Each year we receive thousands of entries in our Artistic Excellence competition. After whittling them down to just three top winners and 10 honorable mentions, we are left with many more works and artists worthy of mention. Here we present a sampling of the 100 artists who made it to our final round this year.
This story was featured in the December 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art December 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story
Becky Johnson | Colorado
What inspired this painting? An unplanned stop on the way home from photographing old barns and fence lines after a late-winter snowstorm. This little scene had many of the things I love to paint: sun and shadow, snow, moving water, and that unexpected element of the quiet little pool in the upper-right corner. The fact that it’s just off the road and hidden from general view made it even better. I like painting places that most people never see and hope that I can put them right there beside me; in this case, feeling the cold air and warm sun and hearing the ripple of the water.
Where did you study art? I am self-taught except for a 1991 workshop with Robert Bateman.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? I consider it a high point in my career every time I receive positive feedback, whether it’s an award, a comment, or buyers choosing a piece that touches them. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people, make great friends, and visit parts of the county that have only been made possible because of my career in art.
What are your goals for the future? I want to continue learning from every painting I do, making each painting just a little better than the last.
Where can collectors find your work? Mary Williams Fine Arts, Boulder, CO.
Nancie King Mertz | Iillinois
What inspired this painting? I’ve become infatuated with the rusty underbelly of the city and the silhouettes created by structures against the sky. Whether plein-air painting or working in the studio, it’s the negative space that captures my attention.
Where did you study art? I have a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in painting from Eastern Illinois University, and I’ve done private study with various artists.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? I achieved master signature status in 2014 with the Pastel Society of America, Chicago Pastel Painters, and International Association of Pastel Societies, Master Circle. I was twice named Chicago Artist of the Year by the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. And I opened a gallery of my work in Chicago in 2003, ArtDeTriumph & Artful Framer Studios.
What are your goals for the future? I now have a full-time staff to help run our gallery so that I have more time available to paint. Also, I’m finally finding time to do a few destination plein-air workshops and demos, and I hope to expand that a bit.
Victor Blakey | Texas
What inspired this painting? The Old West comes to life twice daily when genuine Texas cowhands drive a herd of Texas longhorns down Exchange Avenue in Fort Worth, TX. That is where I first saw Old Red on a hot July day, with his head hung low and looking hot and tired. I knew I had to capture that iconic face.
Where did you study art? I received a fine-art degree from Southwest Texas State University and spent a decade studying portraiture with two renowned portrait artists. Now I pour through volumes of books, magazines, and the web to study the habits and habitats of animals. I go to zoos, horse shows, animal reserves, and nearby pastures and ranches. Also, I never miss the Dallas Safari Club conventions, which are a treasure trove of information on animals of the present and past.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? In college, abstract art dominated the world of art. But when I let the renaissance of realism set a new standard for my technique of painting, I began to receive accolades from viewers. Now I rely on some impressionism with a heavy dose of realism to make my animals come alive.
What are your goals for the future? My goal is to become one of the best wildlife painters in the world.
Daria Shachmut | California
What inspired this painting? What happens at the ocean’s edge fascinates me: reflections in wet sand, waves, and most especially, people at the beach. In a single day I may take a thousand digital images, mostly from afar so as not to be intrusive. In CRUISIN’ WITH DAD, my focus was the gesture of the toddler taking a step in the wet sand, little toes curled up, not yet sure of her balance yet safe in the hands of her dad. I cropped the composition to make it universal, not a portrait of a particular child and parent.
Where did you study art? I majored in art and earned my master’s degree in art education. My real education has been workshops with artists whom I admire. Sometimes a single phrase spoken will be my artistic focus for months.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? My paintings have been honored with numerous awards, which have broadened exposure to my work, and for that I am very grateful. Most meaningful are comments from collectors who tell me how moved they are by a painting.
What are your goals for the future? My aim is to communicate the heightened emotion I experience. I want to touch someone’s heart.
Christina Ramos | California
What inspired this painting? I think we live in such a busy world. Technology, our jobs, and trying to fit everything into an already packed schedule have distracted us from the things that are really important. The fleeting moments of childhood are often overlooked by the need to accomplish more and move on to the next thing. I wanted to try and convey this feeling through the little boy in this painting. Although surrounded by many people, he is still alone. The adults only seemed to be eager to get to the next destination, while the child is completely present in the journey itself.
Where did you study art? I attended school at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art and briefly studied with Jeremy Lipking. However, I am primarily self-taught. There were not a lot of programs that taught acrylics when I began painting. It took me many years of experimentation to get my acrylics to mimic the effects of oil.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? I was recently hired by the Golden Paint Company to become one of their working artists. I do lectures and workshops across Southern California, educating people on the great versatility of acrylic paints and mediums. I was also selected by Southwest Art magazine as an Artist to Watch in 2015. That was a great honor.
What are your goals for the future? To paint better. Good is never good enough for me.
Where can collectors find your work? www.christinaramosart.com.
Syndi Michael | Oregon
What inspired this painting? It was the unusual and sudden appearance of this gorgeous peacock outside my door one morning. He hung around for several weeks and then was gone as mysteriously as he arrived. But his beautiful and intricate colors consumed me and gave me the inspiration I was looking for.
Where did you study art? I am a self-taught artist, studying every piece of artwork that catches my attention, collecting art magazines, and immersing myself in books and articles on the techniques of my favorite artists. Because I love painting wildlife, I was very fortunate to grow up working with nearly every kind of domestic animal and later to work in wildlife parks and zoos that gave me the up-close-and-personal exposure that has influenced my art.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? I once did a 40-foot mural in a brand-new wildlife park’s auditorium. And I was selected for the 2014 Best of Acrylic Painting by North Light Books.
What are your goals for the future? I have many goals, but if I can touch even one person, that will help make the world a better place for every species that shares this planet, and I will have succeeded.
Kirk Larsen | New York
What inspired this painting? At Plein Air Easton on opening day this year, artists were granted access to a private National Audubon Society property called Pt. Pleasant Farm. After surveying miles of property in stifling, 98-degree heat, in the last, distant corner, I saw the location I would paint. A mild breeze and good tunes on an MP3 player made the entire painting a totally immersive, blissful experience. The light was spectacular, the setting sublime. I found my painting groove, and it became my first competition piece and sold. Hence the title.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? Having work included in the permanent collections of institutions such as The Museum of America and the Sea in Mystic, CT. Winning the grand prize and collector’s choice awards at Maryland’s Easels in Frederick plein-air event. Participating for five consecutive years in Plein Air Easton. Having work selected for the 2015 Oil Painters of America national show and OPA’s salon show and eastern regional show. Having a solo show at the Oyster Bay Historical Society through December 23. And being flown to Los Angeles to paint the wedding of a famous actress.
Where can collectors find your work? Good Art Company, Fredericksburg, TX; Eisele Gallery, Cincinnati, OH; Design Domaine Gallery, Spring Lake, NJ; Trumpeter Swan Antiques, Easton, MD; Ouvert Gallery, St. Michaels, MD; The Bennington Center for the Arts and Harwood Hill Motel and Cottages, Bennington, VT; www.kirklarsenfineart.com.
Hiu Lai Chong | Maryland
What inspired this painting? I was out sailing with my husband in Annapolis, MD. It was a cloudy day, the sun had been hiding behind the clouds, and the sky seemed to get darker earlier than usual. Sailors were getting ready to return to dock after a day of racing. Then the sun broke through, and everything was lit up bright and golden. I was inspired by the dramatic light and sunset on the glittering water with the Annapolis capital in the background.
Where did you study art? I received my early art training in Hong Kong at the Jockey Club Ti-I College. I earned an associate degree in applied science from Navarro College, Corsicana, TX, and a bachelor of fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I continue to take workshops and classes around the country.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? In 2012, my nocturne painting ALL TUCKED IN received both the grand prize and artists’ choice award at the Plein Air Easton competition. Also: winning first place in the Artistic Excellence competition in 2014, best of show at the Maui Plein Air Invitational in 2015, and support from collectors, friends and the wonderful art community.
What are your goals for the future? To capture on canvas what I see in order to better understand the world we live in.
Alex Venezia | Virginia
What inspired this painting? This painting was inspired by the ending of a relationship. The flowers cut from their stems before blooming, the dark red dress, and her closed eyes—these are all symbols of a short-lived love and its ending.
Where did you study art? Most of my art studies were done at home, reading, researching, watching videos, and of course, practicing. I have also taken workshops from some amazing artists, including Michael Klein, Casey Baugh, and Darren Kingsley.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? Winning first place in one of the first art shows I’ve ever entered is a highlight. It was a local figurative show, but it was a key moment of assurance for me that the path I chose was the right one. Also, the first time I did a portrait painting demonstration in front of an audience was a big moment for me. The crowd didn’t consist of family or friends but of artists who asked questions and took notes. This was quite an event for an artist who had not spent much time out of the studio yet. The experience was overall a motivating one. And this month I’m in a miniatures show at Abend Gallery in Denver, CO.
What are your goals for the future? A constant rate of artistic improvement in skill, vision, and emotion.
Cynthia Rosen | Vermont
What inspired this painting? Last winter I joined a group of local painters at Spur Cross Stables in Cave Creek, AZ. The sight of horses grazing in the desert hills typified some of the West not often seen in more commercially developed areas. If I knew where the wild ponies roamed, that would have been my first choice. Here, the owners welcomed us, and this view provided a great opportunity.
Where did you study art? I attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and spent my early art career doing nonobjective pastel works for galleries in New York City and Philadelphia. I received a master’s degree from Goddard College.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? Being invited into galleries in New York City and Philadelphia in my 20s, which was huge for me. Finding a lovely group of plein-air painters in Arizona a few years ago, which is where I truly explored color and fell in love with painting. Most recently, winning awards in plein-air events, beginning gallery relationships, being accepted into some national and regional shows, and teaching.
What are your goals for the future? To increase my abilities in a career I loved yet left many years ago is my ultimate goal.
Ron Craig | California
What inspired this painting? I’ve always had an attraction to these giants, these larger-than-life mechanical animals. It’s like seeing someone you admire but don’t know that much about. I get caught up in the mystery of them—their history, the people who built them, the work they’ve done, and the lives they’ve touched. As huge and mammoth as these cranes are, they’re isolated, visible from great distances but never deeply noticed. I wanted to spend more time with them, to bring recognition to their history and influence, and to capture all that is beautiful about them, even in their decay.
Where did you study art? For 40 years I’ve studied art in my own studio, experimenting with materials, brushes, and paints, driven by a desire to make my subject matter look as real as possible. I’m a self-taught artist. My education happens every day.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? My paintings have won many awards over the years, but my true career highlights happen every time a painting achieves the vision I have for it.
What are your goals for the future? My calling as a humanitarian is to document, preserve, and honor all that we are losing. I want to bring recognition to the forgotten structures of our society, sharing their glory with as many people as I can.
Where can collectors find your work? www.roncraigart.com.
Randy Van Dyck | Idaho
What inspired this painting? As with all my work, words and phrases are the driving force behind my process. Is the glass half full or half empty? This query inspired the imagery I painted in creating THE OPTIMIST.
Where did you study art? I graduated from the Art Institute of Seattle with a focus on illustration, which is apparent in my work.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? The highlights for 2015 started in March when I was featured in Southwest Art in the Artists to Watch section. Seven national juried shows with two awards followed, along with inclusion in two art books published by North Light Books. An eight-page feature along with the cover of another national art magazine happened this September. Now this great honor to be a finalist in Artistic Excellence has capped off an amazing year.
What are your goals for the future? I want to continue to develop and explore this body of work while allowing it to progress naturally. I envision it evolving to include more socially conscious subject matter.
Mejo Okon | Texas
What inspired this painting? It was late on a hot, sunny afternoon, and I was standing right in the middle of a longhorn herd outside of San Antonio. I am often inspired by the intensity of colors just as the sun begins its descent to the horizon. The colors get stronger and bolder. This longhorn attracted me with her solid white coat. A simple description might be a white cow, but in reality it is a cow of many colors.
Where did you study art? I studied at Indiana University and at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. Now the splendor of New Mexico inspires my paintings.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? I have been accepted into the Bosque Art Classic three times. There I was able to meet several of my favorite painters in person. And I was just honored with signature status in Women Artists of the West.
What are your goals for the future? My goal is to keep challenging myself and creating artwork that I am proud of. There are several prestigious national shows that are on my bucket list as well.
Vickie McMillan | Texas
What inspired this painting? While on a photo safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa, I noticed a herd of elephants quickly coming down the river embankment. Knowing this would be a spectacular shot, I jumped out of my vehicle and leaned over the bridge to capture this amazing photograph. The painting was later created back in my studio in The Woodlands, TX. Elephants embody the word community in the way they care, nurture, and protect one another from the harsh, wild conditions of Africa.
Where did you study art? Maryland Institute College of Art and University of North Texas.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? I have shown my work in places such as the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, the Bennington Center for the Arts, the Museum of East Texas, and the Great Plains Art Museum; I was the Safari Club International Houston and Houston Safari Club Artist of the Year; I was a finalist for The Hunting Art Prize; and I’ve been in The Artist’s Magazine and Plein Air Magazine.
What are your goals for the future? Continue to exhibit in art museums and galleries, advance global conservation causes, and conduct art-based global outreach initiatives that equip, encourage, and motivate disadvantaged, disabled, and impoverished people.
Where can collectors find your work? www.vickiemcmillan.com.
Mary Ann Warner | New Mexico
What inspired this painting? This was painted during the 2015 Santa Fe Plein Air Festival in the area of Ghost Ranch and the Rio Chama. The second day of painting was in bright sunlight, but there were clouds that drifted through now and then, creating shadows on the mountain. I won second place from judge Jill Carver because my painting “depicted most closely what we had experienced,” she said.
Where did you study art? I graduated from Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA, with a major in studio arts, a concentration in illustration and graphics, and a minor in technology and photography, plus a special interest in book arts. I have studied many disciplines since then that influence the choices I make as I paint today, including calligraphy, monotype, sculpture, and photography.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? Winning second place at the 2015 Santa Fe Plein Air Festival. And in 1989 I won the Best Offset Book Design award for my limited-edition artist book, Gift of the Crow, at Bumbershoot, the Seattle arts festival. The book also won a Certificate of Design Excellence from Print Magazine. I wrote the story, created the artwork, designed the binding and book, then hand-bound each book with a soft, wrap-around cover.
What are your goals for the future? I have a solo show in February at Act I Gallery, Taos, NM, where I show my landscape paintings.
John D. Westerhold | Texas
What inspired this painting? Curiosity. I have reached a point that I can paint almost anything I set my mind to, however, I like to keep challenging myself and learning. I realized one day that I had never painted chrome, so I set out to photograph some Harleys up close for reference and capture the reflections in the engines. I want the viewer to look into the painting rather than at it.
Where did you study art? My family recognized my natural ability at an early age and encouraged me to learn as much as I could. I’ve had very little formal training.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? The highlight of my adventurous career would be when I opened the very first art gallery in the country of Belize back in the early ’90s. It was on Ambergris Caye, right on the beach in a little fishing village named San Pedro. Over the last four years it has been very gratifying teaching Dallas-area beginner students how to paint.
What are your goals for the future? I’m currently relocating my home and studio to central Texas, where I can focus on painting the daily life of southwestern farms and ranches. I’m also working on establishing an artists’ retreat, so I can teach other artists my techniques.
Where can collectors find your work? Online at Fine Art America. Once I get relocated I will have a new site to view and purchase my work.
Gayle Weisfield | Oregon
What inspired this painting? TETON REFLECTIONS was developed from a magical day of early morning photos and then plein-air painting with some of the great painters in Jackson, WY, during the Fall Arts Festival. The first time I saw the Tetons, I knew what I had been practicing for my whole life. The mountains stand over the lakes, and the valley floors are spotted with buffalo and elk. The story of this breathtaking scenery is what I attempt to convey to viewers each time I begin a new work.
Where did you study art? I studied at the University of Washington and also with many great artists—Zolton Szabo, Robert Wood, Rex Brandt, Frank Webb, and Alvaro Castagnet.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? The most life-changing event was sparked by a creative excursion to New York City to look at art. The Salmagundi Club had just hung the American Masters show. I was blown away by this fabulous show, given a personal tour, and then invited on a private tour of Madison Avenue galleries. Also, in 2014 I was one of 10 American women artists invited to be part of an international art and cultural exchange with South Korean and Russian women artists.
Where can collectors find your work? Caswell Gallery, Troutdale, OR; Lorang Fine Art, Cascade Locks, OR; The Dalles Art Center, The Dalles, OR; Big River Art and Crafts, Goldendale, WA; www.gayleweisfield.com.
Carol Hallock | Louisiana
What inspired this painting? While I was taking a break from the workshop I was giving in Panama City Beach, FL, an egret caught my attention. I love to paint the lovely egret, which my mom has named Geraldine. Inspiration comes from a glance that catches my attention, and if it calls for a second glance, that is food for a new painting.
Where did you study art? Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. Primarily, though, it is taking a foundation and building upon it by working hard and painting (a lot) that I feel builds the real skills and style.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? Having work in the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion, an upcoming article in The Artist’s Magazine, and three instructional videos shown on television across the nation.
What are your goals for the future? I aspire to continue to improve my skills, achieving better color, composition, and contrast so that each person is touched by emotion when viewing my work. I strive to create a connection for the viewer to better appreciate our environment. I plan to continue to create more instructional videos and expand my work to more galleries.
Diane Reeves | Florida
What inspired this painting? Initially, I was inspired to combine delightful colors, bright morning light, and beautiful components. But the state of our world kept pressing in, and soon CHOOSING JOY (over despair) became my deeper inspiration. My upcoming portrait and still-life works will emphasize similar choices such as courage, gentleness, hope, and generosity.
Where did you study art? Although I’ve had the privilege of attending workshops led by some remarkable artists, including Rose Frantzen, Daniel Gerhartz, Susan Lyon, Daniel Greene, Romel de la Torre, and Steven Assael, I’ve worked very hard to develop my own unique style that communicates confidence in execution but keeps a fresh, luminous quality.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? Most recently, my work was selected for the 2015 Oil Painters of America national show, and also OPA’s salon show and eastern regional exhibition, as well as the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society’s juried exhibition. I’ve also been blessed to meet and become friends with wonderful people—fellow artists, gifted instructors, and enthusiastic collectors.
What are your goals for the future? To create striking work viewers are drawn to that moves them emotionally, to expand my gallery affiliations, and to continue participating in conferences and exhibitions.
Where can collectors find your work? www.diane-reeves.artistwebsites.com.
Carol E. Maltby | New York
What inspired this painting? The drawing was done at an outdoor art show. A balloon vendor was walking up and down the street selling balloons to the patrons and children. I took a number of pictures of him as he walked by my booth. I liked the one where he was looking up at the balloons while picking one out for a little girl. He was my main subject, so I put the rest of the picture in graphite pencil, while drawing him and the balloons in colored pencil.
Where did you study art? I had no formal art training outside of high school. I am self-taught and learned by observing, reading books, and attending demonstrations.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? When I was 16, I sold my first oil painting. Since then, I’ve sold many more, but the first one is the most memorable. Becoming a five-year signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America was another milestone. Having been a three-time finalist in the Art Renewal Center competitions is another highlight. Awards help me strive to better my artwork even more. Being published in books and periodicals is another great addition.
What are your goals for the future? Learning new methods and trying new things are my goals in the future.
Where can collectors find your work? www.cemaltby.finearstudioonline.com.
Misty Martin | Washington
What inspired this painting? I smiled when I spotted this happy bicycle sparkling in the sun in a sleepy Mexican resort town. It contained so many of the elements I like to capture in my paintings: bright color, reflected light, shadow, implied movement, and whimsy.
Where did you study art? I’ve never enrolled in the formal study of art, but I’m studying all the time. I learn from the world I view and from other artists who inspire me. Two artists who have had especially great influence on me are Richard Estes and Albert Moore.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? Meetings with other artists, where each encounter is an opportunity to learn, find inspiration, and make a new friend. I am most proud of my appointment as a master artist in the National Oil & Acrylic Painters’ Society, my recognition as the Best International Artist at the Westminster exhibition of the National Acrylic Painters Association of the U.K., and the Ralph Fabri Medal that I received at the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic exhibition at the Salamagundi Club in New York.
What are your goals for the future? I always strive to find new expression and satisfaction in my art. And I aspire to achieve a level of appreciation among collectors that will allow me a secure livelihood while devoting my entire working life to art.
Ron Larson | Utah
What inspired this painting? One very early morning, I was heading down the road to do studies in an area called the Colorado Plateau in the desert Southwest. As the sun came up, the hillside began to glow. It was glowing because of the colors of the sunrise against the red rocks. The atmosphere of those moments in that place at sunrise immediately captured me. In my art, I love to paint contrasts, where there are deep, dark shadows and striking reflections of light.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? There are so many great moments, including becoming a signature member of the National Watercolor Society and having a solo show at John Wesley Powell Museum in Page, AZ, which is on view through June 2016. But my very favorite moments have been when someone comes up to my artwork and begins to cry. I ask, “Is it that bad?” Their reply has been, “No, it’s that good.” This is humbling to me, and when someone feels something from my art, it is the greatest success of all.
What are your goals for the future? I love seeing the potential of young, beginning artists. I like inspiring them and helping them get started with a little instruction or a place to paint.
Where can collectors find your work? www.ronlarsonartist.com.
Robert Crawford | Connecticut
What inspired this painting? It kind of evolved. I started with a modeling session with Maddie, and it grew from there. The room is my studio, and I just imagined the life of this little girl. I think it has a lot to do with my own daughter growing up and the loss you feel when she leaves and has a life of her own. I loved those times when she was young and full of imagination.
Where did you study art? Rhode Island School of Design.
What have been some of the highlights of your art career? I love seeing my art published as well as in galleries. It was great seeing my art on the cover of the L.L. Bean catalog, and having my work in a museum show was awesome. I’ve had shows all over the world, but a great thrill was my New York show in 2014.
What are your goals for the future? I want to continue to grow and evolve as an artist. My work should be more than just a pretty picture—it should have depth and meaning. I want my patrons to still love the work many years after their purchase. My biggest goal is to continue to expand my collector base. I am currently seeking galleries in Virginia and Florida.
Featured in the December 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art December 2015 print issue or digital download Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
• Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
• Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
• Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook