drawn to working in this genre of painting? Why do you think it is such a magnetic subject for so many people?
I still paint the sea and coastal landscapes. I spent a lot of time in the ocean as a surfer when I was younger so will always carry a love of the sea. I am currently living on the coast so it’s convenient for me to go out and sketch the nearby bluffs, rocks and surf, etc. I think the greater West has such a wide variety of subjects and moods with many of the Southwest locations that tend to suit my temperament and general aesthetic as an artist. The West is a bold and subtle place. The color, the light, the shapes, the simplified forms, the grandeur and expansiveness, the spirit, the people, the history, the romance, and the (distant) fellowship with artists of the past are all factors that draw me to it as a subject.
How does the historical body of Western painting influence your work? What do you try to emulate? What stereotypes do you try to avoid?
There are a number of great historic artists that inspire me. In fact, I don’t look much at many contemporary artists for inspiration. I feel like the bar was raised highest by the artists of the past. The quality of work and craftsmanship was different back then than it is now. There are some great artists working today and some great art being produced today; I just have a preference of looking to the past for my inspiration.
I guess I’m constantly trying to emulate a similar quality in my work, while trying to be who I am as an artist. It’s really challenging to do so, as there are no teachers that can teach this stuff, just paintings and art books to look at and marvel over. The paintings don’t tell you how they were painted. Some studies done in one sitting can give clues to how they might have been painted but then looking at a finished studio painting with layers of paint will often leave me scratching my head in wonder and disbelief. It’s very humbling (and often discouraging) to look at the artists of the past as a gauge for quality in my own work. Their work was just too good.
Things I try to avoid are formulas and too much repetition. This keeps me challenged to try to paint a more authentic picture each time.
Which non-Western artists inspire you?
Too many to list. There are many great artists of the past that hailed from nearly every corner of the globe. With the internet being such a great art resource, it seems like I’m always discovering new artists that I didn’t know about. Here’s a short sampling: Dean Cornwell, N.C. Wyeth, Eduard Vuillard, Sir Alfred Munnings, Joaquin Sorolla, William Paxton, Frank Benson, Dame Laura Knight, Tom Thomson, Russian Impressionism, American Impressionism.
How did living in Santa Fe affect the direction of your work?
Around the time I was living there I was painting landscapes mostly, without the presence of many figures in my work. I was told that some people thought my color palette in my work got brighter after my time there. I feel like my work now is being informed (indirectly) by some of my experiences or memories I had while living there, with a new look at figures in the New Mexico landscape and the culture of the Pueblo Indians.
There’s a parallel between the physical space of the ocean and the West — wide open, vast, etc. How do you experience the similarities and differences between those two types of landscapes as places you’ve lived and also portray in your art?
Yes, the wide open vastness is indeed felt in both—but they are also both places of mystery and have an uncharted, untamed quality, which make them equally beautiful and wild. Both should be approached with refrain, caution and reverence. While physical differences are obvious, I believe each region, whether it be mountain, desert, or coastal, all carry a spirit about them and this spirit is what I feel is an essential part of painting. If I feel it, then I will recall that feeling while I’m working in the studio, and hopefully that will help inform my paintings and increase their authenticity.
You often paint places you’ve been and seen yourself, but place “bygone” figures within these present-day landscapes. Why? What is the imaginative process of coming up with these fictional figures?
For me, it’s about finding a mood or an overall consistency to the picture so I try to implement the style of figures that I’m inspired by or find to be most well suited to that setting. I tend to be inspired by the clothing of the past, because of its simplicity and pleasingly understated aesthetic. Perhaps I’m aiming for a bygone era where people lived and worked closer to the land. I use models for my pictures. I guess I am not after painting too much of a likeness of my models, but rather finding that point in the painting where the figure compliments the setting. This holds the attention at the overall mood of the picture, rather than in all the details.
Part of your online bio says: “In recent years, Dean has turned his attention to the figure within the landscape as he brings the figure closer to the forefront. It is the relationship between the figure and his surroundings which intrigues Dean.” How do you make decisions about formal considerations of scale and perspective, and how does playing with that change in composition affect the final work?
If I change the size of the figures or the size of the landscape elements I’m considering for the painting, drastic changes can occur to the compositional choices that are made to make the picture believable or authentic. I think scale is important so you can get the right ratio of the figure to its surroundings, but art, of course, allows some leeway here. Sometimes a painting is more about a pleasing relationship of shapes on the canvas rather than the exactness of scale or perspective. I think it’s important to be in the arena of what is correct as to not confuse the viewer. My decision making process around placement of figures and landscape elements mostly has to do with balance. If any element is out of balance, the whole picture will suffer. I think all artists rely on their own instincts for placement or scale to reach what feels balanced to them while composing a picture. I know this is true for me and my process.
For an example of how scale can affect an outcome, let’s say you have a painting you want to make of some riders at the bottom of a large canyon, or riding under a cloud filled sky, your decisions involving scale will be to enhance that idea so you would likely keep the riders smaller in the composition so that you can feature those canyon walls or that clouded sky and give that effect of grandeur. Increasing the size of the riders will likely reduce the sense of grand scale in the landscape or sky.
What is your goal for the next 5 years? 10 years?
To paint well and live simply. Ha! Actually that’s my life goal. So, in 5-10 years from now, I hope to be painting a little better and living a little more simply.