Toggle menu

Robert Charles Dunahay

Robert Charles Dunahay
Black, White, Sparkle, and Pop!
Interview with Mirabelle Alan,
August 2017

1. Your latest pieces from your Black and White series are mixed media. What exact materials do you use?
The textured surface is a mix of crystalline sand, glass micro beads, and an industrial confetti material similar to craft glitter, which is comprised of finely shredded holographic mylar. The surface is built up layer upon layer and is held in place with a water based poly acrylic glue.

2. Was there a certain moment of inspiration for this series that you can recall?
Several years ago, I moved from the Bay Area to Palm Springs where I first experienced life in the desert. It was so different than anywhere I had previously lived. I was fascinated by the patterns in the little sand dunes that would build up after a windy day. And the desert sand is so fine and silky, I knew I wanted to use it in my work. Eventually I started adding sand to acrylic paint and brushing it onto canvas. From that point, it was just a matter of time and experimenting to get to these new paintings. The only real difference is now I am using crystalline sand rather than desert sand.

3. Other than subject matter, what would you say is the biggest difference between your previous works of palm trees to your black and white series?
The biggest difference is the technique and the materials. The palm paintings are stylistically Pop-realism and the new work is geometrical abstraction.

4. Do you find similarities in your previous palm trees to your latest work?
Not really. I wanted to work in a different direction, so any similarities would be unintentional.

5. Was there a particular moment that you realized you wanted to shift your style?
There wasn't so much a moment of realization, because in my mind the new work I was creating was conceptually very distant from the palm paintings. And that required a new set of skills, different tools, and methods of application. I went from applying tiny dabs of paint with a fine sable brush to tossing scoops of glittering sand onto puddles of wet glue. The change in style was more of a necessity than a choice.

6. Why black and white?
A couple of reasons. I had worked extensively with color in the palm series, so black and white seemed fresh and kind of cool. Since I was still experimenting with different materials, and slowly developing a new style, it was easier to take color out of the equation. The other reason was that two of my Art dealers, both of whom I respect and hold in high regard, independently suggested using only black and white. At that point, I was confident I was on the right path.

7. Did you have a certain method in creating these abstract shapes?
Not in the first paintings. They were pure free style. Just putting pencil to canvas and drawing—sort of a "see what happens" approach to design. As the series progressed, the images became more sophisticated.

8. What was your process? Did you plan it out before getting onto the canvas?
I normally have a mental image of an idea before I start a new painting. I make a few basic sketches, getting the idea and image down on paper. From that starting point, I rework and refine the image, changing and simplifying it until it feels right to me. You know, getting the perfect curve, or the best shape. The finished images are purposely suggestive and vaguely familiar. Sort of like seeing shapes in clouds, you need your imagination to complete the picture.

9. How did you decide on the titles of your pieces?
Sometimes titles just spring out of nowhere. Other times there is an element in the painting that reminds me of a phrase, or a place, and I'll use that as a title. I love thinking up titles for my paintings. It is a finishing touch that makes an already good painting even better.

10. About how long did it take to create your latest works?
There is no exact answer to that question because of all the variables involved in each piece. Generally speaking, not much longer than it takes to complete an acrylic painting of similar size.

11. What's your current inspiration?
I still find inspiration in the desert, but honestly, I get a lot of my ideas from Netflix, Youtube, and shopping on Amazon. I spend a vast amount of time scrolling through images on websites like Pinterest, 1stdibs, and search engine websites like Google and Bing.

12. Is your current work influenced by any other artists?
I’m always studying and admiring other artist’s work, so there is probably a mash up of influences, but no one artist in particular.


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.

Kelly Bertrando
July, 2015