Robert Highsmith | Desert Dreamer

By Mark Mussari

New Mexico has haunted Robert Highsmith throughout his life. Thanks to a father who was a career officer in the military, his family moved 35 times before Highsmith turned 18. Yet, no matter where in the world he found himself, he felt the call of the desert. “My family has had a house in Las Cruces since 1959,” he recalls, “so whenever anyone has asked where I’m from, I’ve always said New Mexico.” Today, Highsmith resides there with his wife and children. His elegant, understated watercolors offer a testament to his ongoing affection for the desert landscape.

Although critics sometimes refer to Highsmith’s paintings as photorealism, he resists that label. “When I think of photorealism,” he notes, “I think of artists who portray the chrome on a car and the windows and the reflections in the glass—something sort of hard-edged.” A closer look at Highsmith’s artwork, which he defines as “naturalistic,” reveals less effort at exacting detail and more skill with technique. People often ask if his works are photographs, but he ascribes that perception to his emphasis on contrast rather than detail. “I maintain a strong contrast between darks and lights,” he says, “and when you have that, it tends to look photorealistic.”

Highsmith achieves those contrasts through some inventive brushwork. “I don’t really paint in the same way as most watercolorists,” he explains. He uses house painter’s brushes and tends to scrub paint onto the paper rather than applying it in traditional strokes. He also points out that his approach defies the more unforgiving nature of the medium: “My paint is very thick and dry, enabling me to get around some of the problems other artists might have when using more transparent colors.” The thickness of his application allows Highsmith to “go dark” and, thus, cover up any blotches or blemishes.

He also uses a unique stippling process. “I add color with a dry brush and very little water,” he says, “so that I can stipple color into an area rather than using a wash to darken it.” The process also contributes to the strong textural element in his work. His renderings of desert foliage, in particular, exude a distinct tactile sensibility. “I’ll paint a large, bushy area with just a few strokes from a bristle brush,” he explains, “and then come back in with an indication of three or four branches.” He says he has “figured out little ways to make detail happen in just a few strokes.”

The deep contrasts in Highsmith’s paintings adds to their subtlety. He openly eschews the vivid color schemes characterizing many Southwest landscapes. “I just don’t see the landscape in bright colors,” he comments. Instead, he finds his artistic language in a muted palette. “I use mostly earth tones—raw sienna, burnt umber, sepia,” he says. In his canyon landscapes, Highsmith captures russet tones through his use of cadmium scarlet and cadmium orange. “I have about eight or nine colors on my palette,” says the artist. “They’re the same ones I’ve been using for about 40 years.” Highsmith’s chromatic sense may be the most dominant factor in the overall effect of his work. With their dampened tones and sense of quietude, his landscapes draw viewers into a world that seems less stereotypical and more familiar.

Highsmith nods to a number of influences as sources for his sense of light and color. “In college and art school I admired John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Edward Hopper,” he explains. “These artists really impressed me.” After marrying his wife, Joni, who is from Philadelphia, Highsmith began spending more time observing the muted landscapes of Andrew Wyeth. “I would go to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford and study his paintings,” he says. “I would put my nose right up to the glass and just look at how they were done.” Early in his career, Highsmith discovered that people often compared his work to Wyeth’s. “When you do rural landscapes in earth tones, that’s the comparison you’re going to get,” he says.

Highsmith spent most of his youth in Anchorage, AK, where he began drawing as a young child. “I entered an art contest in grade school and won an award,” he remembers. “Talent was encouraged in my house,” he adds. “My dad didn’t ever think I would pursue a career in the army.” Highsmith carried his artistic interests into high school, where a teacher who recognized his talent entered some of his watercolors in an international art show. “In high school, I already knew I would be going to art college,” he says.

After graduation, Highsmith studied art at both New Mexico State University and Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, FL. “In one landscape class in Sarasota, we’d get on the landscape bus every morning and go someplace and paint,” he recalls. “I was working en plein air every day. It was my favorite class.” The teacher, Moe Mitchell, became a mentor to Highsmith and was the first to tell the young artist he needed to use a higher-grade paper, better brushes, and higher-quality paints. “As soon as I put that first stroke on the new paper, it was—wow!” says Highsmith. And he has never looked back.

After Florida, Highsmith lived in northwestern Connecticut for 13 years and then in Hilton Head, SC, for 10 more. In Connecticut his subject matter became the “cattle, sheep, and stone walls” of that area, whereas in South Carolina he painted the marshes and coastal scenes of the Low Country. “I consider myself a regional painter. Where I am, I paint,” he states. “But I always felt homesickness for New Mexico. I still wanted to come back and paint the Southwest,” says the artist, who finally returned to Las Cruces in 2003.

Highsmith maintains a studio in his home and says he tries to go to the studio every day. “I take some weekends off,” he notes. “I don’t like to punch a time clock.” He also spends a lot of time visiting the landscapes he paints, adding to their undeniable sense of place. “I don’t really consider it working when I’m out in the field,” he says. “I don’t want it to feel like work.”

Inspiration can strike at odd times for Highsmith. His piece DISTANT RAIN, for example, was born during a road trip he took with his sister, driving from the Pacific Northwest to New Mexico. When the two became lost somewhere near Moab, UT, Highsmith found himself on a back road with a rainstorm brewing in the distance. “That’s what the scene depicts—a beautiful spot, the mesas, and the mountains,” he explains, “and it looked like it might rain at any moment.” Highsmith stopped and took a number of photographs; the final painting is actually a composite of those pictures.

Another piece, the stately VIEW OF SPIDER ROCK, offers a bird’s-eye view of a well-known rock formation in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument. “I’m up about 900 feet and looking down,” Highsmith points out. To achieve this vertigo-inducing angle, and to create a sense of scale, Highsmith added vegetation and a faint path, minute in detail, onto the canyon floor. This watercolor also provides an excellent example of Highsmith’s painterly technique: the large dark rock wall to the right is heavy with paint, indicating its many vertical cracks and crevices, whereas the mesas to the left are a horizontal study in strata, achieved with a large fan brush dragged across the paper. Mountains in the background dissolve into layers of soft blue in the strong morning light.

A signature member of the American Watercolor Society, Highsmith has received more than 100 awards for his paintings. His work appears in numerous corporate and private collections in both the United States and abroad. Highsmith hopes that viewers will recognize the deep affection he feels for the places he paints. “My paintings are like a little snapshot of my life—of things that are important to me,” he says. “It’s that love of a landscape that I hope to convey to others.”

Featured in March 2009