The birth of David Frederick Riley’s first child six years ago was the “kick in the pants” he needed to transition from illustration to pursuing fine art full time. Looking around at the work and careers of other painters close to his age—he was in his early 30s—he realized that the ones he most admired had technical knowledge he hadn’t acquired through earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in illustration. He thought of himself as “bobbing on the surface of knowledge that was about as deep as a swimming pool.”
Then he began studying with masterful painters, and almost immediately, he knew he was wrong about the depth of what he didn’t know. “With these guys, I realized I was bobbing on top of an ocean of subtleties,” he says. He spent almost three years intensely plumbing those depths, filling in his gaps in understanding of color, value, drawing, and the use of hard and soft edges. As he did, he watched the possibilities in his art expand accordingly. “I used to write things off as style, not realizing it was actually the edge of my knowledge and ability,” he says.
One day about four years ago, Riley decided to play within the freedom that came from his newly acquired skills. He had been finishing a painting of a delighted little girl standing on a chair at a table covered in miniature pumpkins. The painting was detailed and tight, a style he had developed in the illustration world and been refining in his fine art. He liked the piece (and still does), but he was ready to try a completely different approach. So he bought a 4-by-5-foot canvas and jumbo house-painting brushes. He let loose, putting down big strokes, throwing paint, and setting free a creative part of himself. The painting that emerged was of a bighorn ram staring squarely at the viewer and taking up the entire space. “I liked it!” he says. Still, he was aware of his tendency to do a handful of paintings of one kind and then go on to something else. So he challenged himself to continue in this new, experimental style and not stop until he’d done 12. By the time he finished eight paintings, five had sold—right out of his studio.
Since then, the 43-year-old Utah artist—who signs his work as Frederick—has been on a rocket ride. He has earned awards and attracted extensive gallery attention, all while reveling in using large canvases, elements of abstraction, and a limited color palette to explore the subjects that spark his passion. Chief among these: western wildlife as well as figurative works drawn from American and Native American history, through which he expresses universal human experiences and emotions. As a relative newcomer to the West, his painting guides his curious mind; he chooses an animal or historical photograph and then immerses himself in learning about it as he translates the image into art.
Growing up in Kalamazoo, MI, Riley was more interested in basketball than wildlife or history or almost anything else—other than drawing. He was the younger of two sons of a wildly creative but inconsistently focused father whose projects swung from building a guitar to easel painting to putting a new engine in a car. Riley’s mother held a practical, forward-moving mindset and a hospital job that helped make ends meet.
As a boy, David was fascinated by drawing people and making them look like what he saw, including reproducing pictures of his favorite basketball stars. The summer following high-school graduation, he got a gig drawing caricatures in a street booth on Lake Huron’s touristy Mackinac Island. He worked 11 hours a day, six days a week. The experience rapidly sharpened his observation and drawing skills and toughened him up to criticism, since even in caricature, people can be sensitive to how they’re portrayed. More importantly, sketching people day after day was an opportunity to practice capturing emotion in the nuances of a face.
When it was time for college, Riley started off in scientific illustration at the University of Michigan but after two years decided he would rather draw people. He transferred to Savannah College of Art and Design and earned a degree in illustration, inspired by famed caricature artists including Daniel Adel and Sebastian Krüger. “I wanted to be like those guys,” he says. He was also attracted to the visual storytelling of illustration for magazines and children’s books. After graduation and a four-year hiatus back in Michigan to care for his aging grandparents—during which time he learned and then taught ballroom dancing—he returned to Savannah for its warm climate and a master’s degree.
There he met his wife, Nealy, also a painter. With fine-art degrees in hand, the couple migrated west to be closer to her family in Utah. They moved first to Arizona and then to Grand Junction, CO, where they opened and ran a dance studio for seven years. Riley also taught drawing at a local college and did illustration work, commissioned portraits, and his own painting. Then came his daughter’s birth and the realization that he needed to step up his fine-art game. During one momentous trip to California he took a workshop with artist Casey Baugh, drew alongside Sean Cheetham, and studied with Jeremy Lipking and Joseph Todorovich. Soon he and Nealy sold the dance studio and moved to Utah, where Riley began studying with painter Casey Childs. After a few years they settled in the town of Midway.
After the birth of their second child, Riley took a serious look at his situation. He had two children and wasn’t yet making much money with his fine art. He thought: “I’ve got a year to figure this out because then my son starts eating real food, and I’ve got to pay for it,” he says, laughing. He needn’t have been concerned. Soon his large-scale paintings were stopping viewers in their tracks, and galleries were taking note. Then the sprint was on to meet collector demand while continuing to explore an exciting new way of rendering subjects that interest him.
In a painting titled MONUMENTAL, Riley uses composition to underscore his subject’s enormous size. The moose fills most of the space, his antlers and body extending beyond the edges of the canvas. At the same time, the artist wanted to present the creature as “gentle giant-esque,” with a calm expression and an ethereal, dreamlike feel. “I want the direct experience when you and the animal are looking each other in the eye, checking each other out. It’s almost a more spiritual, palpable experience of one creature to another—not like seeing an animal on a trail,” he says.
The image also reflects Riley’s dual—one might also say dueling—approach. “The OCD part of me wants detail, wants to focus in on one little area. The other part wants to throw paint and use brushes that are too big for what I’m trying to paint.” He satisfies both sides by first letting loose with big brushes and large shapes, then laying the painting flat and tossing mineral spirits on it. That eats away areas of paint—an effect he can’t completely control. “You can’t be in love with your painting and throw mineral spirits on it,” he says, smiling. Shifting gears, he then comes back in to create fine details, especially in the eyes and faces. Finally, he works to fuse the two aspects into a unified whole with a particular aim: “I want you to live in the expression and wander out and check out the antlers and come back to the face and then wander back out, then come back in.”
The same desire for nuance drives the artist in his portrayal of human emotion, even as he draws inspiration and reference material from historical photographs. “There’s a depth and complexity of expression that comes from their life experiences,” he says of subjects from earlier eras. “My challenge is: Can I capture this face—proud, sad, someone who’s seen horrors—can I capture all that?” The challenge was multiplied seven times in his piece BUFFALO SOLDIERS, which is based on part of a photo of African-American soldiers in the Civil War. Each figure suggests a distinct feeling, from anger to fear to defiance to pride. “It was really moving for me to paint, because each face reflected a different motive, and I made up stories about each man,” Riley says.
The artist works within the self-imposed constraints of what he calls the “minimal effective dose” of color—an almost monochromatic impression—which demands a high level of creativity, he says. It focuses his attention on values and shapes, on melding abstract and realistic elements. Combined with the impact of scale—his canvases range in size from 3 to 5 feet wide—these techniques create an arresting effect. And that’s exactly his aim. He believes his paintings possess a “soft forcefulness that makes it hard to just walk by,” he says. “And then the emotional qualities hold you there.”
Montana Trails Gallery, Bozeman, MT; Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT; Altamira Fine Art, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Dick Idol Signature Gallery, Whitefish, MT; Horton Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Aspen Grove Fine Art, Aspen, CO; Clayton Lane Fine Arts, Denver, CO; Broadmoor Galleries, Colorado Springs, CO; Robert Lange Studios, Charleston, SC; www.frederickfineart.art.