September 2010

Dan McCaw - Finding The Purple Tree

Author: Paul deVere

Dan McCaw is pushing the envelope. His works keep evolving, drawing the viewer deeper into his paintings.

“McCaw is one of the most widely collected contemporary American impressionists. But his style is now between impressionism and expressionism,” said Jack Morris of Morris and Whiteside Galleries. “He’s always exploring new ways to paint and communicate what he’s trying to get out. That’s one of the things that sets him apart from most other artists. He’s not afraid to explore. A lot of collectors find that very exciting and follow him in that way. If he were restricted to painting just women and children on the beach, he would go bananas.

“You can’t have a conversation about a living American impressionist without Dan McCaw being in the first couple of sentences,” said Ben Whiteside.


Whiteside has been to McCaw’s Southern California studio. Sons and artists in their own right, Danny and John, share the space with their father. “In that studio setting, it just sucks the life right out of you. Dan is working, Danny is working, John is working. Dan describes it as a candle sitting between two blast furnaces. I was out there for four days, just sitting around. At the end of the second day, I walked out exhausted. The level of intense, creative energy saps the strength right out of you,” said Whiteside.

But it is the artist, in the end, who says it all. It on his canvas. You see the exploration of the artistic envelope, from his earlier works (yes, there are women and children on the beach) to today’s portraits and scenes. He is nothing if not eloquent on both canvas and in his words.

“As I grow as an artist, I don’t want to do just the technical facility of rendering the subject. I want it to be almost ambiguous. I give you something that you have to then participate in. It allows you some room to interpret and enter the painting. It’s like showing a shadow to somebody. They’ll create a bigger monster than you could ever paint. It’s more about creating an emotional stage for you to participate in this play,” McCaw explained.


The artist is also a popular lecturer. One of his favorite topics is both the loss and discovery of creativity. He says that our creativity begins eroding as a small child.

“When we’re very small, we look at our mother for some sort of acknowledgment or excitement when we’re doing something creative. If she doesn’t respond, then we start to change until we do see something in her that’s exciting. We start doing this our whole lives, like when the teacher praises Johnny for painting a tree trunk brown and leaves green. All of a sudden our purple tree kind of loses its value. We start to change, to fit in to society, relationships, jobs. I think as you get older, you want to find that purple tree in you,” McCaw said.

But he admits that finding the creativity—to express and expose yourself—is very difficult. “The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, wrote in one of his poems, ‘If you hold the hand in the flame long enough, a flower blossoms.’ Most inexperienced people won’t hold it in there long enough because they feel like they’re going to burn up. It’s kind of that search that I’m at right now. You’re always weighing that you have to make a living, yet you have to satisfy that passion, that individuality, that searching. That’s kind of the dilemma an artist faces. Sometime you just give in. Your groove becomes your rut,” McCaw said.

Standing Figure

The images in his paintings often suggest that. He quotes from a Joe Cocker song, “Never Tear Us Apart.”

“The line goes, ‘We all have wings, but some of us don’t know why.’ The standing figures (in his paintings) may be myself or any man as we stand with our arms trapped by our sides waiting for things to happen instead of using our potential, using those wings instead of dragging them around,” said McCaw.

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