‘Art Is Where My Passion Is’ – Pastelist Ken Lutes

KEN LUTES IN HIS STUDIO. “I like pastels because they are very tactile, like finger painting in a way,” he says. PHOTO: LAURIE DUNKLEE

“Making art is something intrinsic in human nature,” says pastelist Ken Lutes. “Cave drawings tell us that people have always made art. It’s essential to our spiritual makeup to have a way to express how we feel about life.” 

Lutes says his style is “Impressionistic, leaning toward realism. I look at concrete events affecting my life and try to represent them in art form – looking at the world as it is, rather than the way I would want it to be. I have vision but I’m a realist in thinking the world is as it is.”

Lutes’ background in the arts includes many years working as a guitarist and singer, most recently with his wife, Laurie Dunklee, as co-leaders of Paris Swing Set gypsy jazz ensemble.

He began painting in 2018, when his playing was sidelined by a thumb injury.

“I needed to find another way to express my creative feelings, to find satisfaction in creating art of some sort. Music and fine art are part of the same thing, like fingers on the same hand, separate but related.”

Lutes experimented with acrylics and watercolor before settling on pastels.

“Holding a brush is hard because of the tendonitis and nerve damage; my hand shakes. But holding a pastel is different because I hold it between my thumb and fingers, not like a pencil. It gives me more stability. 

“I like pastels because they are very tactile, like finger painting in a way. You can really get your hands into it. I use soft pastels, not oil pastels.”

Since 2018, he has studied with several artists online, starting with acrylics painter Jerry Yarnell.

“I learned more color theory from him than anyone, which carried over into pastels.”

When Lutes decided to try pastels, he began taking courses with pastelist Marla Bagetta.

“She taught me that you can’t blend multiple colors together like you can with oils or acrylics; you have to layer the colors to get what you want. Pastels need to be layered from dark values to light values, like with oils and acrylics. In watercolor, you work from light to dark. Ending with the light ones provides sparkle.”

Working with pastels requires special paper to hold the pigment in place.

“With acrylics you can paint on anything, but pastel paper has ‘tooth.’ Artists use a type of sandpaper or a textured paper, like Pastelmat, to hold the multiple layers.”

Lutes says his favorite soft pastels include those made by Terry Ludwig, Sennelier, Unison and Nu Pastel.

“The various pastel brands are different because of how they’re made, and the different pigments and binders used. You learn the difference by touch.”

He said he is inspired to paint a particular subject “if it moves me emotionally, when it strikes a chord.”

His favorite subject matter is landscapes, mostly painted from his own photographs. But Lutes said he is more and more interested in plein air (outside) painting. 


He gets experience in plein air painting at Art on the Farm, at Guy’s Farm in Wheat Ridge on the last Saturday of each month (see WheatRidgeCreates@ci.wheatridge.co.us).

“At my first visit to the farm, I found a sculpture of three colorful mushrooms. I was taken by them so I did a painting.” 

Lutes says he begins a painting by spending time thinking about how to approach his subject.

“I think through the composition and which colors to use. Still, once I begin, the painting can go in an unexpected direction.” 

Lutes is a near-native of Denver, having grown up here. But he was born in Vanport, Ore., a town that no longer exists.

“I was born in December of 1947 and on Memorial Day weekend in 1948, the Columbia River overflowed and wiped out the town completely. We had moved two weeks before, so we were lucky to not have lived through that. It feels strange to have a non-existent birthplace. When I ask people who have lived in Portland about Vanport, they get a blank expression. It’s odd not to have a birthplace I can go back to.”

Early on he was interested in art. In third grade he won a prize for his painting of a Japanese boy reaching to pick cherry blossoms. He attended Denver schools and graduated from West High School. After a stint in the Navy, he attended the University of Colorado at Denver, majoring in philosophy.

“Philosophy gave me a different lens – it made me think about the reasons I was doing things or not doing things. No matter what you study, you bring it with you into your work and your life.” 

Married with three grown children, Lutes has enjoyed various careers, including music, corporate and nonprofit work and working as a DJ. Now semi-retired, he writes for the Neighborhood Gazette and has a picture-framing shop in his garage.

“It’s a real blessing to be able to frame my own art because buying frames at retail can be prohibitive.”

He paints in his home basement studio, where he has special spot lighting with both daylight and soft warm bulbs to approximate daylight.

“I want the colors to reflect what you actually see.”

“Art is where my passion is – learning more about pastels and getting better. Art was never a career path for me but now that I’m retired that is yet to be seen.”

Share this article:

More Local News and Articles

Scroll to Top