Robert Charles Dunahay’s The Palm Series came into being rather serendipitously. While working on a landscape painting depicting the palm lined streets of Beverly Hills, Dunahay found himself drawn to the trees, which he saw as the most pivotal element of his painting. This series marks a shift in his art away from traditional landscapes to more contemporary paintings of palm trees that transcend his former realism.
Dunahay hopes to capture the essence of palm trees in order to transmit an emotive quality that engages with the viewer. He does this by forgoing a botanically accurate depiction of a palm tree in favor of constructing a tree that combines elements of the various palm species. Dunahay does not work outside or from photographs, but simply imagines the symbolism of a palm tree and begins to paint. By rendering his palm trees as isolated from surrounding nature, the trees become large, solidary, and iconic.
The rich colors and trees he uses to create his scenes may not be scientifically accurate, yet both qualities serve to heighten the exoticness of the painting and recall Dunahay’s youthful fascination with the bright colors of the tropics, which for him, inspire sentiments of a vibrant and happy approach to living. The iconic nature of the trees he depicts, his vivid use of monochrome color, and the limited depth of field in his paintings can also be interpreted as quoting elements of the 1960s Pop Art movement.
Dunahay most identifies his paintings within the portraiture genre. Through the unique qualities Dunahay instills in his depiction of palm trees, each painting subsumes its own identity and a particular personality. The titles, which are generally names of close friends and sometimes even their pets, reinforce the notion of the palm tree as a portrait. Dunahay depicts the trees on a human scale. At an average size of 6ft by 4ft, his paintings replicate the width and height of a person. Thus, the palm tree meets its viewer at eye level, evoking an intimate interaction with the composition that invites the viewer to register the painting in the same manner he or she would a traditional portrait.
Close examination of the composition, its tonality, forms, and the manipulation of paint across the canvas, reveal Dunahay’s technical aptitude. Dunahay starts each painting by depicting the palm tree with transparent color oils, which he layers to accentuate the detail and texture of the tree. The concentrated colors he uses for the tree and the way in which the light hits the bright white of the canvas peering through the paint illuminates the tree against its opaque background. This opaque monochrome background isolates the tree, creating a sharp vibrant edge surrounding its form, separating the tree from the natural world. Dunahay compares the effect of this technique to a cut and pasted image rendered in Photoshop.
Dunahay experiments with the medium and brushstrokes in his painting by adding extra substances, such as cement and glue, to modify the transparency and working time of the paint. He uses a variety of tools to move the paint across the canvas, which results in dynamic brushstrokes and textures, which are unattainable when limited to a paintbrush. The appliances he finds most conducive to his works are soft squeegees, sponges, rubber pet grooming combs, and flexible silicon cooking utensils.
The success of The Palm Series has initiated much interest and recognition of Dunahay internationally, with collectors ranging from the Prince of Saudi Arabia to local celebrities. Among such accomplishments, Dunahay is particularly proud of the inclusion of his painting in the Freidrich R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine exhibition “From the Vault.” The painting was also selected for the exhibition’s promotional banner. The Palm Series serves as Dunahay’s outlet for creating something that brings enjoyment to people, while simultaneously enabling him to meet and work with wonderful people throughout the world.
Beyond his Palm Series, Dunahay further explores mixed-media compositions in his UFO Series and Food Series. In the UFO Series, Dunahay superimposes photographs of UFO sights from the late 1950s and 1960s onto low-resolution images of contemporary landscapes. In his Food Series, Dunahay explores bizarre human habits surrounding food consumption. In these works Dunahay incorporates food, ranging from candy hearts to dried shrimp from an Asian market, and incorporates their texture and their significance into his canvases.
Throughout his works Dunahay emphasizes his desire for his art to have a unique and interactive engagement with the viewer. He explains that his style is “lyrical,” “alluding to a reality that allows the viewer to personally interpret and complete the visual message.” His iconic, vibrant, and all-consuming portraits of palm trees coax viewers into a tranquil quiet reflection.