Every day for months, Daniel Robinson walked past the fading white wooden house atop the hill. And every day, he noticed something new. Most people wouldn’t look twice at this place — maybe not even once. It’s just another plain American house whose best days are behind it: paint peeling, broken windows, foundation sagging slightly askew.

But in this scene, Daniel finds something more. He sees a sharply angled roof carving into the sky. He sees its huge windows, peering out from its hilltop perch like wide open eyes. He sees a dynamic and curiously symbiotic relationship between this man-made structure and its natural backdrop. He’s been cataloging the details of this house for a long time now. Soon, he’ll translate what he sees into a work of art.

As a plein air painter, Daniel paints without the even-keeled walls of a studio or the reliability of a still subject. Instead, he hops in his old truck and searches for inspiration amidst the brutal, beautiful, ever-changing landscape of Eastern Oregon. He waits for a perfect sunset to light up the neighborhood in a magical way, illuminating fence posts and mud puddles.

Daniel can observe an outdoor scene for months, returning again and again to ponder its angles and its visual blueprint. Then he sets up his easel and canvas in the middle of a field or on the side of the road and begins to paint. Vivid colors flow from his box of oil paints much like the sun paints the sky at sunset. Vitality and contrast take over the canvas in layers as he loses himself in the time and experience of this place.

I love nature. It's beautiful. But the thing that interests me the most is what people have done within that environment. I like to paint what people are doing within a natural context.

Daniel Robinson

Originally from Buffalo, New York, Daniel has lived in Oregon for close to 20 years. His paintings capture the essence of Eastern Oregon poignantly, and yet are curiously inspired by where he grew up. As a kid, the factory-dotted towns of the Eastern Seaboard left a lasting impression as they sped by outside the car window on road trips — but it wasn’t until he ventured west that those industrial forms found their artistic counterpoint in these vast, bucolic landscapes. This juxtaposition would come to define his style.

Getting intimate with his subjects is vital for Daniel. “To just spend time in a landscape, sitting on a tractor or combine, that's a really good way to let the land speak to you,” he says, “You start looking and seeing and feeling. What I try to do is take that feeling and put it in a jar.”

Fossil sits in the least populous county in a remote area of the state. Classified as frontier land, the county has more cows than humans. The landscape is austere, dotted with rimrock, grasslands, sagebrush and juniper trees. It takes some time to see the beauty in it, but Daniel is a patient man. He is happy to watch it all slowly pass by — much like the meandering of nearby Butte Creek — waiting to find exactly what he needs for his paintings.

“Creatively, [Fossil] is a great place to work,” Daniel says. “It’s a great place to observe the rugged beauty. The landscape requires a second look, and sometimes a third and fourth, to be able to find that beauty. This is not heaven on earth, but there are moments when it’s almost like heaven shines through.”

Against this organic backdrop, Daniel also appreciates the ever-changing man-made structures and the society that built them. Gravel and pavement jump out at him just as much as golden-hour light on the trees and hills. “I love nature,” he says. “It's beautiful. But the thing that interests me the most is what people have done within that environment. I like to paint what people are doing within a natural context.”

The essence of Daniel’s works is encapsulated by a common sight in the rural United States: the humble, hulking grain elevator. Their primary shapes remind him of when he was a child in art class, studying their shapes and lines. Decades later, he still appreciates their rustic beauty amid the rolling grasslands. “It’s fascinating to me, the scale and the power and the energy that it must have taken to make these structures. They’re still being used. They weren’t meant to be beautiful. But nonetheless, there is a real beauty to them.”

Daniel’s paintings are grounded in what he sees as the inimitable power of reality. He embraces elements that another artist might omit — a broken down truck, an air conditioning unit, a garbage can. “One of the most comforting things to me in life is reality,” he says, “just being able to look at things as they are.”

These seemingly mundane elements contribute to the power of the scene simply because they are part of it — to remove them would be to pursue an entirely different artistic goal. While Daniel doesn’t seek to invent, he does seek to emphasize. His works carry an ethereal style, with rich, crisp colors and smooth strokes. They are imperfect scenes, presented near-perfectly — or, at least, the way Daniel saw them in the moment.

“A big part of reality is the emotion you feel — but the magic feeling isn't exactly the way it looks. It's not exactly the way you remembered it. It’s fictionalized. It's emotionalized. In a way you are stepping into my view and my emotions at that time. I'm trying to recreate that moment, and I’m inviting you to come and look at this, and feel the way that I felt about it.”

Daniel’s artistic endeavors extend beyond his plein air paintings. He’s been an acoustic country guitarist since he was a teenager and believes his art and music feed one another like a flywheel. Most days, he finds time to fiddle with chords and rhythms, writing music just like he records the world through painting.

Over the years, he’s found that working as an artist while raising a family in a remote town is a balancing act. It requires sacrifice: helping his children learn and grow is more important than himself or his artistic efforts. Rather than give in to the easy distraction of TV, he and his family read books, make art and play music together.

Like the meandering local creek or each day’s sunset, Daniel’s world of painting and music is always changing. A landscape or a building is constantly in flux as it deteriorates and erodes. An old song can always be made new again. Sometimes Daniel Robinson waits for a year to find the right light for one of his paintings. He watches it with bright energy in his eyes and then he sets up his easel to paint.

“You’re painting and you look at the clock and wonder where the last two hours have gone,” he says. “You’re just completely and fully alive.”

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