By Becky St. Clair
Always drawing as a kid, Davis Perkins doesn’t remember a time when art wasn’t a part of his life. Perkins attended the University of Oregon, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and he has now made art a career. He has original artwork in a permanent collection at the Smithsonian as well as in the Pentagon and has done one-man shows at the Alaska State Museum and the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum.
On Nov. 9, Perkins will host an opening reception and artist talk at 7 p.m. in the Rasmussen Art Gallery right here on campus. His exhibit, Landscapes: A Moment in Time, will be on display through December 8 (the gallery will be closed Nov. 23-Dec. 1 for Thanksgiving break). We caught up with Perkins and asked him a few questions to get to know him and his craft better.
What first sparked your interest in painting?
I was always drawing as a kid. It was something for which I seemed to get a lot of “praise.” I was raised on a farm in rural Oregon and was always outside. It was during my three-year stint in the Army I really started to draw a lot, and when I got out of the service I attended college, initially studying history, but taking more and more drawing and painting classes. I had great support from my professors and they encouraged me to pursue painting seriously. I switched majors to art and began in earnest. I initially started in oil painting, and it’s what I love most to this day.
How did your career start?
While in college, I was a smokejumper (parachute firefighter), and I worked during the summer fire season. After graduation, I moved down to the Bay Area to paint during the winter, going back to Alaska to spend the summers jumping fires. It was a very seasonal lifestyle! When a professor advised me to start a series of paintings of my experiences as a smokejumper, I began jumping fires with a small sketchbook, documenting my work during the slow times. The series ended up being my senior thesis project. I had a lucky break with that final series; first, the Alaska State Museum gave me a one-man show of the work, and the next year, the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum gave me a one-year solo exhibition of my work. The Smithsonian has three of my paintings in their permanent collection. I also have a painting in the Pentagon with the Air Force Art Collection.
How does your environment play a role in your art-making?
As you will see in the exhibit at the Rasmussen, I consider myself a traditional landscape painter. Much of my life has been spent outdoors, and the wonders of nature are what inspire me, therefore much of my work is plein air. For larger studio pieces I always work outside for reference studies.
What is one of your favorite pieces you’ve created, and why?
Hmm … that’s a tough one! I’d say some of my favorite pieces are the quick studies done on location. They often seem the freshest and most spontaneous. I am constantly attempting to not overwork a piece; I try and limit an outdoor painting session to no more than two hours. By that time, the light has changed significantly. I will often start a painting in the morning and move on to another in the afternoon. If there’s more work that remains, I can return the next day.
Tell us about your studio. What kind of space have you created in order to be comfortable expressing yourself?
I’ve got a great studio! It’s located in downtown San Rafael and is part of a complex called The ArtWorks Downtown. There are about 35 studios in the building and it is a wonderful complex in which I have many good friends. I have a high ceiling studio with a skylight, as well as good artificial lights. I’ve been in ArtWorks Downtown for about 15 years. Come visit anytime!
What’s something you still want to learn about art-making, and what are you doing to acquire that knowledge?
A good question! I am obviously still learning and it is an ongoing ambition, but I’m focusing on the study of color primarily. For the past three years, I have been on the faculty of the annual Plein Air convention. The four-day convention attracts painters from all over the world, and individuals give wonderful lectures and demonstrations. I gain a great deal from attending these lectures and learning from some of the world’s top artists. I also try and take advantage of living in the Bay Area and travel to museums here as often as I can. We are so fortunate to have access to the de Young, the Oakland Museum, and others; they have wonderful collections!
What makes oil painting different from other kinds of painting?
What is delightful about oil painting is the ability to alter your work: You simply wipe it off! Often when I’m painting a cloud, for example, I will decide to start again. During the process of wiping off the paint, a new shape will emerge that I like and will develop. I especially like the ability to glaze over the dried paint with a translucent layer of color. It’s a technique used by oil painters for hundreds of years. As I mentioned, I am constantly exploring and reading about mixing color. It is an ongoing process!
How do you start a new piece?
A large white canvas staring you in the face can be intimidating. So I always start a painting with a thin wash, usually in an earth color. I then use a little darker, thin paint to start developing the composition. This is really the most fun time to paint; you’re exploring, wiping out, redrawing with thin paint. You can’t screw it up! I then start to develop the basic values–light and dark. When I’m satisfied I’m on to something, I’ll start applying heavier layers of paint. Then it’s, “Fingers crossed!” Ha!
Who is another artist you admire, and why?
I would have to say Richard Schmid is one of my greatest inspirations. He is nothing less than a National Treasure. I have had the pleasure of meeting him, and I own all of his books. He’s been an inspiration to hundreds of young artists.