Andrew Daniel likes to stare. "I love looking at people," he says. "I like studying their gazes and faces and fashion. You can't stop and do that, usually. It makes people uncomfortable. But when you're doing portrait work you can stare for a long time. I don't think of it as voyeuristic. It's humanistic."
Daniel is tall and broad but unimposing, with a bright red beard and careful mannerisms. We sit at his kitchen table drinking tea as his daughter Abby flits around us: opening the refrigerator, playing with the family dog, returning to the couch in the living room to do homework. A seventh grader at Sunny Brae Middle School, she often models for Daniel's figure painting group.
"Lately she has posed in a few of her dance costumes. It is fascinating to see how her features change from season to season and her self possession and poise develop," says Daniel.
Not long ago, a return to figure painting seemed unlikely for the artist, who includes Jim McVicker and Michelle Murphy-Ferguson among his many influences. Daniel's oil landscapes celebrate the beauty of life on the Redwood Coast, a place he arrived at through a circuitous route from a childhood in Orange County and then an adolescence in Maine. The original plan was to re-establish California residency by living with his sister in Arcata, then attend university in Los Angeles, but he quickly fell in love with Humboldt County. He has been painting its creeks, fields, mountains and people for more than two decades.
"I use paint as a technique for slowing down and seeing the world," he says. "Technology provides us with a lot of disposable imagery. We're constantly distracting ourselves. Painting is a way to stop and see creation around me. It's a beautiful, humbling experience."
He recounts riding to a hidden trail on the Hoopa reservation in the back of the pickup truck with several of his guide's friends. The men kept pointing out things Daniel didn't see, like the flash of a deer or rabbit in the trees. Daniel realized that the men, all accomplished hunters, had learned to see the landscape in a way many people cannot.
"Being a painter is kind of like being a hunter. You learn to read the signs and collaborate with nature. You really see it, see the changes in the light. With landscape paintings, sometimes you need to go back six or 10 times to internalize the visual logic of it."
"Allen Pond Reflections," one of the landscape paintings featured at Umpqua Bank through February, was painted over the course of six moist spring mornings at the Arcata Marsh.
"By the time I had finished, the yellow flowers had been mowed and the old reeds were concealed by the new fresh green ones. It's a neat way to mark time."
Daniel has always been a dedicated student of technique, as well. At Humboldt State University he studied the history of art until he "got paralyzed by it." When he decided to make figure painting a larger part of his work, he began attending sittings three times a week. He dashed off painting after painting of the models as to strengthen his skills.
"I got to the point where I didn't think I could stand looking at another naked person on a pedestal," he says, adding that he didn't think he would ever do portraiture again. "That's what happens when you throw out absolutes, though, I guess. You're asking the universe to prove you wrong."
The Eureka Figurative Arts Group gets together once a week. Daniel says that the (clothed) models offer him an opportunity to stare as long as he wants and to create portraits that stare back at the viewer. Abby, who poses on her school vacations, used to listen to audiobooks or watch movies as she modeled (Daniel says he loved capturing her somber expression during sad movies) but now enjoys listening to the conversations between the artists as they work.
"I like hearing them talk," she says shyly. Her own work, a watercolor of her family imagined as owls, is up on the refrigerator. Daniel often uses a wall in the family home to feature his daughter's art during North Coast Open Studios.
"She gets inspired by the creativity in the house and in the culture here," says Daniel, chuckling gently. "So do I."
Andrew Daniel's work will be featured at Umpqua Bank in Arcata for Arts! Arcata, and through Feb. 28.