Darcie Peet | Exclamation Points


By Norman Koplas

Regard one of Darcie Peet’s landscapes of the Rocky Mountains or the desert Southwest and you may find exclamations like “ooh!” or “ah!” escaping from your lips. You almost feel as if you’ve actually happened upon these scenes in nature.

Peet’s canvases elicit these involuntary sounds of pleasure for so many reasons. The scenes themselves are iconic in their depiction of peaks, glades, meadows, and rugged escarpments. The lighting offers dynamic interplays of sunshine and shadow, conjuring the feeling of serenity you feel so often at dawn or dusk. The colors are lushly saturated yet realistic, as if distilling what the eye naturally sees. And the lively brush strokes convey a sense not only of nature’s movement, through the rustling of grasses or the rush of clouds across the sky, but also of the inner surge of emotions such vistas evoke.

In short, these paintings are undeniably products of passion, and in Peet’s case that statement holds doubly true. For, as far back as she can remember, two great passions—art and the American West—have driven her towards her destiny as a highly respected painter of plein-air and studio landscapes.

“My eyes have never been wider than when I opened my first box of 72 Crayola crayons at the age of 3,” Peet recalls of her earliest artistic memory. “I dumped them out on the back porch of our home in Oak Park, Illinois, and was convinced I was going to create a masterpiece.” Though the skills to make that goal a reality were in shorter supply than color choices for the preschooler, she grew up fortunate to have her talent nurtured. Her mom exposed her and her siblings to art museums, while her dad instilled in Darcie a strong sense of self-sufficiency and a love of using tools to make things. Books on the paintings of Charles Russell and Frederic Remington riveted the youngster’s attention.

The family moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where Darcie’s elementary school teachers recognized the budding artist and channeled her into after-school art classes that had her working in oils by the fifth grade. Advanced art classes in middle school introduced her to blind-contour drawing, during which she learned to capture an image in a continuous line without ever lifting pen from paper or looking away from the subject. “Many of my drawing techniques today,” she says, “go back to those early years.”


As her artistic skills grew, so did her love for the West. Young Darcie had her first taste of the region at the age of 6 on a family vacation to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. “I’ll never forget the thrill of those grand peaks, sweeping vistas, and even snow-sliding in the middle of the summer,” she says. Another trip exposed her to the splendor of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. On both trips, she seized the opportunity to ride, a childhood love that inspired her to cover every inch of her bedroom walls with her drawings and photos of horses.

Her course for college was set: Darcie headed west to major in art at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. She spent her first two years there immersing herself in foundational courses, learning to observe, draw, and paint like a professional. The next two years saw her doing experimental studio work, mostly in abstract art. “I don’t ever remember doing a landscape in all my college years,” she says, “and plein-air painting was just a few sentences in my art history book.” Nonetheless, she regards that studio work as valuable. “Abstraction was a tremendous learning experience in working with paint and large brushes and in the raw bones of color, line, shape, mass, form, and texture.”

Equally immersed in the West as she was in her art, Darcie couldn’t bring herself to head home to Pittsburgh during summer breaks. Instead, she worked as a counselor and wrangler at a nearby camp, along with one summer at a Wyoming dude ranch. She spent her spare time riding, hiking, camping, and even climbing some of Colorado’s “14ers,” peaks in excess of 14,000 feet above sea level.

Fresh out of college in 1968, she went to work for two years as an art teacher in a school district north of Boulder, beginning more than three decades of what she describes as her “multifaceted teaching and business career.” Employment as a graphic designer and a corporate ad manager gave way in the mid-1980s to earning a master’s degree in interior design from the University of Colorado. This led to serving as the design director for lodging properties that she and her husband, Barrney Peet, co-owned and managed out of Grand Marais, MN.

Though she’d painted landscapes and enjoyed forays into plein-air painting through the years, Peet was drawn to it more and more by the pristine wilderness surrounding her home near Lake Superior. She painted large scenes for the lobbies of their properties and eventually built up a collection of more than 30 paintings for a gallery show. And slowly, surely, she began to realize that the time had come to devote herself wholeheartedly to her twin passions for art and the West. “I had lost my mother to cancer suddenly when she was 65,” states Peet matter-of-factly. “And I began to realize we only have so many years. About 10 years ago, I decided I was going to live my life doing what I love to do, building on my personal journey with art and my love of the West.”

Now devoted fulltime to painting western landscapes, Peet and her husband live eight months a year in their home in Tucson, AZ, where she has an extensive space dedicated to her work, complete with an office, an open-air courtyard, a shipping and storage area, and a 435-square-foot studio flooded with light from north- and east-facing windows. Here she keeps paintings in progress on three separate easels, and devotes one corner to the beloved memories evoked by her saddle and chaps, prints of horses, a fine art print by Donna Howell-Sickles, and a painting by Colorado artist Duke Beardsley of a roping cowboy “bursting out of the canvas,” she says. The rest of the year, from June through September, the couple lives in a condo they own at Copper Mountain, CO, and rent out during ski season. “It’s more makeshift there, but I take the largest room, a loft studio, and move out all the furniture.”

Whether in Arizona or Colorado, Peet, now 62, spends as much time as possible outdoors. “I love searching and scouting for my subjects,” she says. “I love the thrill of exploration and discovery, looking for those scenes where I say ‘ooh!’ and ‘ah!’ and ‘That’s it. That’s my painting!’” Depending on the time of day and conditions of the terrain and weather, she may set up a small canvas and paint right on the spot, or she may do quick sketches and snap some reference photos. “Whatever the painting,” she continues, “I’ve been there, seen it, smelled that fresh air. Back in my studio, I still aim for the fluidity and effortlessness of a plein-air painting. My goal is to share that mood, that reverence, that intense sense of place.”

One glance at a painting like SHIFTING SEASONS confirms how surely Peet has achieved that goal. Done in June of last year, it depicts Mayflower Gulch just off Fremont Pass high in the Rockies, “one valley over” from the artist’s Colorado home. “It was just before dusk,” she says, “and the snow was turning pink and lavender and blue, and the shadows were long and gorgeous.” Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX, selected the canvas for this year’s prestigious Salon International show and sale.

That same honor was bestowed in 2006 on Peet’s TRAIL INTO DUSK, a landscape of Pusch Ridge in the Santa Catalina Mountains “just a hop, skip, and a jump from where I live in Tucson. Dusk there turns things rich oranges and golds, and those big shadows come creeping over the cliffs,” she says in a voice still spellbound by the images. Indeed, the powerful spell cast by the painting, and the virtuosity with which it was executed, led to its purchase by the Pearce Western Art Collection in Corsicana, TX. “It hangs there with works by Howard Terpning and other greats,” Peet adds, barely able to believe she now stands among such illustrious company.

Today Peet is proudly yet humbly enjoying her status as a signature member of the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters and an associate member of the Oil Painters of America. “I love what I’m doing now, and I’m going to continue to do what I love,” she says. “I may never have that perfect painting, but I’m always growing and learning and changing and doing my best.”

Featured in July 2008