By Dottie Indyke
Andrew Peters takes his artistic talent on location in the Southwest and around the world
Growing up in Council Bluffs, IA, artist Andrew Peters could barely be lured indoors. He and his brothers explored vast areas of timber and woodland, sometimes wandering 4 or 5 miles from home. Peters studied birds and ducks with his trusty binoculars. It seemed the boys were always soggy from wading, fishing, and canoeing. Once Peters fell through the ice; once he accidentally wandered into a camp of homeless men who rode the railroad box cars. Through these experiences he learned to take care of himself in the wilderness. And he learned that he loved nature and the land more than anything else.
Today, at 48, Peters has lost little of his childhood passion. He and his wife, Dawn, who is also an artist, often pack their gear onto their horses and head into the Rocky Mountains to paint glaciers and alpine lakes. Over the years, Peters has lived all over the Southwest—Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming—and he has never run out of places to paint.
“For 20 years I’ve been leaving home to seek inspiration on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s my commute. I have my equipment, and I go and seek a certain type of beauty. I’ve learned to find beauty anywhere. And the creation of a painting is about as intimate an experience as you can have of a place.”
As a kid fascinated with wildlife, Peters drew constantly. His bedroom walls were covered in John James Audubon’s watercolors of birds, and when it came time to choose a career, he opted for wildlife biology.
Art was briefly considered but quickly rejected. “There was a lot of wacky stuff going on in the art institutes of the United States in the 1970s,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d be able to make it as an artist.”
By day Peters studied science at Iowa State University; by night he drew and painted. He and an art instructor devised a curriculum to address his strengths and weaknesses, and Peters worked to improve his eye for composition. He’d draw from life and then bring his work back for critique. The result of this period of great artistic growth was the prestigious Iowa Duck Stamp award, which Peters won at age 22.
“Duck hunters have to buy a stamp to validate them as legal hunters,” he explains. “The stamps usually have beautiful designs. The competition is held in every state, and there’s also a federal stamp. Each entry is a small original painting. In my case, it was 6 by 9 1/2 inches. It was selected out of a field of 66 entries—that was an incredible honor. It launched my freelance career.”
Through his 20s and 30s, Peters painted wildlife and figures and traveled extensively in Africa and Latin America. He wrote articles on wildlife and created paintings to accompany the text. He became enamored of the Taos painters, particularly E. Martin Hennings’ lyrical portraits and landscapes, and in 1985 he moved to Santa Fe to study and paint. For over a decade he worked on location in New Mexico and the Four Corners area, gradually—awkwardly—transforming himself from a wildlife painter to a landscape painter.
“A wildlife painting relies too heavily on a memory of what was. The landscape is right there in front of you long after the wildlife is gone,” Peters says, explaining his transition. “It’s almost impossible to mix the right color every time when you can look at it, never mind when you can’t. I didn’t want to be indoors, and I didn’t want to paint from photographs.”
By 1990 Peters was enjoying regular sold-out shows at his Santa Fe gallery and was well on his way to becoming a successful painter. He credits, in part, the development of his own techniques for making his landscape paintings come alive: Standing next to his canvas is a vertical palette (what he calls his “heads-up” palette) made of the same material as the painting surface, whether it be board or canvas. With both hands free, he can stand and move around when he paints. And Peters uses only nine colors: warm and cool versions of red, yellow, green, and blue, plus titanium white. With this severely restricted selection, he can create millions of hues, including a wide variety of grays that are essential to any painting.
“I think it’s important to keep life as simple as possible. With literally $10 worth of tools and materials, I can create something that has intrinsic, long-term value,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of a painting comes from inside me. There are very few other articles available in commerce that are so much a product of an individual’s creativity.”
Peters waited until his late 40s to get married because most of his life has been consumed with art. “I took very seriously the passion of becoming a painter,” he says. “I knew it had to be my life. I’ve never been anti-social, but when it was time to retreat to the wilderness, for however long, I wanted to be sure nothing would interfere with that. It was terribly selfish, but artists are selfish. We have to be single-minded in pursuing our goals.”
Now, in a new phase of his life, Peters says he has finally found a partner who shares his preoccupation with art, his spirit of adventure, and his keen eye for the world around him. Last year, he and Dawn honeymooned in Venice, Italy. For a month they explored the city, roaming the tiny, meandering streets in search of art, people, and culture. Many mornings he would paint on location—the only way he knows to translate the feel of a place onto canvas.
He was especially attracted to the Byzantine architecture, the Eastern- and Mediterranean-influenced domes and windows, and the rich textures of a city that has endured for thousands of years. After traveling the world, from Peru to Zambia to Romania, Peters had saved Venice—to him, the most ancient and romantic city in the world—for a time when he could share it with someone he loved. And Venice didn’t disappoint. He describes it as a place that “a camera can’t capture and only the human mind can comprehend.”
After he returned to his home in Arizona, the 16 paintings he made in Venice (no doubt there would have been more had he not been limited by his carrying equipment) inspired larger (continued on page 129) works. Many of them will be on view this month in a show at Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale, AZ.
Any landscape painter will tell you that his or her prime task is memorializing place. And Peters has a feel for the places he chooses to paint that stems from his background in science, his fervor for the outdoors, and his ability to observe light. He sees things—especially in the Southwest—and can translate them to canvas in ways that move viewers. “I’ve developed a great working knowledge of the land forms and light in the Southwest,” he says. “There’s no other place in the world that has such an extraordinary variety of beautiful wilderness and light.”
But Peters also roots out beauty in far-flung places. In Romania, for example, he sought out peasant architecture that he’d heard was in danger of being lost. He found “homes that are hand-made and hand-maintained and so organic with wood, stucco, and thatch that they’re an outgrowth of the land itself,” he says. When he happens upon an icy stream in the shadows of a mountain or a lush pine forest blanketed by snow, his romance with place begins.
And lately he’s come full circle, including wildlife among his landscapes for the first time in many years. “It would be nice to make paintings that are bold and fresh and have wildlife in them as well,” he muses. “That would be the best of both worlds.”
Peters is represented by Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY, and Anderson/O’Brien Fine Art Gallery, Omaha, NE.
Featured in March 2002