His luminous and lonesome Western landscapes conjure revelatory moments of communion with nature, beauty, and the Divine.
Glenn Dean tends to let his paintings do the talking. Even then, the silence is audible. Steeped in the solitude of nature, his canvases invite meditation — on color, light, mesas, mountains, sagebrush, clouds. A horse, a cowboy, the moon, the frontier.
The secret to a great photograph might be equal parts composition and capturing the decisive moment. Dean composes decisive moments in paint, evoking in brushstrokes an ambience that transports the viewer into not just the moment but into the romance of the West.
Painting solitary landscapes and quiet moments, Dean lives on the Central Coast of his native California. He also lived in New Mexico for nearly four years. And his paintings seek to share the beauty of those places and the larger West.
“I paint because for me, it’s the most effective way to celebrate or honor the things in the world that I find to be beautiful,” he says. Desert, mountains, mesas, coasts — he’s hard-pressed to choose a favorite landscape in the West. “They are clearly all so different and beautiful. I am from the coast and my life now is on the coast. There’s something about being on the edge of a continent with the vast surface of a hidden world to look out on. It keeps the imagination alive. Witnessing nature’s moods on the water is pretty amazing, too. And it’s always a treat to travel and paint in the Southwest, to Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, or anywhere in the Four Corners region.”
Painting outdoors, being outdoors, completing a painting successfully, exploring museums and galleries, and traveling with friends count among the things that make him happy.
Dean discovered a joy in art as a young teen and remains largely self-taught. “I would draw when I was very young,” he says. “I was probably 12 or 13 when I first recognized that I liked the feeling I would get when I was painting or drawing. When I was in high school I would draw Martians and weird characters from my imagination. This was all I knew.”
His inclination toward art became more of a calling when, around the age of 20, he did his first outdoor painting, in Arizona while visiting his parents in Tucson. “This changed my life,” he says. “I think it was a painting of a mesquite tree. It was an awful painting and was eventually discarded. I don’t recall many details about the day other than bright Arizona sunlight and that it was an overall enjoyable experience to work outdoors in the sun. It was very challenging and stimulating, which I saw as such a worthy pursuit: to try to paint the landscape and sunlight happening right in front of me. This led to the discovery of new artists that I had not heard of before, who were masters at painting outdoor light. And it all led to me spending as much time as I could painting outdoors and learning as much as I could to improve my abilities.”
Those considerable abilities have garnered awards and secured places for his work in collections and museums. Dean chalks up his career success to discipline and innumerable hours at the easel, and to the inherent appeal of his subject matter. He can’t imagine another life. “I think that the way things unfolded for me have fortunately led me to painting the West. The West is profoundly beautiful and unique and calls out to be experienced. I like to think that even if I were born somewhere else, I would have still been called just as strongly to the West.”
We talked with Dean recently as he was preparing for a solo show at the Legacy Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, this September.
A Cowboy’s Romance, 16 inches x 30 inches.
Cowboys & Indians: What’s on your easel right now?
Glenn Dean: I am working on a large painting of a lone rider silhouetted by a dramatic clouded sky. It was inspired by travels to southern Utah and northern Arizona.
C&I: Painting outdoors is one of your great joys. Describe that experience.
Dean: Each painting experience outdoors is unique. My experiences working in nature are my own. If I were to describe any one of them to you, physically, on the surface it might seem like I’m simply standing outside painting while looking at what’s in front of me, and it would not give you much of the sense of what I’m experiencing personally. Working outdoors is equally challenging and rewarding. I work more reactively to the chosen subject and paint quick and impulsively. Working from life to see true color and to hopefully absorb some of the feelings, sounds, and smells of nature while working, which may just end up somehow making my painting more lifelike.
When a painting is done, I often don’t know how it happened, as I wasn’t thinking too much about anything other than split-second decisions of paint application and adjusting shapes or color mixtures. There are challenges from nature beyond trying to do her justice with paint on canvas. I’ve had the wind knock my easel over on numerous occasions. I’ve experienced a dust devil that swirled around me and my easel and covered me and my painting in sand and dust. Biting bugs, lightning, rain, run-ins with bigger critters. Or sometimes it’s as calm and as quiet as you could ever imagine, and the only sounds are coming from my brushes on the palette and canvas. It’s all possible when working outdoors. The beautiful things I’ve seen in nature are not justified well with my own words, so I will not try to describe any one experience to you. The experience of painting outdoors is unpredictable and is never the same twice, which is perhaps why it’s so enjoyable.
When Silence Reveals its Purpose, 36 inches x 36 inches.
C&I: You’ve been inspired and influenced by the California and Western landscape painters of the early 1900s and have specifically mentioned Edgar Payne and Maynard Dixon. What do you appreciate so much in their work?
Dean: They were able to paint the strength of a place or of a particular light effect with big shapes in a mature simplicity that all becomes so realistic on the canvas through use of beautiful color and sound draftsmanship. They are among many great artists that were living and working at that same time. I strive constantly to achieve a similar level of aesthetics in my own work.
C&I: Strength of place is an interesting idea. What are some places in the West that have particular power for you?
Dean: It literally can be anywhere in the West. Some of the most interesting things I’ve seen have been places where I don’t even know exactly where I am or what town I’m near — somewhere in between stops. It can be a twisted old juniper tree or a sage-scattered desert floor or a shadow from a cloud cast onto a distant mesa. I do like to revisit certain places like the Glen Canyon area around Lake Powell or the nearby Marble Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs area, to name a few. These places have an interesting geographic terrain and color palette.
I experience all places the same way: by trying to see with an eye for shapes and composition, by looking for pleasing arrangements of shapes, colors, and values in nature. That way of experiencing a place makes everything seem new and beautiful, even visiting the same place over many days in a row, keeps it constantly renewed. It’s always different.
I enjoy the diversity of the West. I also like how dramatic the landscape is — deep canyons and towering mountains and all that’s in between. There are too many things to mention about what is beautiful and inspiring about specific places. Each region has its own beauty, which is what draws me to its location. For instance, Monument Valley has its sandstone monuments that draw me in, but there are other elements like the rich history and culture of the Navajo people that contribute largely to the inspiration of the place as a whole.
Down From the Mesa, 32 inches x 32 inches.
C&I: Wherever your paintings are situated, they have a certain luminosity. Are you to some extent always chasing light? When you refer to seeing the “color of light,” what do you mean?
Dean: When I work outdoors, it is always against the clock. That’s where chasing the light is a big component to the purpose of painting outdoors. You have to work quickly before the scene changes. It is essential to use the correct color relationships to achieve the same effect of light on canvas as that which is happening in front of me.
The light is a little different everywhere. Higher elevations tend to make the light a little bluer or cooler, whereas the light closer to the horizon tends to be brighter. But with atmosphere and weather being the components that we look through onto all things outdoors, this can make just about anything possible with light effects, no matter where you are.
C&I: The notion and presence of light lead to the spiritual aspect of your painting.
Dean: With my tendency to focus on seeing design, beauty, and order in the natural world, for me, this leads directly to wondering where design, beauty, and order come from. It was certainly there before I noticed it. If I have noticed it, that makes me feel enlightened to what’s been there all along, and that makes what I’m seeing feel like a gift that I discovered. And I personally don’t think a gift like that could be made by chance, but rather by design. I try to paint the beauty that I see, and I try to paint it the best I can, which is my small way of honoring what I feel is a divine gift.
All of nature is a gift. I can feel the same awe from looking at a dead tree that I can feel from staring into the depths of the Grand Canyon.
Sage and Solitude, 24 inches x 30 inches.
C&I: What else are you feeling when you paint? What do you hope people feel when viewing your paintings?
Dean: When I am working, and depending on how well or not the particular painting is going, a whole range of emotions can be felt. But for the most part, when I am working, I am only half-present. I am usually making quick decisions and trusting my reactionary response to put the paint down where it belongs to help create the illusion of the scene I’m working on. In the studio, I tend to feel along with what I’m painting. If I am painting a stormy sky, for example, I am imagining that experience of being in a storm and feeling it throughout the entire painting, to help me achieve that effect on the canvas. It is my hope that in my work, the viewer can feel a sense beyond just the visual picture ... something beyond the subject alone. Like a sense of the smell of the sagebrush or the feeling of the radiating afternoon heat.
Wyoming Cowboy, 24 inches x 24 inches.
C&I: You’ve begun bringing figures to the forefront. What’s the meaning in that for you? What painterly challenges does that present?
Dean: In my years of painting landscapes, I avoided painting figures as a way of purifying the landscape, and I only painted figures on a small scale in the landscape to show the grandeur of a particular scene. I have transitioned to painting a lot more predominant figures in the landscape, realizing that there are certain subjects or cultures that harmonize beautifully with nature, and that the riders and figures add another level of life to the landscape, and connect our humanity with these places and experiences in nature. I realized that a whole new world of compositional possibilities awaited me in pursuing these figures that I was literally and figuratively keeping at a distance. With the figurative work, getting an accurate portrayal of the subject is the most challenging. To make a horse and rider look correct, for instance, it has to be correct in its weight and proportions, whereas with, say, a windblown tree, there are more liberties that can be taken and more flexibility of proportions.
In the Balance, 36 inches x 36 inches.
C&I: Many of your figures are Western and even appear historical. I’m thinking of In the Balance. What is the story behind that painting?
Dean: I choose to paint my figures in clothing that to me is more aesthetically pleasing and simple, perhaps from a nonspecific period of history that I feel has a timeless quality and represents a more romantic West. In the Balance is a painting of my wife. I wanted her image to symbolize the gentle strength and ethereal nature of a woman — poised firm in the blowing wind and boldly silhouetted against the celestial evening sky.
C&I: Women in bonnets and long prairie skirts, men in big Boss of the Plains hats. I’m looking at A Cowboy’s Romance. What does the cowboy represent to you?
Dean: My figures tend to represent a simpler time when our connection to the land was much more prevalent. The women figures signify the strong working women of the West. The cowboys in my paintings can represent many things, but for me, I think they represent my own wanderings through the West.
C&I: And the moon? Is there a significance to the moon in your work?
Dean: For me, the moon signifies our connection to the divine. When I see it, I can be reminded that there is a whole universe out there with everything sitting in just the right place, and that we are much smaller than we think we are.
Glenn Dean will have a solo show at Legacy Gallery September 12 – 22 in Jackson, Wyoming. He will also be participating in the Quest for the West Exhibition and Sale at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis in September and some holiday small-works shows in November and December. He is represented by Legacy Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, and Scottsdale, Arizona; Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Los Angeles; and Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona. Visit the artist’s website at landscapesofthewest.com.
Photography: Glenn Dean
From the August/September 2019 issue.