Craig Tennant | Transformations

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Arrow Maker, oil, 20 x 30., painting, southwest art.
Arrow Maker, oil, 20 x 30.

Every morning around 7 a.m., Colorado artist Craig Tennant rises to a sweeping view of the Rocky Mountains near the Continental Divide. He ambles outside to feed his two faithful paint horses, Dundee and Bo. Tennant seldom sees his neighbors, as eight acres surround his home lodged on top of a mountain in Coal Creek Canyon near Golden.

At 6 feet 2 inches tall and a muscular 210 pounds, Tennant—with his graying mustache and cowboy hat—looks like a rugged mountain man born and raised in the outdoors. But nothing could be further from the truth: Tennant’s Marlboro Man demeanor belies his big-city roots.

Rocky, oil, 30 x 40., painting, southwest art.
Rocky, oil, 30 x 40.

Today, at 52, Tennant can reflect philosophically on his personal and artistic transformations. He has traveled a bumpy road from his career as a frenzied, high-powered New York advertising illustrator to his current life as a western artist who derives pleasure from a quiet life and the painterly brush strokes of recent works like Arrow Maker.

“To become the kind of painter I want to be, I’ve had to change a formula that had worked for me for years—I had to get out of my comfort zone,” Tennant says. It’s been difficult for him to steer away from the tight, closely rendered style of illustration to the more loose, artistic quality of oil painting. But having

Huey & Louie, oil, 18 x 24., painting, southwest art.
Huey & Louie, oil, 18 x 24.

survived three decades of peaks and valleys in his career, the painter now feels he’s finding his artistic way.

Says Tony Altermann of Altermann & Morris Galleries in Dallas, TX, which represents Tennant, “Some artists pay inordinate attention to detail to the detriment of the works of art. Others don’t have enough knowledge of their subject. Craig Tennant has made a concerted effort to balance these elements.”

While growing up in suburban New Jersey, Tennant never thought about painting western art, although he was

Craig Tennant. southwest art.
Craig Tennant.

interested in cowboys and Indians. In fact, he once asked his mother if he was part Indian, hoping she would say yes.

In a family of teachers with no outstanding talent for art, Tennant’s fondness for drawing was an oddity. But he followed his own path and after graduating from high school entered the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, FL.

Tennant’s career as a professional artist began in 1967 when, with only one year of art school behind him, he began working for Grey Advertising Inc. in New York City. It wasn’t long before his drawing abilities catapulted him into an illustrator’s position at another top firm, BBDO World-wide Inc., where he created storyboards for television advertisements using felt-tip markers. Tennant developed a reputation as a master of representational drawing, creating everything from a Paris street scene to a Campbell’s soup can.

Through the Pines, oil, 23 x 39., painting, southwest art.
Through the Pines, oil, 23 x 39.

Clients began to stack up, and soon Tennant was freelancing for Fortune 500 companies such as PepsiCo Inc., Chrysler, and Xerox.

Money came easily in those days. So did life in the fast lane. Tennant sped to his Madison Avenue office on a motorcycle, getting an adrenaline rush from dodging traffic. He also got a rush from staying up all night in the city that never sleeps. But by 1988 the fast life was coming to a dead end. His second marriage was collapsing. The stock market took a plunge. Within a week, it seemed, advertising agencies stopped hiring high-priced artists for their commercials, and Tennant faced bankruptcy.

The Storyteller, oil, 16 x 22., painting, southwest art.
The Storyteller, oil, 16 x 22.

“Nothing was going well,” he recalls. “I wanted to redo my life, and I knew that money wasn’t the answer.” Seeking a new start, Tennant moved to San Diego, CA, in 1989 to try his hand at painting western scenes. He traded in his felt-tip markers for oil paints and visited ranches and rodeos with his camera. It wasn’t long before a local gallery started showing Tennant’s paintings and fans of the western lifestyle began buying them.

Tennant knew he should have been ecstatic about his success, but he was troubled by weaknesses in his work. He was dissatisfied with the small, meticulous brush strokes held over from his advertising days. “I wanted to work faster, loosen up my style, and stop rendering so tightly. I just didn’t know how,” he says.

About this time, Tennant encountered another stumbling block when he visited an Apache reservation in search of subject matter. He had made arrangements with tribal representatives to pay the Indians to pose for his photographs. When he arrived to shoot, Tennant put feathers on a young Apache boy and asked several children to smile while they ground corn. At the end of the photo session, his hosts were displeased. While Tennant had simply wanted to capture the children’s faces for their aesthetic appeal, the Apaches felt that he should have portrayed them in a more historically accurate manner.

Such missteps made the late 1980s difficult for Tennant, but in the ’90s his life began to turn around. For several years he had been on a spiritual quest, visiting various churches and struggling to decipher the King James version of the Bible. But in San Diego, his chiropractor gave him a Bible written in “plain English,” he says. Tennant went home and read a passage that night and has continued to read one every night since.

For Tennant, the Bible readings complemented the maxim “Let go and let God,” an affirmation he had begun to repeat regularly. A self-admitted controlling personality, Tennant says these new spiritual guides helped him calm down and become more patient.

“My life before was frustrating and nothing went right,” Tennant says. With his spiritual awakening, his life—and his art—became easier and more purposeful.

In 1991 Tennant met his wife Cheryl. A manager by profession, Cheryl would eventually take over the business side of his work. They married in 1992 and moved to Denver, CO, for the surrounding mountain scenery and the changing seasons.

As a boy, the idea of being in the woods alone had appealed to Tennant. Now that he lived in Colorado, he could saddle up his horse and explore by himself when he wasn’t painting.

Tennant’s preference for solitude can be seen in his paintings. He paints many lone subjects, like the one in Arrow Maker, in which an Indian sits on a brilliant red blanket plying his craft, and Rocky, a cowboy relaxing next to a wagon wheel.

Eventually Tennant began taking regular breaks from his solo ventures when he was invited to join a group of western-lore enthusiasts. They converged frequently in the woods for a week to re-enact the life of Native Americans. The men dressed in moccasins and leggings, built encampments, and simulated attacks. While Tennant still covets his time alone and considers the solitary subject his favorite, these outings provided models and inspiration for his paintings. “I started capturing in my work the smell of smoke in a teepee and the tension in the hunted Indians’ faces,” he says.

Tennant grew increasingly dedicated to authenticity and to incorporating into his work the illusive elements that convert renderings into art—smell, color, emotion, and atmosphere. Although he continued to receive praise for the fine details in his paintings, Tennant was learning to control his desire to render everything precisely. “It’s a hard lesson. I see a shoe or a boot and I want to paint every detail. But that’s not the way a good painting is done. A painting should evolve from a focal point out,” he says. Tennant starts with faces or hands. By loosening these areas, he can further loosen the background so that the faces or hands are still the focal point but the overall work has a more painterly quality.

By the mid-1990s Tennant had made subtle changes in his work. He points to his looser style in Huey & Louie, a painting of two horses standing by a covered wagon. He notes that the small, delicate brush strokes of the wagon wheel contrast with the freer brush strokes of the trees and grass. “These are monumental changes to me, though they may not be noticed by the viewer,” he says. “The loosening-up process takes a long time. It’ll probably be a long struggle for me because I’ll always be fighting to stay out of my comfort zone.”

Tennant’s new direction was solidified after reading an article by painter Oleg Stavrowsky titled “The 10 Artists I Steal From” in the December 1996 issue of Southwest Art. Stavrowsky, a former illustrator, talked about how good art beckons, intrigues, and delights the senses. And he explained how his favorite artists instill their character in their work.

“To me, Stavrowsky was saying, ‘Paint your personality,’” Ten-nant says. “I’m a big guy who lifts weights. My personality is fast and loose. I should have been painting with boldness and strength, but instead I was coming out of the studio without any paint on me. I was painting little tiny images that didn’t reflect who I am.”

Inspired by Stavrowsky’s words, Tennant experimented with large brushes. His first several paintings were disasters, he says, but gradually he grew more comfortable with looser strokes. “When I come out of the studio now, I’m covered with paint. You can tell I’m an artist,” he jokes.

Tennant’s studio is filled with historical journals and western artifacts that he often uses in his paintings. Among his art books is one written by his favorite artist, Richard Schmid—a man with “wondrous” brush strokes, says Tennant. “Schmid’s paintings are a mile deep. I can see from his first brush strokes to his last. He takes them down to their simplest form.”

Simplicity appeals to Tennant in art and in life. True, remnants of his Type A personality still fester in him, and he remains driven. But he says that he has been transformed into a calmer, gentler soul who wants nothing more than to live in the mountains and devote himself  to his art. “I’m striving to be a top-level artist, and it’s going to take the rest of my life to get there,” Tennant says. “But that’s fine because there’s no other way I’d rather spend my time.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Altermann & Morris Galleries, Dallas and Houston, TX, Santa Fe, NM, and Hilton Head, SC; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Knox Galleries, Vail and Beaver Creek, CO; and Grizzly Gallery, West Yellowstone, MT.

Featured in June 1998