“I have a dialogue with the canvas, and the canvas has its own ideas. It’s weird to say it that way because it’s a piece of canvas, it’s not a conscious being, but every brushstroke you put down changes the whole painting.”~ Stephen C. Datz
“I don’t quit until it’s right. It does drive me completely nuts,” admits Colorado-based artist Stephen C. Datz. “The level of patience that’s required. I wonder, how did I end up settling on a technique that requires the one thing that I’m really not very good at? Which is patience. I work day in and day out; it’s my method, but I do get a little bit weird about it! I can’t stop, if it’s not right, I just keep going. I’ll keep painting and painting. I might paint the same brushstroke 100 times until it feels right.”
“Spirit Level,” Datz’s monumental painting and homage to the red rocks surrounding his Colorado home, is the cover image and calling card work for his new exhibition, “Southwest Sojourns,” opening Friday, January 15th, at Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona. The painting graced the cover of January’s Western Art Collector, and followers of that magazine recognize that the publication thought of by some contemporary Western artists as a little too traditional, is embracing the swelling tide of a new generation of influential artists. For the last six months Datz has been sealed in his studio preparing for his much anticipated exhibition.
Datz’s dazzling, jewel-like colors baffle the camera lens. His pigments give photo optics headaches. Commenting the prismatic exhibition cover painting, Datz remarks that often, in arts magazine publishing, up to three iterations of a painting might be offered to the public. At the same time, it’s virtually impossible for a camera to pick up all the nuances in a Datz painting–some colors potentially emphasized at the expense of other elements. Photographic images can alter the appearance of artistic works, particularly paintings. And when paintings are as painstakingly detailed as Datz’s, a potentially infinite number of pigmentations get squeezed through the lens.
The technology can bug Datz, just a tiny bit.
It turns out that the title of “Spirit Level” is kind of a pun, says Datz, because in order to get the perspective correctly, he used his own four-foot long spirit level, a carpenter’s tool he lays up against the canvas to ascertain what “level” actually is.
“The painting’s dividing line in relationship to the edge of the canvas is dead level. People are oriented to see level, that’s how we find our balance in our culture, because we understand biologically what “level” is. And that’s how this painting started, it was about carpentry—-I’m dropping levels, I’m dropping plumb lines along the axis of the big rocks, along the axis of the cliffs,” Datz explains. “I make a line that will orient me, lay down the rules, so I know how I need to make the composition flow, where I need an angle to be, etcetera. To me the funny thing about the whole painting is that I named it after my carpenter tool.”
Given that his last show at Medicine Man sold out, and that his work is selling faster and better than ever before, is Datz feeling more pressure to succeed?
“No, I’m working from a purely intuitive place. It takes as long as it takes. I put down some brushstrokes, step back and look at it….does it look right? Yes, no….’maybe’ is the same as ‘no,’ but ‘maybe’ is qualified by part of the brushwork being okay. I have a dialogue with the canvas, and the canvas has its own ideas. It’s weird to say it that way because it’s a piece of canvas, it’s not a conscious being, but every brushstroke you put down changes the whole painting.”
It’s that conversation with his canvas that once taught Datz a huge lesson about trusting his process.
“A few years ago I repurposed an old canvas. I had a start, and I had a painting for which I’d done a study. It was a very tall piece, an aspen tree grove with snow,” Datz recalls.
“The study was practically a Tonalist painting, it was all white…it had a nice feel. It depicted a stormy, snow-filled day, but right after the snow stops. And the light is starting to come up, the sun is coming out, but the sky is not blue yet. And there’s this lightness about it. I can’t wait. So I get started and get my tones blocked in. I’d had a previous start on the canvas, but it was thinly painted so that wasn’t really a problem. I didn’t need to tone it down, there was nothing to distract me from the new marks I was putting down.
By some accident, via what was previously there…a desert waterfall…what I ended up with was this gentle kind of white. And there were streaks from the first painting that worked through and created a soft light coming through the trees. That was intriguing. That was cool. But it wasn’t what my original idea for the new painting was. Without this little bit of unexpected direct light the scene wouldn’t be the same. I stopped working and thought about that for two days.”
What Datz realized is that if he liked the new idea better than the old idea a painting suggests, why not run with it? What was left unfinished in the previous work became something fresh and wonderful in the new painting. It changed his idea, through no intention whatsoever. The discovery was a random event, and he hadn’t sensed the potential was there.
“I was just putting down my tree trunk and my snow, and I ran with it. And it turned out brilliantly. That was a huge lesson. Listen to the canvas. And that all gets back to the big painting in this show. All of these areas — like the meadow of sage — there are all these patterns in there, all these colors, different brushstrokes. It wasn’t this ONE thing.”
Datz is aware that his intricate brushstrokes and fields of broken color hold myriad small, abstract works. Working more abstractly, and with other mediums, are both ideas he’s strongly considering.
“Arguably, there’s already a fair amount of abstraction in what I do, it’s just not granular,” says Datz. “‘Spirit Level’ isn’t abstract, but there’s one small part of it that I was looking at one day, and I got out my viewfinder that I use to isolate subjects and held it up to that one little area. And it was essentially an abstract painting. In context, it fits into the broader narrative of the piece, but isolate down little bits of this big painting, you get a lot of small paintings. So, now I’m thinking about making a painting of just one section, and not worrying about horizons lines and perspective and all that. Just try to mess around juxtaposing colors of objects I see in the desert——and then I started looking at some of my other subjects. And there’s a lot of potential there.”
But, he adds, he’d almost have to train the perfectionist right out of himself to pull it off.