By Bonnie Gangelhoff
For 11 years, Barry Kooser had what some observers might call a dream position as a background painter for Walt Disney Animation Studios in Orlando, FL. He had job security, a nice-size paycheck, and worked with many talented people. During his stint at Disney, Kooser says, he was part of the creative team on some of the most critically acclaimed animated films of the time, including The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Lilo & Stitch.
Among other things, he also learned the importance of drawing, composition, value, and color. But one day in 2003, the company sponsored a workshop with a fine artist and landscape painter from Colorado. The event changed the course of his life. The painter was Len Chmiel, well known for his abstracted landscapes and as “an artist’s artist.” For Kooser, Chmiel opened up the world of fine-art landscape painting and the possibility of another career. “I just fell in love with the sound of the whole fine-art scene. The workshop had a big influence on me,” Kooser says.
The following year, he packed up his bags and moved to the Denver area, where he had grown up. The workshop had come at just the right time. “Working at Disney was a fun job. But it’s a young person’s game, because you put in 15 to 16 hours a day. It can get to be a grind,” Kooser says. “I got to the point where I felt like a corporate artist and that I was doing the same thing over and over again. But the downside of leaving is that I went from making good money to making nothing.” It was tough to give up such a lucrative career, but more creative freedom had become a necessity.
Upon returning to Colorado, Kooser set up a studio and began painting outdoors four times a week—a practice he continued for several years. In addition to his more than decade-long experience at Disney, Kooser brought to the table a bachelor of fine arts degree in illustration from the Kansas City Art Institute. His reputation as a landscape painter gradually grew by word of mouth, and he was soon rewarded with gallery representation in 2005. That validation eventually led to invitations to prestigious juried shows. This year Kooser was asked to participate in the silent auction at the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale, held in Denver in January.
These days he travels across the West depicting scenes that may include sea spray along the northern coast of California, the natural sandstone formations in Utah’s Arches National Park, or the picturesque farms sprinkled across northern Washington. When he thinks about what he wants to convey in a painting, Kooser says one of the most important things to him is to create a mood and evoke an emotion. “I think that portraying the mood really captures the essence of my artistic soul,” he says. “Rather than depicting the scene as a traditional illustration, I like to bring something different to the canvas. This may include the color of the subject and how I interpret it. Or I can translate a predictable composition in a different way to enhance it, and I can eliminate details, moving various elements in the design, and maybe even push the scale of elements like clouds.”
Kooser religiously avoids using photographs as reference material because they weigh him down creatively, he says. His larger paintings are often just interpretations of his smaller studies. Small or large, he says that he is always trying to convey a “sense of expressionism” in his scenes. As someone who enjoys life, he wants this aspect of his personality to come through to the viewer. Even if the scene depicts a dark, stormy afternoon in the Rocky Mountains, he will choose to use brushwork that is loose and free. “I try to approach each painting differently. Sometimes I paint thick and alla prima, and at other times the subject matter calls for a slower buildup of paint. But the end result should always be expressive,” he says.
In his spare time away from the easel, Kooser still keeps a hand in his former career; he teaches animation and story-boarding at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in Denver. When asked about his next important goal, he replies, “To paint bigger.”
Featured in April 2012.