THE TOWN OF SILT, COLORADO, where the artist Dan Young lives and works, is situated on the Roan Plateau near some of the most dramatic land formations found in the Rockies: the Book Cliffs and Flat Tops, the Grand Hogback, Mamm Creek and Storm King Mountain. Despite this, his favorite place to paint is a flat, scrubby, former cow pasture that was slated to become a subdivision until a downturn in the economy halted progress before a single shovel hit the dirt.
The land that comprises Silt is cut by the interstate and the Colorado River. It was home to the Ute until they were pushed into Utah in the late 1880s, and then the land was opened to cattle operations. Today, ranches are few and far between since the discovery of oil shale ushered in drilling along with boom and bust economies; the most recent downturn claiming Silt’s housing development as its victim.
But not everyone was upset by this. Several land trusts and foundations quickly bought the 20-acre plot and created the Silt River Preserve. As far as Young can tell, he’s one of the few who’ve taken advantage of this generous gift to the public. An opportunity that, he believes, changed his way of seeing the landscape he’s known his whole life.
"November Edge" (detail) | Oil | 8 x 16 inches | 2014
Young, born in 1959, is one of six kids who grew up fording rivers, fishing, camping and hiking in the area. The spirit of the land around his childhood home in Glenwood Springs, a town 20 miles east of Silt, has never left him, even when he moved to Denver to attend the Colorado Institute of Art. After he graduated, he took a job in Texas working as a hardline illustrator for the now defunct chain of department stores, Mervyn’s.
“I wanted to be an artist,” Young says. “But when I graduated in 1983, there weren’t a lot galleries or options for a fine artist. Commercial art was the best choice. I only took the job in Texas so I could draw every day and get a paycheck.”
When Mervyn’s closed its Texas offices, Young found ample freelance illustration work, which kept him plenty busy scrambling to meet impossible deadlines. But he perfected his drawing and design skills, becoming a go-to illustrator for several big agencies in and around Dallas.
After five years in Texas, Young’s desire to get back to the Roan Plateau became too great to ignore, and he moved home. His intention was to hang on to a few good clients until he could make the leap as a full-time fine artist. “I thought it’d be an easy transition,” he says, laughing, recalling how the illustration work dwindled to a trickle a lot faster than he’d planned. Still, the departure from illustration came at the perfect time. With money in the bank and an occasional call from an art director, Young had enough cushion to step off the merry-go-round and give landscape painting a serious go.
Young first began painting in his studio from photographs. The results, however, were emotionless renditions of places he’d had strong feelings toward since childhood. “The problem was there was a lot I knew little or nothing about,” he says. “Value relationships; color temperatures; they were never in my vocabulary as a product illustrator. I had to learn a new language.”
"Colorado Gold" (detail) | Oil | 8 x 10 inches | 2013
In the art publications he regularly read, artists talked about painting from life, which, as an avid outdoorsman, sounded appealing. But taking his studio into the great outdoors proved logistically complicated. For one thing, he’d never heard of a French easel, and on the few times he’d tried going outdoors to paint, he hauled large canvases and too much stuff. Then he met Michael Lynch, the renown landscape artist, at a one-day workshop in Glenwood Springs.
“He’s the one who said, ‘Absolutely get outside. Go after it,’” Young says, adding that he also visited Lynch’s studio in Denver. “When I got there, I saw all his sketches done on location. That’s when I really understood why I needed to paint outside — you just can’t get a complete understanding of the landscape working from a photograph. You have to get your boots muddy.”
Over the next few years, Young challenged himself to paint outside every day no matter the weather — rain, snow, blazing heat. He filled small 8-by-10 and 9-by-12-inch boards that, to save money, he cut out of Masonite and primed with gesso himself. As often as possible, he met with other up-and-coming landscape painters who, much like him, were dedicated to the life of traveling the backroads, camping out and living on a shoestring while striving to make art and, with any amount of luck, a living at it. He felt fortunate to have travel companions that included Matt Smith, Lorenzo Chavez and Ralph Oberg, each of whom offered more tips and insights on how to make the actual job of painting outside a little easier. And, perhaps more importantly, they offered community.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time you’re on your own,” Young says. “It really helped me to be around other artists to learn what it takes, how hard you really have to work at this, what galleries to look into and who to avoid.”
"The Evening Reflects" (detail) | Oil | 20 x 17 inches | 2017
While Young was acquiring the techniques for painting outdoors, he took a workshop led by artist Skip Whitcomb that shook him on a philosophical level and challenged his nascent understanding of art. “Skip could see I was following a formula. He intentionally decided to put a stick in the spoke of my wheel,” Young says. “It really frustrated me at the time. He took away my favorite brushes, took my palette knife, told me to mix paint differently. He wanted to jar me out of my comfort zone. It was a turning point. Because of him, I started to see art beyond painting pretty pictures.”
Whitcomb’s critical analysis helped Young learn to see like an artist and to realize that simple reproductions of scenery weren’t enough. Young found himself pulling back, spending more time looking, hiking, thinking. He let the land talk to him, bring him back to the joy he knew when he was a kid out exploring.
When he heard about the newly dedicated open space just minutes from his studio, the Silt River Preserve, he decided to check it out. And so began a weekly exploration that has led to some of the artist’s biggest breakthroughs.
“About every two weeks that place changes, subtle changes, but it gives me new ideas for very different paintings,” Young says. “I wouldn’t get that if I didn’t really know the place.”
To date, Young has created hundreds of paintings of the preserve and believes he’s stepped on every square foot in the process. He’s observed eagles, watched coyotes, deer and elk cross the Colorado where it freezes over in winter, and been chased by a belligerent wild turkey. Though he can’t say exactly why this rather unremarkable land calls to him, over years of regular visits at all hours of the day and night, an interesting thing has happened, a kind of reckoning of past and present.
“When I first started painting the preserve, I was doing the obvious — comfortable scenes I responded to and knew people would respond to,” he said. “I was paintings subjects. The more I explored this land, the more I started seeing beyond subject. I’m trying to be honest with my connection to nature, with my feelings, with my emotions.
“This place is dear to me because I grew up near here, but also because it’s allowed me to come full circle. If you want to know me, look at my work from this place; that’s who I am right now.”
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