“When David McCamant talks about the end of the day, he almost sounds a little breathless. Not that he’s itching to clock out. It’s the opposite. He’s a landscape painter, and when the last moments of sunlight make the Sierra Nevada and the clouds above it glow peach and pink, he wishes he could pause time.
“It happens so fast,” McCamant said during an interview in his studio. The hues and saturation change from moment to moment. “You don’t get to ruminate on it long … which is really what I paint. I paint that moment.”
Learning on the job
McCamant was born and raised in the Truckee Meadows. He graduated from Reed High in 1976 and enrolled in art classes at the University of Nevada, Reno. In keeping with the trends of the time, the painting department emphasized self-expression over technique.
“I wanted nuts and bolts,” he said. He left college and worked as a commercial artist, learning skills like graphic design, illustration, animation, and magazine design on the job. He became proficient in acrylic painting, and eventually a friend and fellow artist named Brian Davis advised him to pick up oil paints.
“I just told him, ‘No, I can’t learn them,’” McCamant recalled. “They’re terrible. I don’t know how anybody does anything with them.” He’s not the first painter to have shied away from oils. They’re generally considered hard to work with. But Davis gave McCamant a videotape by David Leffel, a long-revered artist and teacher who paints in the style of Dutch Renaissance masters. (Fun fact: Rock singer John Mellencamp has studied with Leffel.)
For McCamant, Leffel’s advice on how to hold a brush was revelatory. (Don’t hold it like a pencil, but by the end of its long handle.) So was his advice about how to put down paint.
“There’s only four choices you can make with every brush stroke,” said McCamant—who, by now, has been teaching oil painting for a couple of decades. “You can change color, value, paint quality, and edges. Color is to change the hue. Value is to change the apparent darkness or lightness. Paint quality is how much medium you add to your paint, and edges are whether they are to be hard, soft or lost.”
“That’s all you’re doing all the time,” he added. “It becomes a muscle memory.”
The big picture
Another person McCamant credits for good career advice is David Walker, CEO of the Nevada Museum of Art. Walker visited McCamant’s home studio, and McCamant remembers the conversation like this: “He goes, ‘Let me guess. You’re doing paintings that you can get in and out of your little studio. … You’re stuck.’” Walker advised that larger paintings would better convey McCamant’s reverence for the mountains, the desert, the sky, and the fleeting pastel sunlight that wash over them as each day ends.
McCamant took Walker’s advice. He moved into a space with a garage door at Studio 2035, Reno Art Works’ second, quieter location, which houses a few private studios. He built a huge, adjustable stretcher out of poplar—strong enough to withstand the pressure of a 10-foot canvas shrinking—installed full spectrum lighting, and began painting bigger.
“I think David was right,” he said. “It’s the only way I could perceive to pull the rabbit out of the hat. You know, every artist has to decide what is … in their heart, what you truly are about.”
His paintings often start with a scouting mission. Some of his favorite spots are Gold Lake, the Bear Lakes, and Sardine Lake, all near Sierraville, California. Sometimes, when a particular view catches his eye, he’ll think, “I’ve got to come back at a midsummer six o’clock and camp and get ready to capture that late light.” Other times, he’ll camp out for days, waiting for an extraordinary cloud formation.
“Mother nature, she has got the most beautiful stuff to paint,” McCamant said. “Except she’s not all that generous. She’ll give me a beautiful sky with nothing below it, a beautiful mountain range with nothing above it.” Sometimes he’ll patch a cloud from one location in with alpenglow from another.
“What am I trying to convey with this? It’s not just the time of day,” Mc Camant explained. “It’s where my consciousness is at that time. … Every painting is a self portrait of the painter’s intentions. You’re seeing that person.”
David McCamant’s exhibition Glorious Expanse: Paintings of the Western Sky is on view the Main Gallery at Truckee Meadows Community College through March 13. His work will be on view at the Renaissance Hotel Gallery in downtown Reno the week of March 16. McCamant teaches beginning and intermediate oil painting classes at the Nevada Museum of Art’s E. L. Cord Musuem School and advanced classes at Studio 2035.