Flora and fauna are the common thread through watercolor artist David R. Daniels’ work. “I don’t stray very far from those as far as subject matter,” he said. “I don’t paint for a particular show. There are some shows that have a theme and other artists paint for that show. I just paint for myself. If myself fits into one of those themes, then I exhibit, but it’s always nature. Very seldom would you see a manmade object or a person in my work.”
The Silver Spring resident finds inspiration in the shape of his subjects. “I like how things fit into the world, into the environment, into my backyard,” he said. “I am really big on shapes and how they fit on a flat piece of paper. …There have been a million watercolors of a rose or a geranium, so I try to make mine a little more something that somebody hasn’t seen before. That’s where the real work comes in–the composition–so that it is not the same painting everyone has seen for a long time.”
Through July 14, Daniels has a solo exhibition of more than a dozen large-format watercolor works in Germantown’s BlackRock Center for the Arts’ Terrace Gallery.
“David creates works filled with light and color that achieve effects similar to batik through his manipulation of the watercolor resist method,” said Anne Burton, BlackRock’s gallery director. “His compositions come alive through his careful planning, confident brushwork and layering of transparent pigment. …Visitors who have the opportunity to spend time with David’s paintings can enjoy the calming effects of taking a mini-retreat in a natural setting.”
Daniels submitted his work when BlackRock put out a call for entries; this is his second show there. “I think (BlackRock) is a beautiful space,” he said. “My paintings are so large that there are very few places where I can really exhibit more than one or two paintings at a time. They aren’t monstrous, but they are big for watercolors.”
“Geranium,” a 36- by 50-inch watercolor piece of a flower in his backyard, is one of his favorites in the show. Daniels used YUPO, a tree-free synthetic paper, as his canvas. “It’s such a slippery surface and I was determined to see if I could do a big one like all of my other (large works),” he said. “That was the last challenge I gave myself before the exhibit. …I tell my students that when you work on that paper, you have to be in partnership with it. You can’t try to make it do what it doesn’t want to do.”
Another favorite is “Koi 360,” a 5- by 33-inch watercolor piece. “I coated a piece of aluminum with an absorbent ground,” he said. “It turned it into a surface that will accept watercolor. In that process, I embedded real Ginko leaves into the painting and covered the ground over the top so there are leaves embedded in the painting.”
While many traditional watercolor paintings are matted and put under glass, Daniels has an alternative. He glues the watercolor paper to a support and paints, then varnishes the finished product. “That way, there is never any reflection from a window or a lightbulb or anything,” he said. “There is nothing between you and the art except air. That gives a completely different look to my work. …I try to make my watercolors different from the stereotypical image that people conjure up in their head about watercolor. I really like to break out of that box and present them in a new light.”
For Daniels, there was never a time in his life when he wasn’t making art. “It’s just in me to create,” he said. Trained as a botanist and biologist, he taught himself how to paint with watercolors. He didn’t take a class on the subject until his post-graduate work at Central Michigan University. His work has been featured regionally and nationally and in public and private collections like the National Institutes of Health.
Teaching is also a passion for Daniels, who is a watercolor instructor for the Smithsonian Associates and gives classes at Artists and Makers Studio 2 in Rockville. He also leads workshops around the country and the world. “I love watching people discover that they are better than they think they are,” he said.
Some people tend to think watercolor is a spontaneous art. “A lot of people think I just walk into the studio and start painting,” he said. “I would research or ‘incubate’ as I like to think about (an idea) for sometimes a year or two years. I have a thought and that just plants the seed and a lot of times when I am thinking about (ideas), those images resurface and I know there is a painting coming.”
He begins by researching each piece’s focus. “I have to absolutely know my subject matter,” he said. “I can’t paint something I don’t know. …Even though my paintings are very impressionistic, a botanist would always be able to identify the plants in my paintings because they are accurate.” Daniels takes photographs, makes preliminary sketches, does black-and-white value studies and develops compositions before brushes and paints are even brought out.
Daniels creates 12 to 13 pieces a year, averaging about one new piece a month, but other commitments curtail his ability to work continuously. He enjoys the entire process of painting. “It’s just a very personal self-expression,” he said. “I think everyone has one. I try to make mine just a little more unique. I don’t mind putting beauty in the world. I’m very unapologetic about (it). A lot of people would think my paintings were trite or been done before because they are of flowers or of butterflies, but as I tell my students, there is no trite subject matter. There are only trite paintings.”
Folks who Google his name might notice his web address is mrwatercolor.com. He says the handle came on a whim while trying to come up with a name. “I just wanted the word ‘watercolor’ in the title,” he said. “I put in all the different names I could think of and it kept saying ‘That one’s not available.’ ‘That one’s not available.’ When I typed in ‘mrwatercolor’ it said ‘available,’ so I stopped right there. It’s kind of hokey, but people remember it.”
“David R. Daniels: Beyond Limits” is on view through July 14 at the BlackRock Center for the Arts‘ Terrace Gallery, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Regular hours are weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. as well as select evening and weekend hours when performances and classes are offered. Call 301-528-2260 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org. View this exhibit on CultureSpotMC here.