Dave Santillanes,
Dave Santillanes, "Sedona Light," 2019, oil, 32 x 24 in., Private collection, Studio from plein air studies

Aside from demonstrating a command of color and brushwork, the work of Dave Santillanes has a strong pull on the viewer for a reason a bit harder to nail down. Like a master guitarist, Santillanes takes the audience by the arm and guides them to a vision of the landscape that owes as much to his internal thoughts as it does to the visible reality of the subject matter. And he does so with smart, small flourishes of color and stroke that are as charming as the daring passing notes in a fluid guitar solo.

A separate article could be written on Santillanes’ technique, but one look at a painting such as “Sedona Light” (shown above) suggests that the Colorado artist has some important knowledge to pass along in regard to composition. He largely views plein air work as preparatory studies for studio pieces, although he does sell a few, and most artists would be happy to paint as well as he does in the field. Plein air painting is groundwork for him. He gathers information and perhaps suggests a composition. In the studio, he may test and ponder several arrangements over a few days before following through with an idea.

“When I go out painting, composition is often third or fourth on my list of priorities,” says Santillanes. “I’m not ignoring composition, but I’m looking to capture atmosphere, significant details, and the overall idea of the painting. I’m after a broader sense of what I’m thinking, and I’m gathering that information for the study. I compose in the studio. There, the outdoor study becomes paramount in what I paint. I see plein air as an initial step that allows me to sit down and really think about what I want to say and how I want to say it.”

A striking aspect of “Sedona Light” is how the bottom two-thirds of the painting is in shadow, with the top third catching direct sunlight and flashing Sedona’s characteristic red rock. The weight of the strong element at the top rests on a brilliant, colorful reflection in the stream, like a wine glass with a delicate stem. “I like to put the overpowering motif — in this case, the red rock — as the secondary motif,” says Santillanes.

“The red rock is dominating, so I felt by cropping it down I could focus on this stream leading back to it. I was looking to have the viewer follow the stream to the crescendo, which is the light hitting those red rocks. By dedicating two-thirds of the composition to the stream and one-third to the rock, it creates this journey along the stream. It directs the focus to the stream, where the little sliver of light is the equivalent of foreshadowing. Keep going and you will see the red rocks. I was careful not to overstate the line of trees across the middle because it would have created a barrier in the middle of the painting. I wanted the line from shadow to light to be subtle enough to lead people back and not stop them. The light in the stream was broken up a bit because if it would have been strong and in the center, it would have been a problem. Instead, it is a foreshadowing.”

Additional Landscape Paintings by Dave Santillanes

Dave Santillanes, "Up River Study," 2021, oil, 12 x 16 in., collection the artist, studio
Dave Santillanes, “Up River Study,” 2021, oil, 12 x 16 in., collection the artist, studio
Dave Santillanes, "The Medicine Bows," oil, 12 x 12 in., collection the artist, studio
Dave Santillanes, “The Medicine Bows,” oil, 12 x 12 in., collection the artist, studio
Dave Santillanes, "The Coming Rain," 2015, oil, 32 x 24 in., private collection, studio
Dave Santillanes, “The Coming Rain,” 2015, oil, 32 x 24 in., private collection, studio

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, coming up in a future Plein Air Today newsletter, and here at OutdoorPainter.com.

Bonus: Study with artist Dave Santillanes and you’ll quickly see why he believes plein air paintings are even better than keeping a diary! Start with his PaintTube.tv art video workshop, Painting Landscapes (click here).


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