By Bonnie Gangelhoff
The scene is a soggy, muddy morning on the range. Puddles blanket the ground, and an outfit of rain-soaked cowboys in yellow slickers draw their horses to a chuckwagon. It’s time to sit back in the saddle, gulp coffee, and spin a few yarns.
The mood of R.S. Riddick’s painting The Muddy Arbuckle Cafe is warm and inviting, which is just how the Arizona artist perceives the ranching life. In fact, Riddick is so taken by such moments of camaraderie among cowboys that he occasionally paints himself into the scene. “I’m the second cowboy from the left, talking away,” he says with a good-natured laugh as he describes the Muddy Arbuckle coffee klatch.
After pausing for a moment to mention that Michelangelo and Norman Rockwell also painted themselves into their scenes, Riddick immediately returns to chatting about the details of western life. “Arbuckle coffee was the first brand to hit the Old West,” he explains. “There’s still an Arbuckle coffee company in Tucson.” While Riddick’s conversation slides easily back and forth across centuries of art and history, it becomes clear right away that while the old masters engage him, his heart is most at home on the range.
Since 1975 Riddick has been painting contemporary western scenes, capturing a vanishing America with a style he describes as a blend of realism and colorism. He has exhibited in more than 50 galleries and shows and won dozens of awards. In October 1997, the Cowboy Artists of America tapped him for membership. The exclusive group of 27 active and nine emeritus members includes nationally recognized artists dedicated to preserving the legends and history of the West.
“Ron portrays western life accurately; he respects and admires cowboys and what they do,” says sculptor Mehl Lawson, president of the Cowboy Artists. “For him, painting the West is a calling. In fact, I think he’d rather paint than eat.”
Riddick breaks into a laugh upon hearing this description but admits that there is truth in it. “When my juices are flowing and I’m crackin’ on a piece, I tend to forget about everything else,” he says. These days Rid-dick is buried in his studio preparing new work for the CAA’s annual Roundup art show and sale at the Cowboy Artists of America Museum in Kerrville, TX, May 1-2—his first exhibit as a member of the group.
Riddick’s studio is a 4,000-square-foot space in a commercial building 10 miles east of downtown Tucson in the shadow of the Rincon Mountains. It overflows with books about artists including his heroes Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, and numerous Russian masters. Plein-air sketches of the Southwest lean against walls and sit in stacks around the studio. Navajo rugs cover the floor, and everywhere there are vestiges of his beloved frontier: saddles, buckskins, cowboy hats, and ropes.
Most of Riddick’s inspiration, however, comes from the world outside his studio—from the surrounding ranches and western landscapes that have survived the ravages of the 20th century. He frequently attends roundups, usually arriving with a plein-air easel, camera, and sketchbook. Riddick says he prefers roundups to rodeos because while rodeos tend to feature athletes, roundups are family events for ranch people. “I’m always searching for the authenticity of the West,” Riddick explains. “There’s freedom, beauty—even poetry—in that disappearing lifestyle.”
More inspiration comes from spending time on ranches observing cowboys in their daily routines. Some of his work shows the serious side of ranch life, such as a solitary cowboy riding the boundaries of a ranch, checking fences to make sure the cattle are secure. But Riddick appreciates the lighter moments as well. In one scene he highlights the cowboy’s penchant for telling tall tales they call “windies.” “We all love a great story, and life in the West is full of them,” Riddick says. “Cowboys may be sensible, but they have a good sense of humor too—always ready with a bunch of jokes or funny exaggerations.”
Riddick hasn’t always been immersed in the western lifestyle. He was born in Santa Monica, CA, and grew up in west Los Angeles amid boisterous big-city distractions. As a boy he was more likely to ride a surfboard than a horse. But he did become familiar with art and its accouterments at an early age. His father was an art director with a major corporation, and pencils and tracing paper were ever present in the Riddick household.
As a youngster, Riddick displayed an artistic flair. His fourth-grade teacher allowed him to set up and paint still lifes in the back of the classroom. By the time he reached high school he was designing cheerleader posters and taking classes at the Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles. He attended junior college and then returned to the Art Center for more courses. Just before he graduated, however, Riddick decided that a degree would lead only to a teaching career, which didn’t interest him at the time. Young and impetuous, he says, he fled the program.
Over the next few years Riddick worked as a commercial art director and opened his own graphic design firm and etching atelier. His career took a turn in 1976, though, when he experienced a life-changing event: He enrolled in an art class with the Russian painter Sergei Bongart [SWA OCT 94].
“Bongart spun my head around,” says Riddick. “As a commercial artist, my creativity had been directed toward satisfying my clients. Bongart’s instruction freed me to paint for myself—to choose subjects that inspire me, that evoke a feeling or a memory.”
With these thoughts in mind, Riddick gradually moved from commercial art into the realm of fine art. On the journey he carried with him Bongart’s philosophy that good art is emotional and touches the soul. “Bongart said that artists should capture the things in nature and life that move them,” Riddick explains. “The artwork must be more than a pretty picture.”
In 1979 Riddick moved to Ari-zona, where the landscape, clean air, brilliant light, and slower pace held great allure. Here he was free of Southern California’s distractions and smog. Over the past two decades Riddick and his wife Natalie have taken extended trips across Europe and the United States, but they always return to the Southwest.
Natalie, a professional horsewoman, plays an active role in Riddick’s art career, from office management to public relations and equine anatomy critique. In 1990, the Riddicks set out on a five-month painting trip in Europe. Following in the footsteps of the French Impressionists, Riddick set up his easel along the Seine River in Paris, the beaches of Normandy, and the small fishing villages on the Mediterranean.
Today he continues to paint plein-air landscapes and an occasional still life. Cerises et Fleurs is an example of his love for the classical tradition. Riddick completed the painting of a crystal vase brimming with roses in an art class he taught. He wanted to demonstrate a crucial point to his students: “Subject matter may change, but the principles of good painting—design, draftsmanship, values, color temperatures, and harmonic unity—are always the same.”
Now 45, Riddick says the artist’s life has not always been easy. There have been lean times when every spare penny was spent on frames, canvases, and paint. But these days he is realizing longtime dreams—among them membership in the Cowboy Artists of America.
Riddick is looking forward to his first trail ride with the group in June. The annual event takes place this year in the hills surrounding the Hearst Ranch in San Simeon, CA. Riddick will be the “greenhorn” but one of the cowboys nonetheless, swigging coffee, talking shop, and maybe telling a “windy” or two. He won’t have to paint himself into this picture. “This is a scene I’m actually going to be in,” he says proudly.
Photos courtesy the artist and Claggett Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; and Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY.
Featured in April 1998