Simplification in Art - An Arduous Process

"Longs Peak, Colorado" Acrylic

My childhood was spent roaming the sandhills of western Nebraska. We rode horses, swam the river and climbed Courthouse Rock. I come from a family of creative artists. Our little house on the prairie overflowed with color and creativity.

Mom paints her garden with a floral palette while Dad is a Western artist and retired high school art teacher. There were no formal lessons for my two younger brothers and I, just an endless supply of paper, pencils and encouragement.

We worked independently but sometimes we’d tape several sheets of parchment together and make gigantic murals of exotic animals, sports figures or Star Wars battles. Dad never led us down the path. Instead, we each struggled to find our own voice in a forest full of noise.

After four years studying fine art in the whispering pines of Charon State, my wife and I grabbed the world by its tail and settled in Denver. Years passed as I worked commercially depicting American sports idols for covetous collectors. Life in the big city became a storm of complication.

Evergreen is that magical place situated on the other side of the rainbow. Upon arriving, we discovered a land of silvery aspen where bluebirds fly, red foxes hide and each morning begins with a golden sunrise. Away from the confusion of suburbia, I found more time to simplify the work. The true essence of nature became obvious.

To simplify is difficult. I like to choose a motif and use all of the senses in a thorough examination. Observe the subject intensely and memorize the attractive, essential features. My camera is an indispensible tool in the process. It’s a digital eye that freezes a fleeting moment in time.

Spectacular landscapes are much harder to break down because in one’s enthusiasm to replicate the scene, the inclination is to include every detail. Unfortunately when that happens, the soul of a place becomes lost and the expression becomes complicated and troublesome to grasp.

If I’m lucky, I’ll dream about a work in progress. Then it’s almost as if the simplification becomes interwoven into the subconscious. In technical terms, the art theory is surprisingly simple. More contrast and colors equals complex, while less contrast and colors equals simple.

I’ve learned much from a deep appreciation of art history. The first cave paintings are sophisticated simplifications that exhibit a graceful elegance. Creating beautiful abstractions by eliminating unnecessary details while preserving the spirit of the whole is something artists have been striving to achieve ever since.

The temptation to emulate my artistic heroes was irresistible but our father preached from the pulpit of originality. He urged us to stay true to ourselves and not be influenced by what others are doing. We were challenged to develop interpretations unspoiled by imitation, criticism and wealth.

My approach is not formulaic. It’s been a matter of accepting and embracing my natural style while resisting the ever-changing, fashionable trends. An eternal mystery to me is how an emotion conceived in the heart emanates into an eager left hand where it’s delivered by pencil point for all the world to see.

My preferred substrate for working in colored pencil must have a medium-toothed texture so when the color is applied tonally in translucent layers, flecks of white paper will show through. This remarkable technique concludes with a drawing that sparkles with light.

Spending dull years painting commercially to please a fickle audience, I was caught up in the competitive affectations of photorealism. A fascinating movement but if executed improperly the results can be cold and lifeless. I’ve chosen to follow my heart and return to a little box of wooden crayons.

I began listening to the old masters from the past. Winslow Homer advised, “Never put more than two waves in a picture, it’s fussy.”

Robert Henri whispered, “If the artist’s will is not strong he will see all kinds of unessential things.”

Andrew Wyeth declared, “When you lose your simplicity, you lose your drama.”

The simplification of my style has been a gradual, uncalculated transformation. An arduous process chocked full of confusion, doubt and failure but in the end it’s worth it. For a humble truthseeker like me, it’s been a revelation to discover that the simplest things in life are often the truest.

"Evergreen Lake, Summer" Colored Pencil

"Evergreen Lake, Fall" Colored Pencil

"Gore Range Thunderstorm" Colored Pencil

"Gore Range Wildflowers" Colored Pencil

"Mule Deer" Colored Pencil

"Self-Portrait" Colored Pencil


  1. Your drawings are wonderful Dan. I love the beautiful scenes and the colors you use. As someone who can barely draw a stick person, I really enjoy your exquisite work.

    1. Thanks Judi, I was asked to write an artist's profile including some ideas about simplification in art for Ann Kullberg's Colored Pencil Magazine. This blog post is what I wrote. I tried to have fun with it. As for the simplification, it's harder than it looks and I'm still working to get where I want to be expressively.

  2. Really appreciate this post because it shows your process and what you draw upon from within (oh... pun accident) to create. This is also why I enjoy visiting artists' studios, because it's part of the process of creation. Your father has some wisdom. This sticks out from your post, "...our father preached from the pulpit of originality. He urged us to stay true to ourselves and not be influenced by what others are doing." It IS tempting to follow what someone else is doing. To find one's own voice and style and develop one's own process takes time and work. Which I think you've done.

    1. Thanks Courtney, it's very tempting to try and emulate your artistic heroes. I've always tried to resist that urge and not fight my natural style whether that's right or not, I don't know. My dad was a high school art teacher and artist himself so it was nice to have that encouragement from both our parents.


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