Robert Pummill | Imagining the Past

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Please don’t call Robert Pummill a romantic. Yes, it’s true that the 74-year-old painter is happy to talk about his fascination with stagecoaches and cattle drives and the broad theme of westward movement across the United States. Last year he even built a meticulously precise, one-eighth-scale model of the 19th-century Concord stagecoach. Working with a set of plans—not a kit—he constructed all the parts himself from authentic materials, right down to the miniature calf-hide strapping for the Concord’s famed, easy-riding suspension.

Still, it’s not as if Pummill went through boyhood and early adult life with a powerful yearning to become a western artist. Instead, his career took shape over time, building on itself until he eventually settled into the genre for which he has become known. “It was all an evolution. I don’t know that there were any lightning strikes,” he relates in his straightforward, amiable manner.

Pummill is sitting at the kitchen table in the Kerrville, TX, home where he and his wife, Shirley, have lived since the early 1980s. Set on an acre of land overlooking the Hill Country town, the house has views of live oaks, red oaks, and ubiquitous white-tailed deer. The studio is part of the house and is not, as Pummill wryly puts it, a “show studio.” There’s no massive stone fireplace, no walls covered with wild animal heads or early western and American Indian artifacts. “It’s basically a working studio, a shop,” he smiles.

One reason Pummill doesn’t need to be surrounded by physical reminders of the Old West is that he has been painting western scenes for more than 40 years. And with an extensive library, he has access to all the research material he needs for accuracy and authenticity. Another major part of his artistic development can be traced to the many years he was employed as a conceptual illustrator. Working in the aeronautics field, for companies such as Vought Aircraft Industries in Dallas, Pummill would take an idea produced by the engineering department, add creativity and artistic talent, and come up with an accurate, attention-grabbing scene to illustrate it.

“I was working with concepts of aircraft that hadn’t even been built yet. I was taught to take the blueprints and create a storyline around them—a plane in combat, for instance,” he recalls. “To create a visual storyline you have to have a fairly vivid imagination and be able to put yourself in the scene.” In more recent years the artist has put that skill to use researching, envisioning, and depicting experiences such as that of a bone-tired stagecoach driver whose stage is slogging through rim-deep mud after days of rain.

Growing up in rural Ohio, Pummill didn’t dream of a career in illustration any more than he imagined a future as a fine-art painter. As a boy he was too busy working, helping out in his father’s restaurant, or doing laboring jobs on nearby farms. There were no professional artists around as role models to give him the notion that it was even possible to make a living with art.

But he did love to draw. And the only way he figured he could get better was to take lessons. With no art courses available locally, Pummill did what many other kids around the country were doing at the time: He sent off for mail-order lessons from the Famous Artists School, with instruction from Norman Rockwell and others. The lessons gave him what he needed to continue improving his drawing and painting skills. “Through the years I’ve realized that the fundamentals taught through the Famous Artists were as good as any art school,” he observes.

Pummill was never consumed with a passion for western history and cowboy and Indian tales, as many boys are. But an uncle of his worked as a horse trader, and young Bob subconsciously soaked up the look and smell of horses, saddles, and western gear. That memory, no doubt, became part of his imaginative toolbox in later years.

Following high school, Pummill spent nine years as an electronic technician in the Air Force. For two of those years he was stationed at Great Falls, MT, where he took in the distant vistas and wide-open spaces that would become the settings for many of his western scenes. His weekend painting repertoire at that point was a mixture of landscape, seascape, and portraiture. He had yet to think of fine art as a viable full-time career.

But he was hooked on drawing and painting, and when he left the Air Force he began working as a commercial illustrator. In Los Angeles, while employed by the aeronautics company TRW, Pummill signed up for classes at the Art Center College of Design. He wasn’t aiming for a degree; instead he dove right in to third-year courses, taking from the instruction what he felt he needed to advance his skills.

If there was a pivotal point on Pummill’s artistic path, it came in 1968, when he moved to Dallas for a job at Vought Aircraft Industries. That was about the time the western art scene was beginning to coalesce at places like the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Plus the expansive and varied Texas landscape began to get under the artist’s skin. Figures gradually emerged in his landscape paintings, and not surprisingly, they were doing Old West work, like riding stagecoaches or driving herds of long-horned cattle across dusty plains.

“At the time there were very few painters doing stagecoaches and cattle drives with multiple figures and animals,” he recalls. “But I enjoyed doing them, and through the years I became known for those kinds of things.”

Pummill sold his paintings at local and regional galleries and shows. In 1977, bolstered by a couple of successful solo exhibitions, he took the plunge and left commercial art. His imagery has expanded since then to include such subjects as Plains Indians, fur traders, and mountain men. In 1984 he was elected into the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America, and in 1995 his work earned a Gold Medal for watercolor at the group’s annual exhibition. He left the CAA in 2005, an emeritus member by then, over differences with decisions made by the organization’s management.

Today, while he occasionally works in watercolor or bronze sculpture, Pummill’s primary medium remains oils. He also has found himself circling back to a subject from his earlier years: “As I’ve grown older, I’ve been doing more landscape painting. I’d been neglecting it for a long time and decided to get back into it,” he explains. “It’s food for the soul.”

Yet western scenes, especially those involving working men and teams of people and animals on the move, remain a primary focus of his art. In his recent painting TEXAS TEAMWORK, a Concord stagecoach sits waiting at a stage stop as men switch out weary mules for a fresh team. Pummill placed the action close to home in the Texas Hill Country, where in the 1800s such activity would have been a familiar scene.

With the Guadalupe River running nearby, Kerrville and its surroundings are too lush and well watered to be called hardscrabble. But Pummill’s vivid imagination—combined with periodic road trips to all corners of the state—allowed him to envision the circumstances in HARDSCRABBLE, another recent piece. The title refers to land devoid of surface water, where tough, determined ranchers somehow scratched out a living. In the painting, an old rancher slowly drives his weathered wagon, doing the work that needs to be done.

When Pummill and his wife are not traveling around Texas or elsewhere in the West, the artist is at his easel seven days a week. He’s up early, works until lunch, and then is back in the studio until dark, sometimes moving between several paintings in progress. “I’ll be working on one and get an idea for another one,” he says. “That’s why I have three or four easels set up. That’s why the studio is a mess.”

But that’s not a complaint. Pummill, like countless other artists, could not envision a life in which he didn’t paint. Having too many ideas is not a problem, nor is there a chance he’ll run out. “I’m always looking for new stories and new ways to tell them. You know, you’ve got all the different landscapes in the West, from deserts to snowy mountain ranges. There must be a million ways to tell these stories,” he reflects. “It never gets boring or dull.”

InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Pitzer’s Fine Arts, Wimberley, TX; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ; Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; Wind River Gallery, Aspen, CO.

Pummill’s art is included in the forthcoming book, Texas Traditions, by Susan H. McGarry and Michael Duty (Fresco Fine Art Publications), scheduled to be released in August. Related exhibitions include: Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, August; InSight Gallery, October; and Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM, November.

Featured in April 2010