Emerging artist Daniel James Keys couldn’t enroll at an art school, but he used every other available means to educate himself as an artist, to connect with other painters, and to promote his artwork. His experience proves that with determination, support, and computer savvy, artists can make significant progress.
by M. Stephen Doherty
|Tea Still Life
2008, oil, 24 x 30. Collection the artist.
After posting photographs of his still life and landscape paintings in the gallery section of the American Artist website (https://www.artistsnetwork.com), Daniel James Keys attracted the attention of the magazine’s editors who posted messages indicating they were impressed with the conception and execution of his oil paintings. The members of the New York staff had no idea he was a 23-year-old man living in a rural California community with limited access to galleries, museums, art schools, workshops, or other artists. Somehow he had learned to create an outstanding collection of paintings even though most of the normal paths that aspiring artists follow were unavailable to him.
On his 11th birthday, Keys received enough money to buy his first set of oil paints, the present he most wanted to own. “I hated them at first because all I had ever done was cartooning, and I just couldn’t understand how to apply what I knew about drawing to the techniques of oil painting,” he explains. “I put the set away until I happened upon reproductions of paintings that were so appealing I just had to learn how to paint. Then I discovered magazine articles and library books on Richard Schmid and other gifted teachers who explained their creative process. All that helped me understand the basics.”
Even now after several years of disciplined education, Keys has not taken an art course or participated in a workshop; and the only original paintings he has seen by major historic and contemporary artists are those he viewed during infrequent gallery and museum visits in Fresno, Carmel, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, California. Nevertheless, he carefully studied every article, book, and painting that became available and took to heart all the advice that was provided. For example, he set up a small studio area in his parents’ home that had north-facing windows, and he placed still life objects a short distance from his easel. “I read a lot about the value of being well prepared before I begin painting, of working from life instead of from photographs, and of having a subject illuminated by a cool north light,” he says. “I also followed the advice of choosing things to paint that had personal significance so that there would be a level of expression in my carefully observed representations of the objects.”
2008, oil, 16 x 20. Collection the artist.
Keys also learned about the necessity of following the rule of oil painting that one should work from thin to thick applications—that is, thinning his initial strokes of paint with odorless mineral spirits to reduce the percentage of oil and allow the paints to dry more quickly and applying the oil color straight from the tube when adding the lightest and thickest strokes of paint. “I’ll admit to being a bit too impatient to do a lot of preliminary compositional sketching, but I try to follow the advice I’ve read about working from darks to lights, from background to foreground, and from thin darks to thick light values,” he explains. “I have also learned the value of making every stroke count—of carefully considering the color and value mixtures and laying the strokes of paint down and not overworking them. That keeps the colors clean and bright, and it adds some vitality to the look of the painting.”
As the son of a minister, Keys is actively involved in his church and proudly says his faith is a factor in motivating his efforts as a painter. That’s one of the reasons he has gravitated toward other painters who base the subject matter of their paintings on themes of family, faith, and service. “I recently watched a Liliedahl Video Productions DVD of Daniel F. Gerhartz painting in his Wisconsin studio, and I gained a great deal of insight into the personality and process of a man I have admired for a number of years,” he says. “Many of his paintings are of friends and family members, and they explore his devotion to God, community, and family. I really admire that.”
Although Keys does most of his painting in the small studio, he does make an effort to paint landscapes outdoors. “I am fortunate to live near the San Joaquin River and lots of wonderful views for plein air painting,” he says. “I spend from two to three hours developing a painting while the light is consistent, and I do make some minor adjustments later in the studio. Occasionally I work from photographs if the weather makes it impossible to paint outdoors, but I really enjoy the challenge of gathering all the information on-site and keeping a freshness and immediacy in the paintings.
2008, oil, 10 x 10. Collection the artist.
“Quite often I make quick oil sketches when I’m outdoors, never spending more than a half hour on any one study,” Keys explains. “I do the same thing developing quick sketches from photographs. For example, Narcissus Sketch was done in just a few minutes in my studio, and I really enjoyed trying to capture a fleeting impression of the subject. Those kinds of studies are helpful in sharpening my skills of observation, my handling of a paint brush, and my ability to accurately record the colors, shapes, and values in the subjects that catch my attention.”
Whether working indoors or out, Keys uses essentially the same palette of Winsor & Newton, Rembrandt, and Gamblin colors that includes titanium white, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium yellow lemon, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium orange, cadmium red, viridian, transparent oxide red, transparent oxide brown, ultramarine deep, alizarin crimson, yellow ochre pale, terra rosa (for monochromatic under painting), and permanent rose. He prefers to paint on Artfix oil-primed Belgian linen canvas because it is easier to wipe preliminary marks off the smooth surface than it would be if he worked on acrylic-primed cotton duck canvas.
Because he is an artist in his 20s, Keys is adept at using the internet for education, social networking, promotion, and sales. “I rely heavily on the internet to explore images, find articles, learn about other artists, become friendly with other painters, and get feedback about my work,” he says. “I’m actively involved in the forums section of American Artist’s website, in the groups on Facebook, and in watching videos on YouTube. I also have my own website and online newsletter (www.danielkeysfineart.com), so I hear from people who become interested in the drawings and paintings I’ve posted.
Keys is currently in the process of approaching galleries around the country that currently exhibit artwork that has a similar style and range of subjects. For more information on the artist, visit www.danielkeysfineart.com.