R.S. Riddick | Pioneer Spirit


By Norman Koplas

Dark clouds glower in the sky as two braves ride headlong into battle. Dots of white paint decorate their torsos, representing a hailstorm. Red paint encircles the horses’ eyes, emphasizing a mystical bond between the vision of the men and their steeds. R.S. Riddick’s PRAIRIE STORM COMING captures a scene in a way that would please any lover of western paintings, with details of riders, horses, and weapons meticulously portrayed. Yet something fresh, even contemporary, stirs in the oil painting: the almost cinematic cropping of the foreground brave and horse, the near-expressionist representation of land and sky in richly saturated brush strokes.

That combination of classic discipline and contemporary passion informs all of Riddick’s works. Take ONE LAST CUP, for example, a nearly life-size oil of a present-day cowboy enjoying a quiet moment before starting work. Bridle, headstall, reins, short chinks, tall boots, and spurs are all perfectly portrayed. Likewise, the Australian shepherd at the cowboy’s feet and the horse grazing nearby seem ready to step off the canvas. And the sense of reality feels all the stronger for the almost gauzy backdrop of grasses and trees.

“Exaggerate the essential and make the obvious vague,” says Riddick with a convincing mock-Russian accent, repeating valuable advice he received almost 35 years ago from the great painter Sergei Bongart, whom Riddick credits as the mentor that transformed his then-budding career. Indeed, those words aptly sum up not only a key aspect of Riddick’s approach to painting, but also his approach to life: delving deeply into the spirit of the West and realist art while leaving behind the nonessential.


Ronald Stephen Riddick was born in 1952 into a different sort of American West: booming postwar Los Angeles. He grew up near the UCLA campus, captained the gymnastics team at University High School, and hung out at the beach as a Santa Monica lifeguard. Despite the powerful allure of water, sand, and sunshine, young Ron also felt the calling of his future passions for art and the West. His father worked as an art director at Prudential Insurance, headquartered on Wilshire Boulevard, a stroll away from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I was introduced to fine art as a young boy, and I grew up around my dad’s commercial art, too,” Riddick recalls. “We had books at home about classical art, and I would flip those big pages and look at paintings by John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri, Thomas Hart Benton, and George Bellows. In the summers, I’d go to my dad’s office around lunchtime, and we’d walk to the museum.”

Riddick’s own talent soon emerged. “All through school, I’d draw woody station wagons on t-shirts, make posters for my cheerleader girlfriend, and be the artist on the yearbook committee,” he says. While still in high school, he started taking night classes at the respected Art Center College of Design, where he also continued after high school.

Riddick launched his professional career seeking illustration work and found that “people I showed my portfolio to would often want to buy a sketch, a drawing, or one of my paintings,” he recalls. Eventually, he began producing limited-edition etchings on popular subjects, such as boats and harbors, animals, florals, and prophets of the Old Testament. “I was making a living at my art,” he recalls.

But Riddick sensed that there was more to art than just making a living. With that feeling gnawing at him, in 1974 he ran into a friend from the Art Center, painter Daniel Pinkham. “Dan said, ‘I’m studying with a Russian,’ and I asked, ‘What does that mean?’” says Riddick. He soon learned the answer.

Pinkham introduced Riddick to Russian painter Bongart, who had settled in the Santa Monica studio previously occupied by his equally acclaimed countryman, Nicolai Fechin. Riddick took workshops with Bongart both in California and at his Idaho studio. “Sergei taught me the discipline to start from scratch and keep on scratching,” he says. Perhaps even more important than classical techniques, the young artist learned a life lesson from Bongart. “Being an artist is painting the things that make your passion boil.  It’s about capturing poetry in nature, evoking memories of your past, recording moments in life and history that are transient,” says Riddick. “And that realization changed me.”

The pathway for his artistic passion already existed. “I grew up with the mystique of the West from watching westerns on TV,” he says. “My mom’s oldest brother was a rancher, originally in Northern California and then near Boise, Idaho, where we would visit him. Being on the ranch was like the missing piece of the puzzle. It made me feel alive.”

Soon after studying with Bongart, Riddick took a trip to Sedona, AZ, that had a major impact. “The color and light and beauty of the place blew me away,” he says. In 1978, he moved to Arizona on a part-time basis, then moved there for good in 1983 after meeting his wife, Natalie. “A stimulating environment creates stimulating art, and for me, moving to Arizona was the best and smartest thing I could do. I traded the horizon of the ocean for the vast backdrop of mountains, sunshine, and clear skies.”

Based in the Tucson area, he and Natalie began traveling the West, as well as taking trips to Italy, Austria, Spain, Germany, France, and Portugal. “I saw in the great master paintings of Europe the same lessons that Sergei taught,” he notes.

With emotional and organizational support from Natalie (support so all-encompassing that he often uses the word “we” when discussing his career), Riddick began to paint the West of past and present with a masterful flair and a passion that has won him many accolades. In 1997 he was made a member of the Cowboy Artists of America and has won several gold and silver medals at the CAA’s annual show. Among other honors and prizes, he received the Frederic Remington Award for exceptional artistic merit and the Buyers’ Choice Award for most popular work of art at the 2000 Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Riddick is enthusiastic about his entry for this year’s Prix de West, which takes place the weekend of June 13-14. Although he’s also realistic about the odds of winning awards with LAKOTA SWEETWATER DAWN. “There’ll be well over 300 works of art in the show, so it’s a roll of the dice,” he chuckles. “You just do your best work and put it out there.”

The painting, portraying a trio of Native women gathering water from Wyoming’s Sweetwater River, counts among his best. The 64-by-40-inch canvas emanates a sense of profound serenity, heightened by a backdrop of snow-dusted peaks portending winter. Riddick himself sums it up in words as forthright as his talent: “The simple poetry of a daily chore.”

Simple, perhaps, but to create the work, Riddick followed a painstaking process he uses for each of the 12 to 15 major paintings he completes every year. He clad his models in authentic replicas of Lakota elk-hide dresses, part of a huge stockpile of Indian and cowboy clothing and paraphernalia he keeps. He also maintains a large reference library in the front room of his 2,300-square-foot studio in a Tucson commercial building he and Natalie own. They drove the women to pose beside a rain-swollen wash near the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch in the foothills of Arizona’s Rincon and Catalina ranges. Riddick’s sketches and digital photos, combined with on-site reference works from the painting’s Wyoming setting, coalesced into the final composition, which he laid down in charcoal on a Belgian linen canvas he had stretched and primed himself, before completing the final work in oils.

All of that effort is accompanied by music ranging from classical to jazz to soundtracks from western movies. Music helps make the process as pleasurable as possible, despite the fact that it’s hard, relentless work. “People have this concept that art is just play, and a lot of young artists look for the fast-track method,” says Riddick. “But unless you have a passion for the journey and the process, you don’t belong.”

He has come to liken his own level of commitment to that of western trailblazers. “There are pioneers and there are settlers,” Riddick explains. ‘Settlers have to get a house, put a fence around it, and sit there with a gun to protect it. The pioneer wants to see what’s over the next mountain. Natalie and I are pioneers.”

That pioneering spirit is leading the couple to chart the next adventure in their lives. They plan to sell the studio and “move north to country where we can see more seasons, have a few horses out back, maybe some chickens for fresh eggs, and a big area for our Australian shepherds to run and play,” says Riddick. “Your art is supposed to come out of your life. You’ve got to live it and breathe it.” In other words, R.S. Riddick aims yet again to “exaggerate the essential” in his life as an artist.

Featured in April 1998