How to Triumph In Spite of the Odds

Emerging artist Daniel James Keys couldn’t enroll at an art school, but he used every other available means to educate himself as an artist, to connect with other painters, and to promote his artwork. His experience proves that with determination, support, and computer savvy, artists can make significant progress.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Tea Still Life
2008, oil, 24 x 30. Collection the artist.

After posting photographs of his still life and landscape paintings in the gallery section of the American Artist website (, Daniel James Keys attracted the attention of the magazine’s editors who posted messages indicating they were impressed with the conception and execution of his oil paintings. The members of the New York staff had no idea he was a 23-year-old man living in a rural California community with limited access to galleries, museums, art schools, workshops, or other artists. Somehow he had learned to create an outstanding collection of paintings even though most of the normal paths that aspiring artists follow were unavailable to him.

On his 11th birthday, Keys received enough money to buy his first set of oil paints, the present he most wanted to own. “I hated them at first because all I had ever done was cartooning, and I just couldn’t understand how to apply what I knew about drawing to the techniques of oil painting,” he explains. “I put the set away until I happened upon reproductions of paintings that were so appealing I just had to learn how to paint. Then I discovered magazine articles and library books on Richard Schmid and other gifted teachers who explained their creative process. All that helped me understand the basics.”

Even now after several years of disciplined education, Keys has not taken an art course or participated in a workshop; and the only original paintings he has seen by major historic and contemporary artists are those he viewed during infrequent gallery and museum visits in Fresno, Carmel, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, California. Nevertheless, he carefully studied every article, book, and painting that became available and took to heart all the advice that was provided. For example, he set up a small studio area in his parents’ home that had north-facing windows, and he placed still life objects a short distance from his easel. “I read a lot about the value of being well prepared before I begin painting, of working from life instead of from photographs, and of having a subject illuminated by a cool north light,” he says. “I also followed the advice of choosing things to paint that had personal significance so that there would be a level of expression in my carefully observed representations of the objects.”

Red Geraniums
2008, oil, 16 x 20. Collection the artist.

Keys also learned about the necessity of following the rule of oil painting that one should work from thin to thick applications—that is, thinning his initial strokes of paint with odorless mineral spirits to reduce the percentage of oil and allow the paints to dry more quickly and applying the oil color straight from the tube when adding the lightest and thickest strokes of paint. “I’ll admit to being a bit too impatient to do a lot of preliminary compositional sketching, but I try to follow the advice I’ve read about working from darks to lights, from background to foreground, and from thin darks to thick light values,” he explains. “I have also learned the value of making every stroke count—of carefully considering the color and value mixtures and laying the strokes of paint down and not overworking them. That keeps the colors clean and bright, and it adds some vitality to the look of the painting.”

As the son of a minister, Keys is actively involved in his church and proudly says his faith is a factor in motivating his efforts as a painter. That’s one of the reasons he has gravitated toward other painters who base the subject matter of their paintings on themes of family, faith, and service. “I recently watched a Liliedahl Video Productions DVD of Daniel F. Gerhartz painting in his Wisconsin studio, and I gained a great deal of insight into the personality and process of a man I have admired for a number of years,” he says. “Many of his paintings are of friends and family members, and they explore his devotion to God, community, and family. I really admire that.”

Although Keys does most of his painting in the small studio, he does make an effort to paint landscapes outdoors. “I am fortunate to live near the San Joaquin River and lots of wonderful views for plein air painting,” he says. “I spend from two to three hours developing a painting while the light is consistent, and I do make some minor adjustments later in the studio. Occasionally I work from photographs if the weather makes it impossible to paint outdoors, but I really enjoy the challenge of gathering all the information on-site and keeping a freshness and immediacy in the paintings.

Grey Afternoon
2008, oil, 10 x 10. Collection the artist.

“Quite often I make quick oil sketches when I’m outdoors, never spending more than a half hour on any one study,” Keys explains. “I do the same thing developing quick sketches from photographs. For example, Narcissus Sketch was done in just a few minutes in my studio, and I really enjoyed trying to capture a fleeting impression of the subject. Those kinds of studies are helpful in sharpening my skills of observation, my handling of a paint brush, and my ability to accurately record the colors, shapes, and values in the subjects that catch my attention.”

Whether working indoors or out, Keys uses essentially the same palette of Winsor & Newton, Rembrandt, and Gamblin colors that includes titanium white, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium yellow lemon, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium orange, cadmium red, viridian, transparent oxide red, transparent oxide brown, ultramarine deep, alizarin crimson, yellow ochre pale, terra rosa (for monochromatic under painting), and permanent rose. He prefers to paint on Artfix oil-primed Belgian linen canvas because it is easier to wipe preliminary marks off the smooth surface than it would be if he worked on acrylic-primed cotton duck canvas.

Because he is an artist in his 20s, Keys is adept at using the internet for education, social networking, promotion, and sales. “I rely heavily on the internet to explore images, find articles, learn about other artists, become friendly with other painters, and get feedback about my work,” he says. “I’m actively involved in the forums section of American Artist’s website, in the groups on Facebook, and in watching videos on YouTube. I also have my own website and online newsletter (, so I hear from people who become interested in the drawings and paintings I’ve posted.

Keys is currently in the process of approaching galleries around the country that currently exhibit artwork that has a similar style and range of subjects. For more information on the artist, visit

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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

15 thoughts on “How to Triumph In Spite of the Odds

  1. Daniel,

    Really enjoyed this article – the fact that one can learn by studying the best artists via articles, books and videos. But it is your determination and “smart” learning that has paid off richly.

    Your friend, Lori

  2. Lori,

    Thanks for commenting! I’m so pleased that you – along with so many others – are enjoying the article. I was ecstatic when the staff notified me of their decision to place “Tea Still Life” on the issue’s cover, and I feel that the entire article turned out beautifully.
    Being here on the forums has literally changed my career. I count it an honor and privilege to have met you – and others via this site – and call you my friends. I really mean that.

    Many thanks to you Lori (Mother Hen), and to all the AA Staff.


  3. Daniel – you are a perfect example of my mother’s lifelong mantra – “if you can read, you can do anything” … Determination and faith can–and do–move mountains. It looks as though your determination and faith will bring you a mountain of success, and I hope your story will inspire many others, as well. All best wishes to you for a long and continually inspired career!
    – Grace

  4. What this article shows to artists is that there’s no one path to obtaining excellence in one’s work and also no one way to get your work known.

    With the Internet – there are new ways to learn art concepts, see magnificent artwork in books, articles and at museum sites. Then there are online competitions, and forums like we have here to post your work and help others.

    The world is a changin’ fast! But I like it. Congrats, Daniel
    Mother Hen…
    AKA Lori

  5. Great work, kid.

    “Making every stroke count”, yes, that the best advice I heard from any painter.

    Keep both your feet on the ground when success is around. That said, keep making true, good works, nice things, things that don’t ruin mankind.


  6. Yes, great work and I also enjoyed the article in the magazine. I especially like the Tea Still Life and love all the elements you have combined. and the Grey afternoon undertones tones are wonderful. Great job and good luck on your new path…..

  7. Hi Daniel,
    JT from facebook here.
    Really enjoyed this article. I am largely self taught myself and I also learned great fundamentals from the many books and videos available. Good luck in your search for gallery representation.

    JT Harding

  8. Hi Daniel,

    Awesome paintings! Congratulations! I’m mostly self-taught myself and I have now come around to thinking that this is the best way!

    Wishing you success!

  9. Read the article this evening and enjoyed learning of your journey so far. Congratulations on this and the fine art you are producing. It’s wonderful that there is so much out there to read and learn from, that artists take on the teaching role and we can benefit from what they write.


  10. I was impressed by your art, because of the soft use of color. Nice work with greys. I was also inspired by your story, as I am working to make a living from my artwork as well. Even though I have had some art schooling, I have found you really have to find your own way. Schools can teach technique, but not soul. Your soul shows thru your work. Keep painting and good luck.

  11. This article has made me thankful about my education decisions as an artist. I am 45 and have recently been accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta Georgia, but to my dismay financially I cannot attend. I have been an artist since I was a child and even have my own design business creating art on walls furniture, cabinetry and accessories. Finding this website and the articles that are available have turned my life around and given me more ideas for creativity not just in my art but also in growing my business! Thank you I am a member for life! Go to!

  12. Daniel – you are a perfect example of my mother’s lifelong mantra – “if you can read, you can do anything” … Determination and faith can–and do–move mountains. It looks as though your determination and faith will bring you a mountain of success, and I hope your story will inspire many others, as well. All best wishes to you for a long and continually inspired career!
    women seeking men