Ramon Kelley | Lasting Impressions

By Joy Waldron

Painter Ramon Kelley was first profiled in Southwest Art in 1973. Just 34 years old at the time, Kelley had experienced early success, joining a Taos, NM, gallery in 1965 and earning national recognition in 1971 when he received an award from the American Watercolor Society.

Despite his youth, Kelley lacked neither confidence nor candor. “Some artists feel you have to be inspired to paint,” he said in the profile. “That’s the biggest lie I ever heard. You have to discipline yourself to paint.” As for artistic influences, he cited Russian painter Nicolai Fechin [1881-1955]—to whom his work owes an obvious debt—but emphasized that such influences are part of every artist’s growth. “You have to be influenced to learn,” he said.

Twenty-five years later, on a winter’s day in Denver, CO, Kelley held forth from his kitchen. Joy Waldron found him as forthright as ever.

Sea Shells [1997], pastel, 12 x 16.,painting, Southwest Art.
Sea Shells [1997], pastel, 12 x 16.

SWA: You’re best-known for painting the figure. How did you get started?

Kelley: After four years in the Navy, I got a scholarship to the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver. Its primary purpose was to train you in the advertising field, but—and this is the fun thing—they had a life-drawing class every Wednesday night. The teacher was Charlie Dye, a western oil painter and illustrator out of New York City, who several years later became a founding member of the Cowboy Artists of America.

SWA: So you took to figure painting?

Kelley: I loved it, but in those days my figures were so bad they looked like giraffes. Still, I was determined to learn how to draw the figure. I’d been interested in art for as long as I could remember. I copied cartoons from comic books as a kid, and later in the Navy I did pastel portraits of my buddies’ wives and girlfriends. I thought it was great when people referred to me as “Ramon the artist”—I had a title.

SWA: When did you begin painting nudes?

Kelley: That first day in life-drawing class. The models were nude, and at first it was embarrassing for me to look at a naked figure and try to draw it. But I found that when you’re struggling to make the painting right, you focus on your work and not the model.

The Wedding Dress [1990], pastel, 25 x 19.,painting, Southwest Art.
The Wedding Dress [1990], pastel, 25 x 19.

SWA: What else did you learn at the Colorado Institute of Art?

Kelley: Advertising art was a really good field for me because it taught me how to work with clients. Most fine-art painters aren’t disciplined about the business side of their careers—they just paint when they feel the urge. But in advertising, you’re working for a client, and if they want a layout of children playing in the park by tomorrow morning at 9:00, you’d better have it ready or you’re out the door. Whether it’s commercial art or fine art, you still work with a client. Some artists don’t want to accept that, but it’s true.

SWA: What did you do after art school?

Kelley: Well, my wife Mona and I were living in Denver. I had a studio in the living room of our apartment, and I was playing at being an artist while my wife worked. Then she became pregnant and had to stay home. After the birth of our first son, Mona said I had to get a real job. So I started working as a commercial artist, doing paste-up on catalogs, but I kept painting at night. We made a deal that if I made more money on the fine-art side I could quit my day job.

SWA: Obviously that day came. How did it happen?

Kelley: I took a painting and several charcoal drawings to Jane Hyatt’s Village Gallery in Taos, NM. They handled the work of Joseph Sharp, Victor Higgins, Nicolai Fechin, several other members of the Taos Art School, and occasionally Remington or Russell. It took a while to get an audience with Jane, but when she finally looked at my work, she said, “Look at this—he out-Fechin’s Fechin!” For a young upstart that was incredible praise, and that alliance with Jane launched my career.

SWA: Today when you talk about painting you stress the need to make an impact. What do you mean by that?

Kelley: If you run an ad in a magazine for toothpaste and it’s too subtle, nobody will buy the product. You need to add a little spontaneity and pizzazz. I remember reading an article about Leon Gaspard that discussed how he painted the force of movement across the canvas in his figurative paintings. So I think of impact and spontaneity as coming from movement as well as composition and color. That’s what makes something original.

Sarah [1997], pastel, 19 x 113⁄4.,painting, Southwest Art.
Sarah [1997], pastel, 19 x 113⁄4.

SWA: So originality doesn’t come just from subject matter?

Kelley: Damn subject matter! If you paint only one subject, it’s normal to become redundant. Originality is a different look that has to do with attitude. John Singer Sargent said that a painter should “paint the attitude” of a figure. That’s how you create an impact.

SWA: Is it harder to be true to the figure than to the landscape?

Kelley: Absolutely. If you paint landscapes you can move a tree to improve the composition, but in a figure you can’t play with the anatomy. It has to be right.

SWA: What appeals to you about painting nudes?

Kelley: The majority of my nudes are female, and there’s no more beautiful landscape in the world than that of the female figure. Although in school they teach you to paint the ideal figure, I’ve never met a model who was perfect. Whether the model is 98 pounds or 340 pounds, it’s the way you paint them that matters. Remember that most artists paint nudes at one time or another. I’ve stayed with them because I’m good at it. We all have our niches—I can’t paint the horse as well as Howard Terpning.

SWA: What’s the hardest thing about being an artist?

Kelley: The hardest part is the business side—the correspondence, the interviews. I’m a typical artist, and I like to go into the studio and paint. But you’ve got to sell what you paint. Art is an addiction, but I have to stop and focus on the business side so that I can make money and go paint again.

SWA: Are you comfortable promoting yourself?

Flower Market [1997], oil, 16 x 20.,painting, Southwest Art.
Flower Market [1997], oil, 16 x 20.

Kelley: I believe in self-promotion. An art student of mine and I had a show together once, and a gentleman asked him if he was any good as a painter. The student said, “I don’t know,” to which the man replied, “Well, if you don’t know, how will anyone else?” So whenever anyone asks me that question, I say, “You bet I am! I’m damn good.”

SWA: What’s important to you at this point in your career?

Kelley: Helping other artists through workshops and increasing appreciation of figure painting. I want to stress the importance of the figure in art. Back when great American artists such as Sargent were painting, we had art schools teaching the essentials—drawing, anatomy, composition, and color. But we gradually lost that emphasis; therefore, you don’t see many really good figure painters today. I feel blessed that I worked on learning to draw and paint the figure from the very beginning.

SWA: And the best thing about painting figures?

Kelley: Life in the studio! I can paint costumed figures or nudes, and I don’t have to be working outside fending off flies and barking dogs the way landscape painters do. The best thing about art, though, is simply doing it. If you’re lucky, one day you’ll sell a lot of paintings and make a name for yourself. But the biggest reward you’ll ever receive is the feeling you have when you finish a good painting.

Blue & Brass [1997], pastel, 121⁄4 x 19.,painting, Southwest Art.
Blue & Brass [1997], pastel, 121⁄4 x

Photos courtesy the artist and Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Ann Hughes Fine Art, Dallas, TX; Huntsman Gallery of Fine Art, Aspen, CO; Howard Portnoy Gallerie, Carmel, CA; and Rollins Gallery, Edwards Village, CO.

Featured in May 1998