AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID FREDERICK RILEY
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with David Frederick Riley
Michael Jordan has been an inspiration to young hoopsters for the past three decades but has rarely been considered an artistic muse. Wildlife and portrait artist David Frederick Riley was and remains a great fan of His Airness, but it wasn’t just Jordan’s legendary basketball prowess that captured David’s imagination.
“For me growing up, drawing and basketball were the two things I did most often. And eventually, I stopped growing. And so I gave up on the NBA dream and just focused on artwork and realized, ‘Oh, you got a much better chance with art than you do with the basketball thing. I don’t think you’re going to make it,’” David said, laughing.
Growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, David’s drawing subjects included portraits of classmates, superheroes and sports figures, filling notebooks with sketches of Jordan, whom he continues to draw and paint to this day.
“Michael Jordan is a reference point for wherever I am in my artwork, and I’ll just do a picture of him every once in a while,” David said. “A couple of years ago I did a painting of him because I just really wanted to do one in the style that I paint in currently, and it was just a ton of fun to go back and do that.”
After high school, David pursued an art career in earnest, beginning at the University of Michigan, where he studied scientific illustration. He soon discovered, though, that drawing insects, plants and anatomy for textbooks was not how he wanted to use his talent. He was most interested in portraiture, and only after he moved to Utah several years later did he discover the joys of painting wildlife, which he is renowned for now.
“I’ve always been very much drawn to portraits and caricature, and people, and getting a likeness. And wildlife was actually somewhat of a departure for me and mostly influenced by moving out west,” he said.
Two years into his undergraduate studies, David left the University of Michigan and moved to Georgia to complete his degree in illustration at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Upon graduation, he took a hiatus from art, and it was during this break that David added Ballroom Dance Instructor to his resume.
“My mom said I always liked to dance while growing up, only growing up it was watching Yo! MTV Raps back in the 90s and things like that. So it wasn’t anything formal for sure,” he said. “But if you like to dance, ballroom is fun because there are set patterns and movements, and it’s something you can learn and don’t have to be born with, necessarily, if you can stay on the beat.”
After two years of learning and teaching the fox trot and the cha-cha, David was ready to get back to art and returned to SCAD to complete a master’s degree with thoughts of teaching art. It was there that he met his wife, fellow Montana Trails Gallery artist Nealy May Riley. Together, they moved to Arizona, then Grand Junction, Colorado, where, in addition to art, David and Nealy opened a dance studio, where David would teach dance while doing illustration on the side.
During that time, David did illustrations for magazines, novels and children’s books, including a historic book entitled President Lincoln, Willie Kettles and the Telegraph Machine. But with a baby on the way and life getting more complicated, David decided he needed to take a hard look at his career and future artistic goals.
“At that time I had other artists that I really enjoyed that were gallery artists, and I just thought, ‘Man, these guys paint better than I do. They know something I don’t know. There’s stuff I haven’t learned here that they know.’ And so I just realized that I need a mentor, ideally I find someone who can teach me how to be a gallery artist as opposed to an illustrator, because if I’m a gallery artist, I get to paint whatever I want,” he said.
So the couple moved to Nealy’s home state of Utah, where David knew some artists with whom he wanted to study to fill in the knowledge gaps that art school did not fill. While the times were still lean for them, David was eager to become a gallery artist in his own right. Eventually, David found a studio in Park City, which allowed him to teach, rent out space, and have an area for his own painting. At the time, he was doing commission work as well as some illustration, but he soon found himself ready to “go looser, more expressive and big.”
“I thought, well, wildlife would be fun. So, I did a four-by-five foot painting of a ram and just went crazy. I bought these big house painting brushes and was just throwing paint and having fun. And afterwards I thought, ‘Man, that was fun, and I think people are going to buy this. I think I’ve got something here.’ And so I told my wife, ‘Check this out. I think I’m on to something.’ And she said, ‘Maybe.’” David said. “I had all these ideas for a series for paintings and things I was going to do, but my follow through was terrible. I was always on to the next idea before I had given it a shot. And so this time I said, ‘No, not this time. I’m going to do 12 of these, and I’m not going to paint anything else until I do 12 of these animal portraits of local animals.”
But before he had completed even eight of the dozen paintings, five had already sold out of his art studio.
“They weren’t even in a gallery. They sold easily. And so then it kind of confirmed, ‘Ok, you’ve got something here. This is going to sell. You’re going to be able to feed this family of yours. It’s going to be four mouths to feed at home soon and this could be it, maybe,’” he said. “And so I just went all in on that and got into a Park City Gallery and started selling the wildlife paintings.”
Unique, bold and eminently his own, David’s style clearly speaks to art lovers of all kinds. For him, though, his style and technique appeal to both his wild side and his sense of order.
“It satisfies the two loudest voices in my head. So, there’s one voice that says, ‘Go crazy. Throw paint. Splatter things. Make a mess. Have fun.’ And there’s another voice that says, ‘Detail everything,’” he said. “There’s this recognizable part of the painting. It’s very detailed and in focus. And the rest is looser, more abstract.”
David says his love of portraiture and desire to create with emotion and expression, regardless of the subject matter, helped to create his signature style. He also credits the fact that he didn’t grow up seeing traditional wildlife painting.
“It was comic books and sports stars and things like that. So when I applied the tools I had and how I see things and think about things, artistically, I apply those to wildlife. It’s not something you see in wildlife art very much, and so my compositions look different. How I’m presenting the animal looks different,” he said. “And it’s very much about not just a bison but that specific bison and what mood that bison might be in. And then how do I tell the story of this encounter with an animal, versus a more naturalistic approach … It’s more ethereal, an interaction with an animal on the spirit plane or the astral plane.”
Part of David’s extraordinary style is his use of delicate water-type spots on top of the paint. He says he developed this technique somewhat by accident. Oil painters use mineral spirits as a regular part of their painting process, and a tiny mishap caused David to begin using it in a whole new and creative way.
“I was splashing mineral spirits on a painting that was on the floor next to me, on accident. And I realized that it makes spots, as opposed to more of the drip and the streak look,” he said. “Also, I started getting sick from the overuse of [mineral spirits] and so I had to change up my working process and that’s kind of how the spots were born, as a result.”
While much of David’s work is or appears to be monochromatic, he does love the use of color and uses it to surprise and engage both himself and the viewers of his work.
“I enjoy using color and I enjoy doing monochromatic, and so I like to just mix it up for a certain painting. I’ll feel like it needs some color and maybe it’ll be subtle or lately I’ve been doing some that are just extremely saturated. I’ll paint a black bear but I’ll paint it in blue, and those are really fun, to just go really vivid with colors,” he said. “Some people love the color, some people love the monochromatic. So for me it’s the variety.”
While it was wildlife paintings that ignited his gallery career, David still loves to paint all kinds of subjects, including rock stars, pop culture, and historical figures. He says he loves painting it all, appreciates the variety, and trusts that all of his paintings will find the right buyer.
“The people who follow me on social media right now follow me mostly for the animals. And so if I’m posting stuff that isn’t that, it won’t get as many likes. Because you go there looking for a grizzly bear and you get Jim Morrison. I’m not too worried about it, though. Eventually you’ll get [a painting] in front of the eyes that will appreciate it, and it tends to be Ok,” he said. “For five years now, it has been a lot of bison, a lot of bears, a lot of wolves, and I’m not tired of them at all. But it is really nice to mix it up.”
David says he gets inspiration for his work from anything, whether it’s a picture on the side of a bus or new paint colors in the art store. He loves painting for its own sake, regardless of subject matter.
“Wildlife is inspiring and fun, but honestly for me, it’s the painting that’s it. The love is actually painting. And then I can apply that to whatever subject is in front of me. If it’s a human or animal or whatever. It has to have a face for me to get excited about it, but if it has a face, the rest is entertainment,” he said.
Maria Abad, gallery director, said that almost as soon as they saw David’s work at in Scottsdale, they knew it was special. It wasn’t long before they tracked him down and asked him to consider selling his paintings at MTG.
“David’s paintings were so bold and so different. They were a perfect addition to our gallery,” said Maria. “We are honored and delighted to have played a role in David’s artistic success.”
“[Gallery owner Steve Zabel and Maria Abad] had opened a gallery in Bozeman, Montana. I had never heard of Bozeman at that time, but after they offered me the opportunity to hang some paintings up, I said, ‘Ok, let me think about it.”
After asking around about the offer, David was told by a Scottsdale gallery owner, “Don’t bother. Bozeman’s too small of a market.” Thankfully, though, David thought better of this short-sighted advice.
“After talking with Steve, I was like, ‘Well he seems like a good guy, let’s try it,’ so I brought up a few paintings, and I think one sold within 15 minutes of being on the wall,” he said. “From that first year on, Montana Trails has always been my best-selling gallery. So, luckily, I went with my own gut feeling.” Had David listened to the advice of a colleague, this extraordinary partnership might never have formed.
David’s wife Nealy also sells her work at MTG and, with their easels just five feet apart, they paint together, support each other, critique each other, and together they have built a life as two working artists.
“If you are painting for money, you really have to come to grips with the fact that you’re not just painting for yourself. When you’ve got mouths to feed and your job is to have the income for the food, yeah, you’re not just painting for you. I had a couple big realizations when I was making the transition. One is that it doesn’t matter how good a painting is if no one wants it on their wall.”
It is certainly not uncommon for working painters to become bored with continually painting subjects that are expected from them or the ones that sell most easily, but David says his job is bigger than that, and his own perspective is, in some measure, secondary.
“My job is to set a scene or create a space for someone to have their own narrative and their own dialogue with a painting, so they get to interact with it without having to worry about what I was thinking,” he said. “The story, ideally, is provided primarily by the viewer and their personal experiences, and their life that they bring to it. Because, you can’t anticipate that as the artist. Two people will come up with two completely different narratives for a painting, depending on their life experience. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s the goal to create space for the person to have their experience.”
Reactions to David’s works have included everything from tears to unadulterated glee. Owners of his work have told him that they have actually given names to animals depicted in his paintings. They have become part of the family and a part of their daily lives, and the significance of that is not lost on David. He understands, appreciates and is gratified by the fact that after he completes a painting, it goes on to brighten someone’s life, or even takes on a life of its own, after it leaves his studio.
Coming summer 2023, our first husband and wife exhibition featuring Nealy Riley and David Frederick Riley.
COPYRIGHT MONTANA TRAILS GALLERY, INC 2023