For some, it may take a lifetime to discover their true calling in life. For David Allen, it happened when he was just 15 years old after his father bought him a set of oil paints. 

“Painting was the only thing I could do really well,” David recalls. “I wasn’t good at math or science. I discovered I had some talent for art and it just seemed to fit. I’ve been painting ever since.”

More than 50 years later, oil paint is still his preferred medium.

“I didn’t know there was any other way to paint,” David laughed. “Oil paint is the most versatile and the colors are deep. It is slow drying compared to other mediums so you are able to manipulate the canvas more.”

Never having received an academic degree, David credits a lifelong mentorship under the late Harold Zisla, former Professor Emeritus at Indiana University South Bend, for his knowledge of art.

While many artists work from photographs, David’s technique is unique in that he “works from life.” David is considered a plein air painter – a French expression meaning “in the open air.” All of his paintings are created on location in real time, capturing landscapes and views in natural light.

“I use my eyes and let them do the work,” David says. “Each painting has a narrative and tells its own story.”

With easel and paints in hand, David wanders the streets of South Bend in search of something that strikes him. Having lived in the area his whole life, he does not have to look far for inspiration. In fact, many of his pieces were painted within 1,000 yards of his home.

“You don’t have to go to Paris to find something to paint — beauty is everywhere,” David says. “I could paint anything, but it has to appeal to me. There’s not a neighborhood in South Bend I haven’t painted.”

David makes an effort to paint every day so there is a good chance you may see him out and about throughout the city – unless of course he is working on one of his famous night paintings.

“Over the years I came to be known as the ‘night painter’ – it’s the closest I’ve come to having a niche,” David says.

Once David has identified the subject of his next masterpiece, he starts by sketching the scene to serve as a framework for the painting. Next, he applies an initial layer of paint, a technique known as underpainting, which functions as a base for the other colors. Finally, he begins applying layers of paint, each more intense than the last. Hundreds of small brush strokes later and the finished painting is so realistic, some might mistake it for a photograph.

A single painting can take three weeks or three years to complete and David always has multiple paintings in the works at any given time. Returning to the chosen location again and again to capture the image in real time, he is often at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“Many times I’ll be working on a painting and the seasons will change – and that’s OK. I just come back to it again next year,” David says.

While David’s work has been featured at local galleries and venues throughout the years, selling paintings has never been his goal.

“For me, success isn’t measured by the number of paintings I sell. Success to me is creating meaningful art,” David says.

Aside from landscape paintings, in recent years David has also began pursuing a more imaginative type of work in his studio.

“I’ve had a lot of different experiences throughout my life and my newer work is much more personal to me,” David says. “I’m trying to pursue an original vision.”

To learn more about David’s work, visit 

Photography Mark Bugnaski