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As you walk into the Kucera Gallery, the rooms glow with the light emanating from Michael Dailey’s large canvases. Dailey was a painter whose sensitivity to color was so acute, whose manner of laying the color on canvas or paper so exacting, that the finished works are luminescent.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1938 and schooled at the University of Iowa, he came to Seattle in 1963 straight out of graduate school and taught drawing and painting at the University of Washington until 1998. The consummate craftsman, he taught his students how to use color, how to fill it with light, though none could ever do it as well as he did.

With color and very little else, he evokes landscapes, seascapes, wooded groves, meadows, rivers, the rich Northwest Coast atmosphere. They are all there, abstractions provided by the artist for you to enrich with your own memories and experiences. Look at the depictions of fog. You can almost see the fog banks lifting, can watch the skies open up. Note the distant horizons and see the dunes and sea that lie before them.

Initially, Dailey achieved these extraordinary effects through a careful process that involved first covering the canvas or paper with a ground of lead gesso (a white mixture used as a base). Then came the color, painstakingly mixed to show the transitions of a dawn or evening sky, of a gathering storm. His paintings seem to float between you and the canvas.

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Note that there are no lines of demarcation separating the sensuous oranges, tangerines, and pinks of a dawn from one another. Look at the 1981 acrylic “Deep Blue Sea” and watch the blues move through dark and light. Dailey somehow managed seamless color transitions. It looks so easy, but as his family reports, it took an enormous amount of frustration, hard work and rework in the studio to achieve his magical effects.

His diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in the 1970s was devastating. Not only did it restrict his movement, but it forced him to give up oils for acrylics because potentially toxic lead in oil paints and chemicals in the turpentine that thins them would significantly affect his health.

The transition wasn’t an easy process. Oils dry slowly, so the artist has lots of time to work and rework the paint to achieve the exact desired effect. Acrylics dry more quickly allowing less time to manipulate them. They also are less rich, less saturated.

The Kucera exhibition includes paintings in both media, and it’s fascinating to compare them. You’ll see Dailey’s mastery of both, his ability to capture the intangible.

There is reason to believe Dailey saw more colors than the rest of us do. In high school he did so well on a color-grading test that it was assumed he cheated. Not so; just as some musicians hear what the rest of us can’t, so Dailey probably saw what the rest of us couldn’t. How lucky we are that he captured what he saw on paper and canvas to allow us entry into his transcendent color world.

Michael Dailey died in 2009.

Nancy Worssam:

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