Lyle Denney

Plein Air Artist

by Rachel Perry
photo by George Bredewater

Lyle Denney’s reputation as an artist preceded his recent move to Brown County. An established plein air painter (outdoors, on site), he was featured in the Indiana University Press book, Painting Indiana, along with four other artists chosen to paint scenes from all 92 Hoosier counties.

In the recently aired television program, Across Indiana, Mr. Denney talked about his artwork and the significance of the statewide project.

His paintings are so much in demand that he is unable to keep any in his studio to arrange a comprehensive show, despite requests from Eckert Fine Art Gallery in Indianapolis.

Mr. Denney’s painting method involves some preparation before actually putting brush to canvas on site. When he finds an appealing scene he uses a few different techniques. Using one method, he takes a series of overlapping photos to create a panoramic reproduction of the scene. When he is satisfied with the composition of the reproduction, he draws a grid over the image. Using a corresponding (to scale) grid on the canvas, he creates a pencil sketch of the subject before returning to the location to capture the light and general ambiance of the area in paint. Sometimes Mr. Denney goes directly to the site and uses a large grid (wood frame with wire strung at equal intervals) to align the scene and create an underlying sketch for the painting. Exclusively an oil painter, he uses a palette of seven colors.

Typically, the artist visits the painting site three times, working approximately one and a half hours each time. “You don’t want to paint for too much longer than that since the light changes,” he advised. “I like to paint from about 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Four o’clock is the time when the angle of the sun (in summer) makes three-dimensional clouds but the light is strong enough to have good color. I have had four canvases wet at the same time (going from one place to another in the same day).”

Lyle Denney’s painting is not his only artistic pursuit. His passion for music began at an early age. “I was five when my Dad got me a harmonica. You can give me a case of pop bottles and I’ll play a tune. I can make music out of anything,” he declared, although he does not read music. “I used to stay the whole weekend at church so I could play the piano.” Mr. Denney frequently picks up his five-string banjo at home and sometimes accompanies friends at the Fig Tree Gallery and Coffee Shop in Helmsburg.

Lyle Denney’s parents were from Monticello, Kentucky, and moved to Muncie in January 1950, where Lyle was born almost two years later. He is one of five children. During his senior year Lyle’s high school art teacher, Bill Zigler, introduced him to oil painting and acrylics. “We had a ‘module system’ where students were supposed to control their own study time during school hours,” Mr. Denney recalled. “I skimmed through other classes but spent most of my time doing art. Mr. Zigler let me do whatever I wanted. He took hold of people by their best handles—that’s just the kind of man he was.”

After graduation, Lyle took care of his failing mother until his twenty-first year. He then went to Oakdale, Louisiana, to help build a church. While there he met and married his former wife. The Denneys later moved with their two sons back to Muncie, where Lyle worked in factories and the post office. Later divorced, Mr. Denney continued to work as a letter carrier at the post office while painting in his free time. He regularly received awards in regional and state exhibitions and won the “People’s Choice Award for Best of Show” in the 1996 Hoosier Salon competition.

Lyle Denney decided to relocate in the year 2001. “I was getting ready to be interviewed for a job at the Madison Post Office, which was full time. I really wanted to work part time so I could paint,” he said. “Another guy in the post office where I was working (Muncie) said, ‘Lyle, you might want to look at this pamphlet of job openings at other post offices.’ There was a Nashville opening but I knew they only had rural carriers and I had no window experience.”

“Two months before, I dreamed I was searching for a post office. When I found it, it was closed and weeds were growing up around it. Then I was suddenly inside, working as a clerk in a post office that was down a long lane behind a parking lot. The strange thing was that, when visiting a friend in Nashville later, I asked to see the post office building. She showed me the closed post office and then took me to the new one —down a long lane just like the one I saw in the dream.”

Perhaps it is destiny that Lyle Denney is now remodeling his newly purchased A-frame. An enthusiastic admirer of paintings by T.C. Steele and J. Ottis Adams, Denney’s work is sometimes compared to those of the Hoosier Group. In a recent exhibit at Eckert Fine Art, one of Lyle’s paintings was included with the historic Indiana art. “I like the care that Steele and Adams took with their foregrounds,” he said. “Their subjects were simple but carefully painted.”

Lyle Denney’s relocation seems to fit with the heritage of the county’s artist colony and long tradition of plein air painters. As Nashville renews its dedication to its own rich art heritage, perhaps others will follow his example. We can only hope.