Bruce Cheever | In Search of Gold

By Virginia Campbell

Many of the first non-Native Americans to gaze on the majestic mountains of the West were intent on discovering gold. A century later, landscape painters who ventured into the western wilderness for first-hand views of its natural wonders were in search of golden light to capture on canvas. When Utah landscape painter Bruce Cheever visits the many national parks and forests he has known since childhood, he, too, is seeking gold—the Golden Mean.

The Golden Mean is a mathematical ratio that describes proportional relationships. It is key to the strength of Cheever’s compositions, and his use of it is one of the reasons he can paint landscapes with a great deal of complexity and never lose control of the overall coherence. It is this artistic equation, for example, that leads the viewer’s eye along a cottonwood-lined stream and into a sun-bathed canyon in INFINITE LIGHT, ZION SENTINELS, a piece depicting the transcendent quality of light in Zion National Park.

The Golden Mean holds that when there are two quantities, one larger than the other, the ratio of the larger to the smaller is equal to the ratio of both of them to the larger one. For example, a three-foot pole is in the same proportion to a two-foot pole as a five-foot pole (the sum of the larger and smaller poles) is to a three-foot pole (the larger pole).

The existence of the Golden Mean would be just another delight to mathematicians seeking ultimate order in the universe if philosophers, naturalists, architects, artists, and others had not started finding examples of the formula throughout the natural world. It has been found in the spacing of branches and leaves and even in the veins of leaves.

The concept of the Golden Mean has been known since the Classical era. The Parthenon is often cited as an example of how it has been used in architecture to achieve the highest aesthetic effect. Renaissance art is full of examples. It could be argued, of course, that in many artistic creations, such pleasing relationships may be merely the result of an innate good sense of proportion rather than any strict application of a mathematical principle. But that just adds to the notion that human perception is tuned to the inherent structure of the visual world, and the Golden Mean is pervasive evidence of that structure. Artists throughout the ages have believed that if you apply it in visual representations, you can create something that resonates with the human eye as genuine beauty. That is what Cheever sets out to do.

“When I am out in nature, I see the Golden Mean everywhere,” says the 51-year-old artist. Back in his studio, he starts with a large grid, carefully working out his composition using this concept of proportions. “It affects the spacing of things, where the horizon lies, and the layering of elements,” he explains.

On the spectrum of how precisely an artist calculates the placement of elements in a composition, Cheever skews to the extreme side of exactness. He has zero taste for setting up an easel outdoors and chasing the light with eyeballed approximations of balance and perspective. “I’m not after that,” Cheever says. “I sketch sometimes when I’m hiking, and I take some pictures, but mostly I’m just soaking it all in. I paint when I get back to my studio.” And it’s not surprising that he’d rather be in his studio, considering that it is situated at 6,500 feet with views of national forest and a 10,000-foot peak.

Cheever takes this highly technical approach to painting because it is the way his mind works. “When you are born with a mind that is always computing what you see in an artistic manner, you had better learn to use it to your advantage and recognize the wonderful gift that it is,” he says.

The son of a professor of drafting and architectural drawing, Cheever is the proverbial acorn that did not fall far from the tree. He started drawing so early that he doesn’t remember ever not doing it. He was his school’s art prodigy. “My teachers were blown away,” he says. At an age when many boys were crazy about playing with Legos, he became “obsessed with perspective.” In those early years, “it was the mechanical more than the painterly that interested me,” he recalls. He read book after book on the mathematical aspects of constructing visual images, and if he had any questions about how to do something, he could ask his dad.

By age 11 he was, thanks to his mother’s effort, taking painting classes and learning the aspects of picture making that are not mechanical, such as color and the application of paint. The entire process excited him, and he excelled at it. At Brigham Young University, Cheever majored in industrial art and design technology, looking forward to a career in commercial art. College also exposed him to a great deal of fine art and art history. “The painterly side of art opened up to me in college,” he says. With the encouragement of a professor, he ended up in the most artistic area of commercial art and became a professional illustrator.

Cheever married, and he and his wife raised four children. He made a good living as an illustrator, sometimes working on projects that had him painting the very landscapes he now paints on canvases. Like many commercial artists, he also pursued fine-art painting on his own time. He sent his work out to galleries and increasingly made headway in terms of representation, sales, and recognition. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that Cheever got to the point where he said, “I can’t split myself anymore.”

The transition proved smooth, and the income Cheever earns from his paintings has increased incrementally ever since. “In retrospect, I sometimes want to kick myself for not making the break earlier,” he says. “While much of my illustration work was undistinguishable from fine art, there were things I still needed to learn. I learned all I know about color theory from the older artists I worked with in illustration.”

Born and bred in Utah, Cheever prefers painting rural settings and natural areas, like the many national parks found throughout his home state. He spent a good part of his childhood hiking with his brothers, and there is hardly a national park he has not visited multiple times. “I’m a super fan of national parks,” he says, ranking Yellowstone and Zion at the top of his list. His deep appreciation for the outdoors is clearly what made landscape painting his inevitable focus. Even for all the puzzles of perspective and visual mechanics that cities present, they hold no interest for him. “If you’ve seen one city, you’ve seen them all,” he says. “Big cities bore me, except for the museums.”

That goes for Europe as well as America. When one of his sons worked in Switzerland for a while, Cheever visited and took the opportunity to paint the European landscape. The resulting pieces are all of rural areas, “the part of Europe tourists don’t see as much because they stick to cities.” Cheever’s Swiss landscapes—such as the moody BREAKING CLOUDS, FUSIO or the bucolic HIGH MEADOWS, GRINDELWALD—sell just as well as his American pictures, which is very well indeed.

When Cheever learned he had been invited to the 2010 Masters of the American West Exhibition and Sale at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, his first time in this prestigious show, he set out to paint the best paintings of his life. To do so, he went to the places that had spoken most eloquently to him over the years. The results are ambitious canvases of enormously confident technique and distinctive vision.

Cheever knows where to find gold in the landscape—it’s in perfect proportions, incredible depth and detail, luminescent color harmonies, and fine brushwork. The emotion in his paintings—along with all the exactness that goes into them, there is a great deal of emotion his works—is the reflection of his response to the world around him. “Even though they’re landscapes,” says Cheever, “they’re really self-portraits.”


Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ.
Featured in April 2010