Written by Erika Block
Dale Knaak was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He recalls drawing constantly during his childhood, and beginning to paint at a very early age. “My … first finished painting was at the age of twelve. I did a painting based on a lithograph of a farm scene that hung above my parent’s sofa,” recalls Knaak, whose parents always encouraged his artistic endeavors.
Knaak’s first solo art exhibition happened in middle school. “My seventh grade art teacher allowed me to spend the entire year drawing whatever I wanted to. I guess he realized my interest. I remember entering school one day and finding a display case filled with my art.” Knaak’s high school drama teacher also urged him to pursue a career in art. (Ironically, Dale had only taken the class because it was an “easy credit.”) His teacher collected all the necessary paperwork for him, and even helped Dale complete the application process. “We are friends to this day.”
After high school, Knaak moved to Milwaukee to study art. He lived in Milwaukee for ten years, where he received the bulk of his education and training. After obtaining his degree in commercial art, Knaak searched for a place where he could study drawing and painting while working full-time as an illustrator. He spent five years studying with Atelier Prohl, an art academy specializing in traditional classic realism.
After nine years as a freelance illustrator, the advent of desktop publishing and stock illustration created an unfortunate drought among traditional illustrators. Looking for a new opportunity, Knaak answered a brief two-line ad in the local classified section, calling for an interior mural painter. After several interviews with the Fond du Lac area interior design firm, he was hired. “I have no idea why they hired me, as most of my work was rather small scale at the time. I hadn’t done anything close to mural size. I remember the tour they gave me of the art department. One of the artists was airbrushing a ten foot long Coca-Cola bottle. At that point, I was intimidated. But apparently I didn’t let it show.”
Since then, Knaak has done a number of murals. One of the largest and the most intimidating mural was for the Downtown Plymouth Revitalization Committee. Working with another muralist, concepts and sketches were created and submitted to the Revitalization Committee, which awarded them the project. Neither had ever done an outdoor mural before, so a sign/billboard painter was consulted to determine what would be necessary to complete the task. “The mural was to be12 feet high by 67 feet long and mounted to the side of a building in downtown Plymouth. Just before beginning the mural, my studio mate accepted a full time job in Detroit, Michigan, which left me alone to paint the mural. The mural took me an entire summer to finish. It was painted on twenty-four 4’x8’ panels. I had to construct a custom rack system to paint it and could only work on about a third of the mural at a time. It was like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle. But it all worked out in the end. It always does.”
Knaak has maintained a studio outside his home since he began working as a freelance illustrator in 1992. During his five years painting murals in Fond du Lac, he kept a studio for personal painting and hosting figure drawing sessions. When his tenure ended in 2005, he moved to a studio in downtown Sheboygan’s EBCO Venture Center. Knaak recently moved to a new studio in Sheboygan, which he shares with friend and fellow artist Frank Juarez, a local art educator and gallery owner. “Frank has been instrumental in my success as a professional artist. Not only has he been a great friend, but he is also a positive influence.”
Knaak says that working as an artist in Sheboygan, where he grew up, has made his work feel much more personal. He has noticed substantial growth in the Sheboygan area creative community, and notes that there seems to be “a real cultural shift happening.” In addition to thriving arts organizations like the Sheboygan Visual Artists (SVA) and performance art venues like Stage Works, local coffee shops like Paradigm and Z-Spot are regularly bringing local, regional and national talent to their patrons.
Knaak works with both oils and acrylics. His work depicts “images from the times we live in,” while reinventing color and composition to suit his personal preference, providing room for experiments, interpretation and new discoveries. His works identify how he sees and feels about the world around him. “I don’t think there is any subject matter that’s not worth considering. Most anything can spark my interest. The common everyday scene of an urban landscape. A still life of a piece of fruit. It’s like a nude figure drawing. Stripped of ornamentation. Just the object in a simple composition. My intent is to try to make that simple everyday object interesting.”
Knaak’s creative process is quite direct, with very little preparation or planning. He typically works from nature, or one of his own photographs, but rarely pre-sketches his paintings. “I prefer to load a brush with paint and go at it.”
Dale Knaak has work in collections for the American Family Insurance Corporate Headquarters, Bank First National, University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospitals and Clinics, Johnsonville Sausage World Headquarters, Blue Harbor Resort and Hotel, McDonald’s Corporation and private collections.
Photo by Richard Biemann.
Erika Block has been a professional writer, artist and art director for over fifteen years. She is the owner of Creative Studios, a branding and design agency exclusively working with the art, publishing and music industries. She runs an independent record label, documentary film company and art gallery/studio under the same name. Block also owns Creative Publishing, an independent publisher of creative genre books, eBooks and magazines, including the award-winning national print magazine, VIR·TU·OS·I·TY. You can find her online through elblock.com.