By Virginia Campbell
When committed plein-air painters are trying to capture the whiteness of a melting snowfield, they like to feel the slush under their feet and the winter sun on their skin. They want to drink in the total sensory impact of the living world as they fix on its visual aspect and translate it into an image on canvas. Arizona painter Robert Peters, who has spent his entire life immersed in western landscapes, has a limited need for slush. He was out in the midst of it when the idea for his painting little cimarron creek first came to mind, and he did sketches, made notations about the color values, and recorded his feelings about this landscape while the fresh cold was all around him. But he painted the complex little cimarron creek later within the four walls of his studio in Prescott. The creative state in which the painting came to life could not have happened out along that creek, and the interesting reasons why are embedded in the finished work.
“I often seek out the story in a landscape,” says Peters in the straightforward tone that’s a natural extension of his even, can-do disposition. “Creeks have a story behind them—a beginning and an end, and an environment they interact with in between. They become a metaphor for the complexity of natural phenomena.” Little Cimarron Creek starts up in the snowy mountains that, in his painting, emerge from clouds at the top of the canvas. The artist makes you feel how far away they are. A wooded ridge in front of the distant mountains is itself far away, and the creek that occupies most of the foreground—a zigzag of increasingly articulated colors of water-covered stones and reflected sky—first becomes visible halfway up the canvas, where it curves behind a stand of trees in the exact heart of the picture space. By the time your eye has made these pictorial travels, your mind has taken in lesser narratives along the creek’s progress—the hints of season in the delicate gold foliage holding to slender branches in front of somber pines, the perfect balance in the random distribution of reddish brush. (Peters cites Thoreau’s observation that “the voice of nature is always encouraging.”) The painter pauses for detail according to an unobtrusive and subtle agenda. This is a very convincing painted world, but one ordered to a purpose more intense than nature alone would have it.
“My work is grounded in my earliest personal impressions,” says Peters. In other words, the landscapes he paints are not only the ones he encounters as an artist and decides to re-create in oil; they are the landscapes embedded in his primal imagination from earliest memory and probably before. The inner and outer landscapes come together only in the period of contemplation that takes place in his studio, where, he says, he can stand a whole day in front of his easel and just think, without lifting a brush. Chasing the light en plein air is contrary to the artist’s ambition. He is interested in “the repetition of shape in ridges” and the way “jagged rocks look in juxtaposition with soft snow,” which is to say he seeks out all the reverberations and oppositions that the visual mind seizes on in nature and attaches emotional meaning to, which build over a lifetime. “In the studio,” he explains, “I’m compiling, rearranging, and reliving.”
This is the profound attraction of landscape art, of course—its ability to carry and arouse human feeling while showing little, if any, human presence. Plein-air painters and impressionists are playing that game. But artists who share the deliberative process Peters favors have more of a will to calculate, tinker, and embellish in their efforts to engage a personal past, present, and future in the visual encounter of a piece of Earth. That tendency can murder a picture, so the freshness of Peters’ work is notable. Part of the lightness and delicacy is what he refers to as “a judicious use of detail”—passages of striking realism that, while scrupulously avoiding what might be overbearing, yield to more abstract compositional concerns. Another part is the artist’s nimble, calligraphic brushwork; he uses a full arsenal of pliable sable brushes that dip in and out of precision to capture nature’s sinuous shapes and to move the viewer’s eye much the way one’s eye dances around in its effort to take in a real scene. Overriding all these matters is Peters’ major concern, which is the orchestration of color value to give his landscapes believable depth and emotional authority. “Values are 70 or 80 percent of a painting’s effectiveness,” he contends. “That’s where their atmosphere comes from.” The great French pre-Impressionist Corot said, notes Peters, that “if the painting looks good in the last light of day, you know it’s a success.” It’s in the dusk, with light fading from the hue in color, that the composition is defined solely by color value and the painting’s drama does or does not cohere.
Peters was born in 1960 in upstate New York but moved at the point of earliest memory to Phoenix, AZ, where his father worked in the printing and visual communications division of Motorola. The West was his true home, and he had ongoing, close-up access to it on trips with his parents and two sisters, during which he hunted, fished, and hiked in the wilds of southwestern Colorado. As a child he moved through the western landscape with the kind of happy ease and regularity that results in a blend of contented familiarity and undiminished eagerness for an ever greater store of experience. His impulse in those years was simply to be out in nature, not to record it in any visual way. He had a grandmother who painted as a hobby, and he himself always drew, but he never took an art class till he got to college. It is perhaps important to the understanding of how he paints landscapes now that for so long his experience of nature was purely about nature and his place in it. Trips to the art museum in Phoenix allowed him to consider such artistic feats as the French academic Gerome’s giant oil of the Roman Coliseum, but the relationship between aesthetic grandeur and natural grandeur was a matter that remained latent in his imagination then.
At Northern Arizona University, Peters took his first art class in his sophomore year. His initial interest was photography, but the required drawing course led to other courses as he found himself interested in many aspects of art and art history. One professor who was also a successful commercial illustrator spotted Peters’ talent and took the trouble to explain the commercial art world to him. Of the many talented young artists emerging from college with a love for N.C. Wyeth’s rich illustration style and the hope of a career in commercial art, Peters had an edge, then, in understanding the role of an agent, the proper presentation of a portfolio, and the competitive environment in which talent wins out only in combination with drive, confidence, and respect for deadlines. In relatively short order, he began earning a living, working with large New York advertising and publishing companies without having to live in New York. “From dealing with the Madison Avenue crowd I gained the benefit of discipline,” he says.
Over the course of the 1980s and into the ’90s, even as the realm of commercial illustration slowly shifted into decline because of the rise of computerized images and changes in the market, Peters thrived. He married, joined the Society of Illustrators, and was sought out for prominent magazine covers such as the one he did in 1992 for U.S. News & World Report for its issue on the death of the Soviet Union, which showed a headstone floating over red flowers. By this time, Peters and his wife had moved from Phoenix to Durango, CO, the heart of his childhood landscape of choice. The couple bred and raised show horses on a ranch, and the oil paints he used along with acrylics in his commercial work now found new purpose on his canvases of horses and the western landscape. Peters’ New York-based commercial artwork, which, with his wife’s career as an operating-room nurse, made their western life possible, was now overshadowed by both horses and landscape painting for sheer interest.
In the later ’90s Peters moved for five years to Paso Robles, CA, where his two children and his fine-art career were born. He phased out commercial work and focused on landscape painting. Aided by the habit of hard work, he very quickly made remarkable progress toward a definitive personal style. In this he was helped as well by a natural clarity about what pleased him in art. He had never cared for anything but realism. While he sees the beauty of impressionism (“More so than many people who know me would think”) and is an admirer of the American William Merritt Chase, his fascination and satisfaction come from elsewhere. In an interesting way, the years of illustration work make the simplest fact about plein-air painting unattractive to him: “I’m uncomfortable with the job of rendering what’s in front of me.”
Having moved back to Arizona a few years ago, settling in Prescott, Peters works in an 1,100-square-foot studio a few paces from his house. With views of granite mountains and his own horse pasture, he paints his meditations on the landscapes he’s experienced. For eight of the nine years that the Autry National Center in Los Angeles has held its Masters of the American West show, Peters has been included. He’s also shown in the Prix de West Invitational at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Much of his work sells for well into five digits, and those prices are going up, as is the size of canvas he works on. His landscape autumn’s veil is 40 by 60 inches, and he’s painting some now that are still larger.
No matter what Peters’ scale, the feeling of inner and outer landscapes merging pervades his work, offering a particularly quiet, sustained enjoyment as even monumental images come across in a succession of intimate moments.
Peters is represented by Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; and Westbrook Galleries, Carmel, CA.
Featured in November 2005