Bill Anton

Ancient Trails [1999], oil, 36 x 48. painting, southwest art.
Ancient Trails [1999], oil, 36 x 48.

By Myrna I. Zanetell

Thickly forested hills give way to high rolling meadows lush with grass and dotted with tiny wildflowers. This is western ranch country, where vast horizons celebrate freedom in its purest form. Here, in the shadow of Granite Mountain and near the old territorial capitol of Prescott, AZ, western artist Bill Anton has found not only a place to call home but also the focus for his life’s work as well. Since 1982, Anton has dedicated himself to depicting the unromanticized, day-to-day life of the working cowboy. “I truly admire the way these men live,” he says, “and I never tire of telling their story. I believe that the farther we get from our agricultural roots, the more all of us long for the self-reliance and gentle strength embodied in the image of these American folk heros.”

Spellbound [2000], oil, 36 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Spellbound [2000], oil, 36 x 30.

Born and raised in Chicago, Anton came from a family who espoused these same strong values. His father owned a successful food brokerage firm, and his mother was a published author. “In many ways, I owe my career to the two of them,” Anton says. “When I was 7, Mom financed a trip out west with funds from her first book, and Dad shared his knowledge and love for the region by taking us to see such scenic wonders as Glacier National Park, Crater Lake, Lake Tahoe, and Rocky Mountain National Park. To let you know the depth of my reaction, I remember waking up to the towering mountains in Glacier National Park and asking why anyone wanted to live in Chicago.” Completely awed by the grandeur of the land he had seen, the youngster had no idea that its greatest impact on him would come in the years ahead.

While in his sophomore year at Loyola University in Chicago, Anton began to feel restless and dissatisfied with his life. A counselor who had relatives in northern Arizona suggested that a change of scenery might help, and Anton headed west, finishing out his last two years of college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. There, two events occurred that would change his life forever. First, he met a lovely coed named Peggy O’Malley, the descendant of a pioneer Arizona family. Soon after graduation she became his wife, and her love for the region and belief in his talents became one of the driving forces behind his art. Then, in 1978, he chanced to attend a Cowboy Artists of America show at the Phoenix Art Museum. By this time Anton had begun to respond to a dormant desire to become an artist, but he had not yet found his focus. “That show really opened my eyes,” Anton explains. “I had no idea anyone could earn a living painting western art. Seeing that show brought such clarity that suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

Cloud Ripper and Sixth Lake [2000],  oil field study, 8 x 10. painting, southwest art.
Cloud Ripper and Sixth Lake [2000],  oil field study, 8 x 10.

From the beginning the artist was aware that he had a natural talent for drawing, so pencil became his medium of choice for several years before he eventually moved on to oils. “Learning tonality by doing black-and-white drawings really helped me when it came to working in color,” he reflects. “This period reinforced my belief that drawing is the basis for all fine art, and to this day I continue to hone this skill.”

Plein-air studies are the foundation of Anton’s work, so he spends a great deal of time outdoors, simply observing the beauty in the wilderness areas that surround his home or riding with the cowboys as they work the cattle on huge local ranches. Using a small easel that can be set up in the bed of his pickup truck, Anton ventures into the rough back country away from the traces of modern civilization, searching for scenes that evoke the emotional appeal he is seeking to convey through his art.

The Prodigal [1998], oil, 18 x 24. painting, southwest art.
The Prodigal [1998], oil, 18 x 24.

“There is a wonderful immediacy that happens when you work from life, and my best stuff is done quickly and spontaneously,” he says. “However, I am learning there is something to be said for having the larger pieces in the studio and tickling them out. Spending more time with a piece gives it different effects. Now, as I paint, I am constantly searching for that delicate balance: combining the rock-solid feel that comes from studio time with the spontaneity of exploding into a painting with verve and passion, which is the hallmark of plein-air work.”

One of the disadvantages of working primarily from photographs in the studio, Anton explains, is that the colors are “jazzed up” and the contrasts are exaggerated in photographs. “When I work the ranches, one of the things I am constantly doing is watching the colors, asking myself what is different out there that doesn’t get translated into the studio work,” Anton says. “For example, as I was helping move cattle one day, I watched a rider coming over the hill towards me, and I was suddenly struck by the rich, warm russet brown color created by the shadows on his horse’s breast. Later, when my photographs came back, that same area appeared as a dull black. The camera simply had not captured the subtleties of the reflected light.”

In addition, Anton confides, “When you paint outside, conditions are unique in every location. For instance, humid air creates atmosphere. Everything drops back a lot faster when you paint on the California coast as opposed to the dry air of Arizona and New Mexico.” Replicating sun shining through clouds can be tricky, too. He explains, “The only way you can achieve that wonderful backlit look is to make numerous adjustments in your values. Even white out of a tube doesn’t begin to approach the brilliance of sunlight, so you must drop the dark colors in the middle of the cloud down several notches.”

Anton emphasizes that a desire to experiment contributes to an artist’s growth. “I can recall James Reynolds advising a student that the best way to solve a problem was by trying different approaches,” he says. “What we all want to achieve as painters is a certain amount of inventiveness and originality, and Jim encouraged us to try our wings. Some things are time-honored techniques, but some you just make up as you go. For example, I do a lot of painting now with a crumpled up piece of tissue. If you load up that tissue with a bunch of colors, you get really great random vibrations of color, much like you find in nature.”

Anton continues, “I am always striving to have my paintings evoke emotion in the viewer, so I look to artists whose work exemplifies that quality. I have long admired the paintings done by the early California impressionists, particularly Edgar Payne, and for western genre painting there is nobody like Frank Tenney Johnson. In my mind, he was the pinnacle of western painters when it comes to creating mood. He injected color into his moonlight scenes to extol the beauty of the night. Some have criticized him for taking that liberty, but I believe that any time a painter tries to be too accurate, he is missing the entire point of painting.”

Like Johnson, Anton uses firsthand experience to breathe life into his images of modern ranching. “Working side by side with these men gives me some insight into the emotional reality of the buckaroo,” Anton says. “Although he appears to live a very simple life, a cowboy is often complex. He works long hours for low pay at a grueling job which requires him to endure choking dust, the scorching heat of summer, and winter’s icy blasts, and he does it with an innate grace and an unyielding sense of humor.”

Preserving the values that have come to be associated with the “cowboy way” has become important to Anton for other reasons as well. He and Peggy are the parents of two youngsters, 21/2-year-old AnnieLauri and 10-month-old Will. Anton observes, “Children are such remarkable creatures, and it has been fascinating to see the world through a new set of eyes.”

It is for those eyes, and millions of others like them, that Anton continues to produce work inspired by what is quickly becoming a vanishing way of life. What he is leaving behind in his work is more than mere renditions. “The legacy I am attempting to preserve is emotional rather than visual,” he emphasizes. “As I paint, I am creating a mood, a sense of the time and the place, that will help viewers see the beauty in this way of life: to sense how good it feels to have the warmth of the sun on their backs, to smell the piñon on trees, and to know the boundless freedom of this way of life. Charlie Russell often referred to cowboys as the ‘knights of the range,’ and it is this nobility of the man on horseback that I continue to celebrate through my art.

Photos courtesy the artist and Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Texas Art Gallery, Dallas, TX; and Jackson-Kirkland Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM.

Myrna I. Zanetell wrote about David Mann in the September issue.

Featured in Janurary 2001