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Narrative Painting - March 2008

When I first started my art career, I hadn’t yet learned enough to know what I didn’t know. So I had a sort of “young gunslinger” attitude. I tended to be overly critical of everyone’s art (except my own, of course), and I loved to take strong positions for, or against, virtually everything from techniques to genres. Included under this rather large umbrella were the historical, western-type paintings which were then, like now, quite popular. I felt certain that if a painter did not have a direct experience with his subject matter there wasn’t any way he could create something worthwhile.  

As time moved on, I emptied my artistic cup, added some humility to my painting repertoire and began to appreciate the works of my contemporaries. Ex-illustrators like Tom Lovell, Donald Teague, Bettina Steinke (one of my earliest mentors), James Reynolds and Howard Terpning were crafting wonderful narrative paintings with the kind of style and authority that derives from solid classical training. I, of course, began to rethink my original postulate regarding historical subject matter.

In July of 1995, I had an exhibition at the Americana Museum in El Paso, Texas. The show was comprised of 50 of my travel watercolors and 26 oils of various subjects. I sold 33 watercolors and 13 oils. I don’t generally have such a clear recollection of twelve-year old events, but this exhibition, besides being financially successful, would herald a turning point in the orientation of my artistic subject matter.

One fellow who attended the show bought several pieces and commissioned me to paint a large Indian dance. Since I lived in Santa Fe at the time, and had been going to the Indian dances for years, I had plenty of material to draw upon. After I had successfully completed the commission, he asked if I could do a 3-foot by 5 foot historical painting of famous Fort Bowie at Apache Pass, Arizona. I blurted out “Sure!” An hour later, I was scratching my head, wondering how I was going to pull this off. I had never before ventured into the realm of historical painting.

I found some literature and old photos of Fort Bowie in the archives of the Santa Fe Public Library, started traveling to ranches in the area, learning how to draw horses, located photos of period uniforms, saddles and guns etc., borrowed some western movie stills and began to craft my romantic interpretation of Fort Bowie.

My collector loved it, and that painting led to another dozen and a half large, historical pieces, including twelve large works for the coffee table book “400 Years in El Paso”, and three four-foot by six-foot paintings on the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I had a lot of fun researching the themes, going to ghost towns, renting costumes, and dressing up my friends as gunslingers, Indians, conquistadors, dead people and ladies of the night. I also learned a lot about selecting a moment in time, and then designing and crafting a visual image to impart the maximum impact, or narrate a tale in which the viewer becomes a participant. Although these narrative pieces comprise a very small percentage of my output, they have provided a pleasurable diversion from my general subject matter, and have contributed immeasurably to my growth as an artist.

The following is a demonstration of a scene from the Mexican Revolution. It is my fourth painting in the series. All of them were painted because I’ve done extensive traveling through the hinterlands of Mexico, and I find that period of Mexican history fascinating.

 In the early part of November 1913, Pancho Villa made a failed attempt to capture the city of Chihuahua. His casualties were heavy. He would, however, in the next four weeks, capture the cities of Juarez, Tierra Blanca and Ojinaga. He returned to the city of Chihuahua in early December and using surprise, and a ferocious attack by his famous cavalry “Los Dorados” (the “Golden Ones”), who rampaged through the narrow streets, he was able to capture the city on December 3, 1913. This battle effectively gave Villa control of the State of Chihuahua, and the northern railroads, and allowed him to prepare for his ultimate march towards Mexico City.

March Demonstration:

Using old photos, film stills and pictures from my travels in Mexico, I move people, objects and horses around until I settle on an arrangement that suits my needs. Using thin paint, I roughly draw in the elements, occasionally wiping out some a replacing them with others, until I feel comfortable with the design. I choose a monochromatic color scheme (transparent  oxide red dominance) to lend an air of antiquity to the painting. As you will see, I judiciously place some cool grays throughout the piece to give it some color vibration and to enhance the aerial perspective. The horses, the riders, the figures in the foreground, as well as the rooflines form an arrow, and give the painting a strong left to right thrust. I stop the thrust with the figure on the bottom right, and use the smoke and fire to lead the eye up to the Federales on the rooftop (the fires on the right and the muzzle fire on the rooftop are more evident in the actual painting). The whole painting grades from dark to light, and warm to cool as you move from left to right. It’s subtle, but it helps create movement and distance. I’ve never been a stickler for detail in my work. One doesn’t have to put the whiskers on the kitty to say “kitty”. Nonetheless, I borrowed a Winchester ’94, and a Colt Bisley (pistol) from two gun collector friends of mine, so that I would at least be in the ballpark on authenticity. If you feel the rider on the left looks North American, you’d be right. Villa’s army was rife with American mercenaries (including Tom Mix, who would later become an American cowboy movie icon).


Click on any stage of the painting to see it larger
Step One demo
Step Two demo
Step Three demo
Step Four demo
Step Five demo
Final Work

"Chihuahua - 3 Diciembre, 1913"

28 X 48 oil