Friday, April 3, 2015

The Sky's the Limit

Clearing Storm, Gillespie County Texas by James Fox, digital print, 16"x56" (print available at
I live in a long established neighborhood in a large city.  There are many things about our neighborhood that I love—it is close to the city center, I rarely find myself traveling on crowded highways, I have great neighbors, and our street is lined with mature trees which are just now beginning to leaf out.  In the middle of the summer, when temperatures in Dallas consistently top the 100 degree mark, I am even more thankful for the welcome shade those trees provide.  What they do not provide for much of the year, however, are unobstructed views of the Texas sky.  We are rarely afforded the grand sunsets and sunrises of the more wide open areas of the state.

Open Range by Maynard Dixon, oil on canvas, 36"x40", 1942, private collection
During this last winter which has been marked by long periods of gray and damp weather, our vistas have been even more limited, which is why I was particularly mesmerized by a beautiful and gloriously multi-colored sunrise a few morning ago.  The sight of pink, red, and orange glowing clouds literally stopped me in my tracks on my way to retrieve the morning paper.  I simply stood and watched as the colors began to fade and transform into blue sky and white clouds.  It was literally a sight to behold and it reminded me that the sky can be a endless source of artistic inspiration and exploration, just as dramatic and varied as the most evocative landscape.

Canyon Storm by Wilson Hurley, oil on canvas, 38"x60", 1970
I am a great fan of those artists who have the ability to capture the essence of the western sky, artists for whom the depiction of the sky is just as important as the depiction of land forms.  My appreciation for those abilities has not always been shared by some people that I have met along my journeys in the worlds of museums and western art.  One prominent collector once told me that he thought that “landscapes with lots of sky in them should be priced at a lower rate because painting the sky was not as difficult as painting the land.”  I wondered how Maynard Dixon, Victor Higgins, or Wilson Hurley would have reacted to that sentiment.  It never occurred to me to ask Wilson for a discount on a painting that featured more sky than land.

Evening Cumulus by Wilson Hurley, oil on canvas
On another occasion,  I found myself at an exhibition opening talking with a collector who hailed from the east and who asked me why Texas and the Southwest in general had never produced a really great artist.  The question turned out to be rhetorical because he answered it before I could respond.  He said there was a dearth of great artists in the region because there was nothing for them to look at, nothing to evoke their imagination, except the sky.  

I thought of that conversation the other morning as I stood transfixed by the beauty of that rare urban sunrise.  Nothing but the sky, indeed—I found plenty to look at in the colors and cloud shapes that changed in a matter of seconds.  I think that artists who can capture those sort of brief moments are exceptionally talented.  I possess none of their skill and certainly cannot say whether painting the sky is any more difficult or any easier than painting land formations, but my guess is that each subject presents its own unique challenge.  

I do know that the sky in West Texas or New Mexico can have a very different look and feel than the sky in upstate New York or the English countryside.  Different atmospheres, different lighting, different cloud formations will all combine to produce very different scenes.  When I was a young museum professional in Fort Worth, Texas, I frequently welcomed people from all parts of the globe to North Texas.  Many were visiting for the first time and one of the observations that many made was that the clarity, the enormity, and the color of the North Texas sky was mesmerizing.  That is the sort of observation artists and visitors alike often make when they first visit Northern New Mexico.  Artists have long said they were attracted to New Mexico due to the complex interrelationship of three distinct cultures and by the light. which illuminates both the land and sky in a way that was previously foreign to them.

New Moon and Red Twilight by Wilson Hurley.
oil on canvas, 30"x48", 1982
There are many artists who find in the sky a primary subject that captures their attention and inspires them  just as much as the most majestic mountain peak or glistening river.  My friend, Wilson Hurley, as accomplished a landscape painter as any artist of the twentieth century, produced many wonderful paintings that are skycapes, not landscapes.  Simply spend a few minutes studying some of those paintings and then ask yourself, if the sky does not offer an endless variety of challenges for an artist.

Lindy Severns uses pastels to capture both the land and sky of  the Big Bend region and Davis Mountains of far West Texas.  She freely moves the horizon line in her work, sometimes concentrating on the shapes and colors of the land and often focusing her attention on the dramatic blues, brilliant white clouds, and cascading colors of the evening and morning sky.  For Lindy, both land and sky are equally inspiring.

Daybreak Across the Top of Texas by Lindy Severns, pastel, 14"x17"

Sunset Bouquet for the Twin Sisters by Lindy Severns,
pastel, 16x20"
First Rain (Blue Mountain in Davis Mountains)
by Lindy Severns, pastel, 36"x24", 2010

East Texas artist, Tallie Moore paints the storm clouds of that region with skill and passion.  Her paintings of billowing gray clouds rapidly moving across the horizon or deeply colored by the setting sun evoke a true sense of place and remind us of the power of nature.

Smiley Meadow by Tallie Moore, oil on canvas, 33"x38"

Nancy Bush often paints the countryside surrounding her Hill Country home and captures the changing atmosphere of that area from the perspective of various times of the day.  Her tonalist impressions of these scenes often blend the land and sky into a single cohesive image, with the depictions of the sky and land working together to form a unified image.  Her treatments of the sky and land blend together seamlessly and enhance the emotional appeal of the painting.

A Summer Sunset by Nancy Bush, oil on canvas, 12"x9"
Westerly Storm by Nancy Bush, oil on canvas, 36"x40"

The Hand Warmer by Tom Lovell, oil on canvas, 30"21 5/8"

Even artists who are best known for figure paintings or for painting narratives of frontier life have utilized a dramatic rendition of the sky to give an extra dimension and impact to their paintings.  For example, Tom Lovell’s painting of two Native Americans warming their hands from the heat of a settler’s dugout home which has been carved out of an icy and snow-covered winter landscape uses the vast overcast sky to underscore the general feeling of the painting.  Here the snow of the foreground is enhanced by the gray, white, and blue cloudy sky to produce an overall image that neatly captures the isolation of the setting and conveys to the viewer a frigid sense of reality.

Many artists use the sky to add a sense of drama to their paintings even when most of the canvas is dedicated to the land.  Walter Ufer’s painting, “Where the Desert Meets the Mountains,” show a lonely covered wagon making its way across a vast high desert landscape.  The wagon is literally engulfed by the rough sage covered desert terrain that covers three quarters of the canvas.  In the distant background are dark mountains with in turn are topped with a drenching thunderstorm.  The rain, clouds, and patches of clear sky that complete the top third of the painting provide the primary drama and focus of the work. At first glance the subject of this painting appears to be the wagon and desert, but a closer examination reveals that it is the sky that has captivated Ufer and he has reproduced it in masterful detail.

Where the Desert Meets the Mountains by Walter Ufer, oil on canvas, 36 1/2"x40 1/4", Anschutz Collection, Denver, Colorado.
Silver Moon by Nancy Bush, oil on canvas, 18"x24"
Storm clouds with their ever changing roiling forms have also long appealed to photographers.  Often those storms change the appearance of the Spring sky in a matter of seconds. Capturing those moments is a matter of skill and perfect timing.  For many years, an exhibition print of Laura Gilpin’s “Storm from La Bajada Hill, New Mexico,” hung in my office at the Amon Carter Museum.  When the museum acquired the photographer’s estate collection, a full scale retrospective of her work was mounted and she was in attendance for the opening.  I was thrilled to meet her and told her that the image in my office was one of my favorites.  She told me that she took the shot in conjunction with her book,  “The Rio Grande: River of Destiny, an Interpretation of the River, the Land, and the People.”  It was not a planned shot.  She saw the storm approaching and knew from what vantage point she wanted to record it.  She raced to that exact spot and was in time to make one exposure.  

It is that combination of timing, talent, and luck that results in such impressive shots as James Fox’s “Clearing Storm, Gillespie County, Texas.”  Like Gilpin, Jim was in the right spot at the right time, but one has to have the talent and experience to know just what vantage point that will be and then the skill to produce an image that captures a moment in time.

I remember well an incident at the opening of that Laura Gilpin retrospective years ago.  She and I stood in the gallery looking out of the floor to ceiling windows of the museum as the clouds of a thunderstorm were building over the city.  She stood transfixed and said to no one in particular, “I wish I had my camera.”

I had neither camera nor brush in hand when I lingered to watch that recent sunrise from my Dallas front yard, which is just as well, since I do not have the talent with either to produce an image that even approaches the beauty of the actual sight.  Thankfully there are painters and photographers who do possess that skill.  I am glad to have seen many of their renditions, glad to have known many, and glad to be friends with many of them today.  I am particularly pleased that they continue to find in the sky just as much inspiration as they do in the landscape, just as many challenges as they do in painting other subjects, and an abiding love of the beauty of the natural world.  Contrary to the belief of that collector who thought that paintings with “lots of sky” should have lower prices, I am inclined to think that paintings and photographs with the sky as the chief subject may even deserve a higher price.

Storm from La Bajada Hill, New Mexico, 1942 by Laura Gilpin
from The Rio Grande: River of Destiny, An Interpretation of the River, the Land, and the People

Red Twilight on the Rio Grande by Wilson Hurley, oil on canvas, 24"x32",1985

Sunset by Nancy Bush, oil on canvas, 20"x20"

Sundown on Mount Taylor by Wilson Hurley,
oil on canvas, 36"x24", 1985

 A new website has recently been created to showcase the art and life of Wilson Hurley.  It contains a complete catalogue raissone of his work, informative video interviews, and a treasure trove of information about this great artist.  The website was created and is maintained by his widow, Roz.  Go to to learn more about Wilson.

More art by Lindy Severns, Nancy Bush, and Tallie Moore can be found at these websites:

Lindy will be a featured artist at Trappings of Texas, an annual exhibition and sale at the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas.  Opening weekend is April 17-18.  The exhibition will remain on view until May 31.

The work of Lindy Severns, Nancy Bush, and Tallie Moore is also featured in Texas Traditions: Contemporary Artists of the Lone Star State, by Michael Duty and Susan Hallsten McGary, published by Fresco Fine Art Publications.  Available from the publisher and at

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