Howard Rogers | In Defense of Beauty

BOUDOIR, OIL, 30 x 18.
BOUDOIR, OIL, 30 x 18.

By Stephen Rebello

Each day of Howard Rogers’ working life finds him drawing inspiration from the view outside the studio in his self-designed southwestern home, perched in a box canyon just north of Cave Creek, AZ. The studio was purposely constructed at 45-degree angles like an octagon and with an 8-by-8-foot panoramic window through which the artist can survey the high-desert terrain: craggy rock outcroppings, monumental boulders, piercing daybreaks and sunsets. But the true prize is the large watering hole just yards away. Rogers laughingly calls it his “puddle,” and it was created specifically to attract wildlife, some of the very creatures rendered with magisterial dignity in many of the western paintings that have won him three decades of acclaim. “Just about everything known to man comes and drinks from that puddle,” the artist says with delight. “Every night, a whole deer herd comes and drains it dry, then we fill it up again. We also get chipmunks, coyotes, rabbits, javelinas, even a rattlesnake. I just finished a painting of a coyote charging for the National Museum of Wildlife Art and the ‘charge’ happened right outside that window. We’re lucky because there aren’t many views left like this around anymore. I guess I’m a hopeless romantic, but I’ve always wanted to capture and celebrate beauty.”

His singular ability to do that has propelled him through a long, varied career into the current painting style he describes as “realism with a touch of impressionism.” Although he excels at paintings of wildlife, florals, and such figurals as nudes, plus bronze sculptures of women, it is his western paintings that have won Rogers the most renown. His depictions of the cowboy way, resplendent with such iconic imagery as riders moving out at dawn, cattle roundups, and horses and riders picking their way along precipitous trails, are punctuated with such hallmarks as a bravura use of color (with a particular flair for golden tones) and a complex interplay of translucency and density. Always, there is beauty and warmth. “I start out almost with a watercolor look, then build that up gradually to a point where certain areas of multiple layers of paint are contrasted with very transparent areas,” he explains. “I’m a firm believer in using a lot of color. I tend to use about 20 different colors on my palette.”


While Rogers’ artistic tenets are honed by 40 years of refinement, he keeps attuned to innovation. “I’ll pick up a new tube of paint, a color I’ve never tried before and occasionally, I’ll stick with that new color and add it to the palette,” he says. “That sounds small, but it’s very inspiring to me. For instance, I recently found Windsor Red, which I got from looking at Jim Reynolds’ paintings with those beautiful pink skies. I’m aware of all of the artists around me and Jim really knows how to put the paint down and leave it alone. Like everyone, I also admire Richard Schmid, who paints in a similar style to mine, but probably better.” After a self-deprecating laugh, he adds, “Because of my background, it took me a long time to arrive at a style of my own.”

Small wonder if it did, considering all that Rogers has done. Born in Medford, OR, the artist—now 71—grew up in San Diego, CA, as the only child of a cobbler and a department store clerk. “Although I grew up in what you’d have to call a poor environment, I had the full support of my parents whatever I wanted to do,” he remembers. “As a kid of 8 or 10, I used to draw cartoon figures and exotic automobiles. As a teenager, that developed into my drawings of calendar girls. I just loved the Varga and Petty girls, the girls drawn by Earl McPherson. What never changed is how much I always liked to draw horses. I used to do a lot of that when I’d spend summers in Oregon with my uncle who had a farm.” Upon graduating high school, Rogers landed a three-year apprenticeship as a sign painter, a job about which he recalls, laughing, “I thought that was as close to being an ‘artist’ as I’d ever be.”


Drafted into the army, Rogers returned home after completing his military service and, while running the sign department for a grocery store chain, tried out for the 1948, 1952, and 1956 Olympic cycling teams. The third time unfortunately was not the charm. He says, “I’d been fanatical about bicycle racing for 12 years, training 500 miles a week, which is why I waited to go to art school. I was in better shape than anyone else at the Olympic tryouts and should have made that team. You had to win 10 matches and I won nine. During the last match, a dead heat, my front wheel fell off and I went end-over-end over the finish line. It was a traumatic time. I stopped racing and never rode again.”

He now views the trauma as a blessing in disguise because, also in 1956, he was accepted into the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, and married Bonnie, who has been his life mate ever since. After graduating with distinction from the Art Center in 1960, Rogers relocated to Detroit, MI, where he embarked on a career as an illustrator. He says, “Right from the beginning as a figure painter, I dealt with beautiful girls and handsome guys around Detroit’s newest automobiles.” Ten years of such work drew the attention of New York art directors and, in 1970, Rogers and his wife moved to Connecticut, where he did illustrations for such prestigious national magazines as Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies’ Home Journal. “Invariably those illustrations also dealt with beautiful people and art directors would ask us to paint in the styles of many other artists,” he says. “That meant we had to be able to work in every possible style imaginable.” Rogers’ illustration work of the 1960s and ’70s can be seen as a perfect embodiment of the Camelot era: sleekly stylish, glamorously upscale, resolutely optimistic.


Such ease and grace with romantic figurative illustration landed him lucrative contracts for numerous book covers for Simon and Schuster’s line of paperback romances and for Harlequin romances. It also led to motion picture poster work, a field in which he joined such other renowned and prolific western painters as Howard Terpning and Reynold Brown. “I did a lot of movie posters, and probably the one most people are familiar with was for the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever,” Rogers recalls. “All of those Amazon-type women of every nationality on the poster, all over 6 feet tall, are really my wife Bonnie, who only stands 4-feet-11. Movie poster work paid very well, but it was heavily art-directed and the agencies for whom I did them could never agree on anything. I never had a warm spot for movie posters. In fact, I hated it.”

Financially secure but creatively stymied, in the ’70s Rogers began to creatively reclaim himself. As he remembers it, “The illustration world began to collapse and Howard Terpning, Bob Abbett, all of these artists who were good friends and who had the same agent, were going out west. When I said to Bonnie, ‘I don’t want to paint Indians and I’m not sure I want to do western paintings, either,’ she said, ‘You need to paint people. That’s all you’ve ever done, all you’ve ever loved to paint.’”

Heeding his wife’s consul, Rogers within months found representation with the May Gallery in Wyoming and discovered intense personal satisfaction in the western milieu. His first six such oil paintings sold immediately, which encouraged him to wed his new interests with his old skills. “I wanted to paint women,” he says. “Lots of artists do that now, but, in 1979, Dan May had never had an artist ask to do that.” His female subjects are, invariably, poised, contemplative, elegant, and ravishingly sexy. “I set out to glamorize women,” he acknowledges. “I like to paint women who look wistful, as if they are thinking of something very private. I have certain ideals when it comes to portraying them. I almost always slim their faces, lengthen their necks, and make the most of their eyes, which are everything in a face.” In many ways, he appears to be painting the same elegantly sensual beauty again and again.

Does she exist or is she an idealized phantom? “When I was doing illustration work in New York, I had two very good models I used a lot because we just had a real rapport,” he responds. “They had the look, the movements, they just knew how to use their hands in a very feminine, graceful way. You’d be surprised how klutzy even beautiful women can be once you ask them to pose. Although today I use only real women—waitresses, friends, seldom mannequins—those two New York girls I sort of pattern almost everything from.”


If, for some, 71 might be an age at which parameters get narrowed, it isn’t so for Rogers. He recently bought a Nikon digital camera, which he takes on roundups in Montana and everywhere else (“it’s an enormous help and stimulation”) and his computer is loaded with the music he likes to play while working (“which means a lot of Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams”). It’s with considerable satisfaction that he can say, “Every painting I do, I do for myself. My philosophy of life and art is simple: Be happy. If I get in six productive hours of work a day, I’m doing really well. I refuse to work past five, which is a routine I got into very early and it’s stuck with me. Also, 22 years ago, I had a heart problem where I thought I might die. I just said after that, anything that makes my wife and I happy, I’m going to do. Being happy is the only thing that’s worthwhile in life. What makes me happy is to work and to play golf.”

Rogers is represented by Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; New Masters Gallery, Carmel, CA; Settlers West Gallery, Tucson, AZ; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; and Ponderosa Art Gallery, Hamilton, MT.

Featured in October 2003