Oil Painting: David Malan: Storytelling With Figures

0810malan2_600x450_2 This Utah artist is drawn to figures and faces, and he works hard to balance his work-related duties with his love of traditional oil painting.


2007, oil on board, 14 x 18.
All artwork this article
collection the artist
unless otherwise indicated.

by Naomi Ekperigin

“My true love is traditional realist art, mainly drawing and painting,” says Salt Lake City artist Dave Malan. The artist is quick to point this out because his career as a 3-D character modeler for video games often belies his interest. “My real influences come primarily from Neoclassical and Golden Age illustration. I really take from a variety styles: The strong figurative work of Alphonse Mucha; the beautiful accuracy of Bouguereau and Ingres; the graphic illustrations of JC Leyendecker; the simplicity of Sargent; and the story-telling of Norman Rockwell and Repin.” In his own work, Malan prefers to paint the figure and finds the human face full of mystery. “I like the challenge of trying to capture the life and the personality,” he says. “Compositions usually come secondary to the subject for me.”


Caste in Gold, 2007,
oil on board, 18 x 24.
Private collection.

When discussing how he chooses his subjects, the artist finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly what draws him in. “It must be based on emotions through observation more than any rational reason that I could describe,” he says. Malan often has a personal relationship with his subjects, and it is a desire to bring out aspects of his subject’s personality, along with interesting shapes and proportions, that compel him to paint. His focal point is always the face, where the real story lies, and he composes his piece in a way that highlights this. “For example, in the painting Brandywine, the background has a cool hue to it that pushes it back in the composition,” he explains. “The paint is simplified into shapes and brushstrokes. This pushes the character, with her warm face and realistic detail, forward. She is also located right in the center so that all lines converge and she becomes the strong focal point. She is separated from the river and field but still a part of it.”


The Artist's Studio, 2007,
oil on board, 12 x 16.

In addition to his work as a character modeler, Malan also takes on freelance illustration projects, which leaves him little time to work on his oil paintings. The artist works from both life and photographs and, like so many artists, wishes he could work from life exclusively. Luckily, his experiences working from a live model have enabled him to accurately interpret photographs. The use of pictures also adds a level of convenience, enabling him to quickly and easily return to a piece when time allows. “I usually work on two or three pieces at once,” he says. “I need to be able to work on something else when I’m exhausted with a piece. I also really like to be able to leave my artwork off to the side for a couple of weeks. I’ll lean the pieces against the wall facing me as I work in my office so that I can really look at them and decide if I’m happy with my work.”

Malan begins with an underdrawing and puts down the initial colors mixed with Turpenoid. He admits that his process is still evolving, but he tends to paint slowly and meticulously. “I am very careful, but want to push myself toward creating looser, more confident brush strokes,” he says. “I’m normally very sparing with my paint and have to push myself to load up my brush and put more down.” He primarily paints on Masonite, which he prefers because its smooth surface allows him to create detail without fighting the texture, as he would when working on canvas.


Brandywine, 2008,
oil on board, 12 x 24.

Malan feels that drawing is the basis of all art, and encourages all beginner artists to build a strong foundation in drawing.  “I have always worked hard to improve my drawing,” he says. “I have a mechanical pencil and have filled pages and pages of sketchbooks—mostly with figures and faces. The practice has not only benefited my painting but also all of my art-related work.” Strengthening his foundation in drawing is one way the artist meets the needs of his multiple art-related responsibilities. One of the artist’s biggest challenges is balancing his video-game work, his freelance illustration, and his oil painting, making sure he gives each the necessary time, while also ensuring that he improves as an artist. “Painting in oil is my favorite activity, so whenever I have a chance, I get out the oils,” he says. “I’ve learned to treat it almost as a second job, and I set myself goals for the amount of time I will put into it. I have set nights when, even if I’m tired after work, I head straight to my studio to paint. It’s often hard, but I feel gratified when I’m done and have something to show for the time I’ve put in.”

For more information on the artist, visit www.davemalan.com, or e-mail him at Artwork@davemalan.com.

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3 thoughts on “Oil Painting: David Malan: Storytelling With Figures

  1. This article reveals that you have found the balance between the various pathways you have for creating art – for others, for purpose, for you. That is something we all should strive for realizing we may not always achieve it.
    Regarding your most personal work, you paint very interesting stories with your portraits.