Look at any of Dale Terbush’s vibrant landscapes and your brain will automatically start searching for an anthem or a hymn as background music. In his work—almost always skyscapes—dramatic white clouds roil against colorful skies. The landscape beneath—mountains, canyons, marshes, oceans and river glens—are majestic in their own right but serve as visual anchors to the glorious turmoil above.
Terbush is among an increasingly rare breed of artist: Hudson River School-style, romantic landscape painters whose detailed, realistic works portray landscapes that are both rugged and peaceful, idealized and sublime. What’s even more rare is that Terbush has never had an art lesson. Growing up poor by American standards, the artist had a small metal watercolor set with just eight colors. His extended family would save their Christmas cards for him, which back in the day were printed on high-quality paper that folded out into perfect 8-by-10-inch sheets.
As a child, he would sketch a cartoon on the reclaimed paper, then fill in the lines with color. The paint and paper were all he needed. “I was obsessed with it,” Terbush says. “I have always had a very unusual brain; I just see things differently. I can close my eyes and see things finished that don’t exist yet. I’ve never had an education beyond high school, but if no one tells you that you can’t do something, then you don’t know you can’t do it.”
As an adult, Terbush painted in oils for years but was frustrated with how long it took to dry. “I had two kids, no studio and I couldn’t live with the smell of turpentine and linseed oil twenty-four seven,” he says. “So, I switched to acrylic. You have to lay the paint down fast, but that’s not a problem for me. I actually use a hairdryer to speed it up.”
Though Terbush says it took him 40 years to be an overnight success, he understands that his process is unorthodox and embraces it. For example, he doesn’t paint plein air, and not only does he not use photographs as an aide-mémoire, he frequently paints landscapes he’s never seen in places he’s never been.
“There are too many constraints painting from photographs; it would slow me down,” he says. “How many times do you have to paint a tree before you know what a tree looks like? I don’t think people give their minds enough credit. I take visual pictures all the time. I note key elements, and they’re locked in my mind. I would love to teach classes because I could change how people paint landscapes.”
A critical element that sets Terbush’s work apart from other landscapes is his ultra high-contrast palette, à la Maxfield Parrish. “When I started doing super high-contrast landscapes, people got really excited about them,” he says. “I paint under bright light because if I get the urge to paint at 2 in the morning, I don’t have that nice north light. I love how light changes pictures and how the whites grab onto whatever light is left in the room as it gets darker outside. This is the glory of God right in front of you. I’m an emotional person, and I want somebody to feel something when they’re looking at my paintings.”
Though he lives in Arizona, Terbush recently completed a Charleston series. “I fell in love with Pat Conroy’s books; they take me away,” he says. The series features dramatic ocean and marsh scenes with electric orange and red sunrises above crashing waves and meandering, watery paths through the marsh.
“I feel so lucky that every day when I go to my studio, I get to travel,” Terbush says. “When I’m down, I can pick up a canvas and go anywhere I want in the world because I can create images in my head. My best friend my whole life is my ability to paint pictures. I’ve done more than 10,000 paintings, and with each one, that little boy that painted with watercolors still gets excited.”
Terbush is represented by several galleries in Wyoming, New Mexico and his home state of Arizona. *
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.