Daniel Keys

Daniel Keys isn’t kidding when he says he’s self-taught. The 24 year old, who was home schooled, started to draw when he was five, and by the time he was 11 bought a set of paints. But other than encouragement from his family and learning some basic drawing skills from his father who studied architecture in college, Keys said he mostly researched artists he admired and tried to emulate them.

One of those artists is Richard Schmid whose painting that appeared on the cover of the Artists Magazine a decade ago so moved Keys that he often referred to it when painting and, to this day, still keeps that issue close at hand. “I had the chance to tell Richard last year,” Keys said, “that I was really moved by that magazine. There is paint and markings all over it, but I still really enjoy it.”

Keys met Schmid at a “Weekend with the Masters” workshop in Colorado, where he also had the opportunity to paint with Quang Ho, Jeremy Lipking, and Daniel Gerhartz. So impressed with the young artist was Schmid that he invited him to visit his home in New England, an offer Keys eagerly accepted.  “I had the chance, sitting around his dining room table, to tell him how much he influenced me,” recalled Keys, and added, “I’m going to take my magazine back when I see him next and have him sign it.”

In Daniel Keys’ Words

Interview conducted by Rose Fredrick, March 10, 2010
RF: What draws you to certain works of art?

DK: Initially it’s the same thing that would draw anyone, but then, as an artist I go further and start to evaluate color and edges, and all the things that go into painting that piece of art. No one really understands art like an artist. It would be like describing what an orange tastes like to someone who has never had one. As an artist it’s the same thing; everyone can appreciate and relate to it, but no one can really understand it like an artist.

The ones that are the strongest… What I put into a painting – the consideration of value, color, composition – when those things are considered, when there is a certain level of skill behind it, those are the ones that score high in my mind. Those are the ones you want to study the most so those strong points show up in your own work.

RF: Can you think of a few paintings, sculptures, and/or photographs that have stayed with you, in your memory, and have thereby influenced your own work?

DK: I’m not very educated on art history. There are a lot of very famous old masters that I’m unfamiliar with. There is not a whole lot of study for me that went into old masters work. The only ones I’ve really studied are Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik. I think it’s best to have one or two mentors in your corner so you don’t overwhelm yourself with conflicting opinions. I’ve found that and am confident in what I’m doing.

RF: What is it in a work of art that makes it successful, in your mind?

DK: Certainly not whether it sells or its price. What makes it successful is if the artist accomplished what he or she wanted to. With every piece of art the artist should be able to say something, even if it’s just “yellow squash.”

RF: What elevates a work of art from fine craft to art?

DK: In a way it bothers me that art has become a vague term; everything is art, everything is called art. As for the distinction between fine craft, well, that’s all really a matter of opinion. I think fine art is when a person devotes their life to it; they do whatever it takes to improve, try new things, and grow. There is not a whole lot of that kind of thing going on in my mind. I’m just trying to express myself. My only concern is translating. The distinction that other people will make, if they make that distinction, is really not that important to me.

RF: So, accomplishing what you are trying to say, what is that?

DK: I heard that phrase so often – when an artist would tell me that, that I needed something to say or when they would use that terminology – it confused me. But then it just clicked. Sometimes I just wanted to say, “orange.” Art is a means of revealing who you are. Some of the greatest artists are not eloquent speakers but you can peer into them by looking into their art. It can be something as simple as a piece of fruit, or it can be political. All of it is emotional. It’s probably one of those things. It can be something beautiful, or wanting to capture a moment in paint, you are trying to tell a moment or capture a beautiful object.

RF: Are you happy with your paintings?

DK: I would say, now at this point in my development, with a knowledge of painting, skill-wise, you become more eloquent, more articulate. It’s very much like learning to talk, the more you practice and read the dictionary, the more confident you become. Same with art, the more you try, the more you study, you get to the point where you are happy with your art. I feel like I’m entering that part of my career. I see something and I know I can capture it in a way that it would make me happy.

RF: What subjects inspire you the most?

DK: Mostly still life, for now. Artists are always evolving. I’m not going to limit myself, but for not it’s what speaks to me most because you can tell a story or have a theme or paint something because it’s beautiful.

RF: Why still life?  

DK: Right now I paint mostly still life, but I do paint landscape and figure. I would do the others more frequently but there is more planning with them. Still life is a little more convenient indoors. I like still life, it has an endless number of possibilities. It’s nice to have a little niche of your own.

RF: Tell me about the objects you chose for you still life set-ups.

DK: They are a means of exploring, as with any painting, objects that speak to me or that I have interest in. Things that I enjoy and have always liked I put them into still life. There is something about taking something so ordinary like a piece of fruit or a teacup, things that people might look over, and paint it differently so that people look over it and give it a second look. When they come across those things in real life, I hope they look at them a little differently. I think that’s especially evident in still life; it’s usually something much more simple and personal because they are objects that most people have lying around in their homes.

There aren’t a lot of objects that I’m overly attached to sentimentally, maybe because I’m so young. Usually for me, I just look for things – I love to go antiquing, that’s more of a personal hobby. I look for shapes and colors and patterns that I like. Then I look for things that may not conventionally go together, like pumpkins and teacups. Teacups seem to be a frequent subject matter. I look at them not for the cute thought behind them or drinking tea; I look at them for the architectural quality, lines, values and shapes and patterns.

RF: Do you travel much?

DK: This year I would say yes. Last year was a break-out year. After the magazine and now with the galleries, I’m getting contacted almost daily to do workshops and be in shows. Artists contact me and ask to paint together. I travel a lot all over the country now. I have a Vermont workshop and will fly back to see Richard Schmid then. And I will be doing a Ralph Lilydahl how-to DVD so I’m going to fly back to Houston to film about three DVD.

RF: Where does your talent come from and was there a moment, a spark that sent you in this direction?

DK: My opinion on talent is a little different than most. I’m Christian and I do believe God calls us to do certain things but I don’t put a lot of emphasis on talent. If I did that would give others an excuse not to work for what they want. I put a lot of hard work into being able to paint. The calling to paint comes from God, but the ability to grow as an artist comes from hard work. Richard Schmid put it best when he said: “Let’s just say you’re talented and go from there because the rest is hard work.” Talent is irrelevant.

RF: Are your paintings part of something bigger in you? Are you trying to say something with your art?

DK: I would like to think that my paintings are part of something bigger in me. They give me the opportunity to express something I couldn’t verbalize but that I could say more easily though painting. It is part of something bigger from the inside.

RF: What do you hope people will take away from your art?

DK: With my art, with still life being so simple there is a universal quality. When I’m painting it I’m not thinking about whether people interpret it correctly or not. When I sit down to paint it has to be a subject that I find beautiful – and it will take an hour or more to get the set up just right, every leaf every petal – I just step away and appreciate it and get really excited about it. So every decision on how that paint is going to go is determined in the set up. All I’m thinking about is painting it accurately. I enter into my own little world and I get lost in it. I work my hardest to do it justice. How it’s interpreted, it really doesn’t cross my mind. If I did it would probably affect the way I thought about it and it would become insincere. To be genuine, it has to be something that works inside of me.