At home in nature, Garfield County plein air artist finds beauty in midwinter

Local artist Dan Young paints beside the Colorado River in Silt on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Two unbothered bald eagles perched high upon the gnarled limbs of a dead cottonwood tree. Mule deer bucks crowned by giant racks walked by without a worry. They just kept on peacefully grazing.

As far as the fauna was concerned, Dan Young was one of them.

Nearby, Young had casually swung his legs over a barbed-wire fence. He trudged through thick mud, then cleaned off his boots using a nearby patch of snow.

He pointed toward one of the bucks.

“I call that one Elvis,” he said. “Because he loves to get his picture taken.”

Young is a contemporary landscape artist who spends winters capturing via canvas and paintbrush the hazy hues of hills, buttes and plateaus in western Garfield County. His paintings have also paid homage to Mt. Sopris, fly fishing on the Frying Pan River, the Grand Hogback, the Crystal River Valley — many natural settings interspersing Western Slope backyards.

Dan Young captures the landscape of the Silt River Preserve on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Collectors from all over the world purchase his works at the Ann Korologos Gallery, a Basalt exhibition room featuring 40 locally- and nationally-acclaimed artists. Its director, Sue Edmonds, said Young is one the gallery’s best sellers.

“There’s not a lot of landscape painters that go out and paint like he does,” Edmonds said of Young. “I think that being out there and capturing the light in the moment is what makes his work so special.”

Edmonds said COVID-19 and its ensuing mass urban exodus drummed up business quite well for local artists and galleries. People were stuck at home, in places like Aspen, trying to adorn their new empty walls. Young was getting picked up about twice a month during this time.

“(Young) has been with the gallery for about 20-25 years maybe, and in that time his work has gotten better and better,” she said. “He’s sought after by so many collectors.”

Young’s name may occupy the voluminous art world of the Roaring Fork Valley and its amalgamation of flavorful galleries lining the Gucci streets of Aspen. But he doesn’t actually live there.

Instead, the 63-year-old Glenwood Springs native resides in Silt and has spent nearly the past decade proliferating his impressionistic style beside the Colorado River south of town.

“I was always an outdoor kid,” he said. “We did the fishing, hunting and camping — all that stuff.”

Dan Young flips through a sketch book before he paints a landscape at the Silt River Preserve on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Friday marked a lull between one heavy snowstorm and the next. A thin blanket of clouds stretched across the afternoon sky over the Silt River Preserve, 132 acres of natural beauty uncontaminated by residential and industrial developments thanks to preservation efforts by the town and the Aspen Valley Land Trust.

“I have painted literally hundreds of paintings in here, and I can line them all up and you would not even know they’re all painted here,” Young said of the Silt River Preserve. “I have painted 360 degrees from this parking lot, in every season — summer, winter, fall, sunrise, sunset, moonrise.”

Wearing an outback fedora, baggy blue jeans, a Cabela’s hoodie and a hunting camo scarf, Young crackled over high brush until he found a suitable, riparian spot. 

In the meantime, he spoke of waiting three years to photograph the rare and evasive Colorado river otter, giving wildlife a voice through his artwork and his current commission work for a hotel in Denver.

Within minutes, a good find along the river. Young broke out his three-legged easel, a palette of oil colors and attached a small, 9-by-12-inch blank canvas toward the easel’s top. He then riffled through a sketch book, to sort of frame what he’d eventually paint.

Local artist Dan Young begins filling a canvas with paint strokes at the Silt River Preserve on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

“When I first started painting, I wanted the obvious. Give me Mt. Sopris, give me an obvious river scene, give me that beauty Colorado is known for,” Young said. “I don’t do that anymore. I just kind of wander around and see what strikes me.

“It might be a relationship with shapes, it might be relationships of values, it might be colors.”

Young graduated from Glenwood Springs High School in 1978. He was raised by his mother, Bea, a former amateur artist, with five brothers and sisters. His first taste of pursuing art came when his mother purchased his first oil painting set, right around age 8.

Young originally set out to become an automotive mechanic after high school, attending mechanical school in Phoenix. But Young figured out fairly quickly this wasn’t what he wanted to do, and, eventually, he took up classes at the Colorado Institute of Art. Young later found steady work as a commercial illustrator in Dallas.

“I was what’s called a hard line artist,” he said. “I drew dishes, bedspreads, glassware, jewelry, anything this store sold.

“Fortunately for me, I went to work on Monday and they shut the whole damn thing down.”

By 1989, Young decided he just wanted to be a painter. He quit the illustrating business, moved back to Colorado and, essentially, became a starving artist before ever being noticed.

“I wanted to make a statement with what I do,” Young said. “I move things, I enlarge or reduce, I arrange the shapes, I take control of what’s out there, and I get to play God, basically.

“If I want to change the shape of that mountain or the way that river flows, I’m totally in control.”

Artist Dan Young paints beside the Colorado River in Silt on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Since then, Young married his wife, Kathy, who’s a preschool teacher. They raised a daughter, Chloe. Their house is also cluttered by boxes of napkins Young used to sketch ideas. The ideas, he said, never turn off in his brain.

“The cheap-ass company has changed their napkins, and I was really bummed,” Young said. “But my wife always said someday they’re gonna wonder why they go through so many napkins, because I would take handfuls of them and they’re wonderful.”

Amid Young’s psychological factory of never-ending ideas is the Silt River Preserve. Silt Town Administrator Jeff Layman said Young is so enamored by this local landscape, he once put on a painting exhibition for folks during an event promoting the Preserve.

“It’s a feather in Silt’s cap to have an artist of his caliber and renown choosing Silt in which to live and do so much of his work,” Layman said of Young. “To have been able to preserve that land for all future generations, including him, is pretty special.”

When Young began touching his paintbrush to the canvas, the nearby bald eagles eventually flew off into the abyss. Meanwhile, the bucks looked on with vague curiosity before ignoring Young’s fervent strokes. 

Within hours, Young produced another classic piece to add to his vast repertoire.

The final outcome following hours of local artist Dan Young toiling with a paint brush and canvas at the Silt River Preserve on Friday.
Courtesy/Dan Young

Though Young prefers capturing the winter landscape more than any other season, it’s become tougher and tougher as time goes on.

“I did it religiously,” he said of painting in winter. “I would say I was out more than I was in the studio. I get out a lot more in the spring, summer and fall than winter, because I’ve killed my fingers.”

Young then looked across a field where the bucks continued to graze. The temperature was at least 40 degrees. The sun was still out.

“It has to be like this,” he said. “Or I just can’t do it. My fingers hurt so bad.”

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