Chauncey Homer | True to Life

Chauncey Homer - RAINY DAY BUFFET, OIL, 20 X 30.

By Dottie Indyke

It’s 4 a.m. on a Tucson freeway, and in the back seat of their minivan, Chauncey Homer and his wife are delivering their son. The baby not only refuses to wait but also demands whatever midwifery skills his father can summon. After making sure the newborn is breathing, Homer wraps him in a blanket and the threesome speeds off to the hospital.

Perhaps it’s true, as Homer claims, that anyone in the same situation would know what to do, that primal instincts kick in when unusual circumstances demand instant action. And in his resilient, ingenious way, Homer is not so dissimilar from the westerners he paints.

Homer, who grew up in the Four Corners area of the Southwest, near Farmington, NM, likes to paint scenes of the past and present West—pioneer women on the homestead, kids in bib overalls, horses at the trough. The 37-year-old describes his genre as western art with a “classical figurative” bent. In other words, in his paintings people share the spotlight with the landscape while the style takes its cues from art history. His influences—Russian Impressionists, H.H. La Thangue, and John Singer Sargent—all are known for works that revolve around landscape and the common folk. La Thangue’s passion was peasant scenes in Provence and Italy. The Russian Impressionists tended toward farmhouses, snow-covered fields, and women in head scarves.

“John Singer Sargent put together solid classical training and technique with some looseness, some impressionism,” Homer says. “When I think of classical art, I think of well-done draftsmanship and solid technical skills. Also, the subject has a timeless look. Whether it’s a contemporary subject or from the 1800s, that’s pretty much the formula for me.”


While Homer paints modern-day portraits, Spanish Mission architecture, and ranch life, a primary attraction for him has always been the pioneer experience. He’s inspired by old photographs, by diaries, and by his own drawing sessions with live models including his 4-year-old son Curtis, child of the minivan, who appears in many of his paintings. To give his models authenticity, he buys pioneer outfits in costume shops and sometimes even has them custom-made.

The tendency toward meticulousness shows up both in and apart from his paintings. For over a decade he was a commercial illustrator for a gift manufacturer, where he made intricate, nearly photographically accurate images of wildlife and flowers. In less than two years as a full-time oil painter, he has consciously worked at letting go of the detail. The perfect painting, he thinks, combines abstraction and representation—the more impressionistic sections infusing an aura of mystery and allowing the viewer room for interpretation.

This is an artist whose studio is arranged like a gallery, with rustic Mexican furniture, a leather couch, and track lighting trained on individual paintings. Artist friends and the occasional collector like to congregate in Homer’s studio, which is connected to his home on four acres southeast of Tucson; it’s kept orderly except for periods when he’s binge-painting into the wee hours. For consistent illumination, day and night, he has set up a combination of warm incandescent and cool fluorescent lighting.

Homer’s meticulous nature extends to the need to perfectly present his paintings. “To this day I buy the best frames I can get,” he acknowledges. “They are all handmade, all museum quality. Some are ornate and some are simple. I like them distressed, like they’ve been kicking around in a museum for a couple hundred years.”


He is also more business savvy than many of his peers. With marketing expertise acquired at the gift company he helped build, he watches over his career like a mother hen. He planned his departure from the corporate world one careful step at a time, putting money aside for that day. He is selective about his dealers, showing only at Tucson’s Settlers West Galleries and at Legacy Gallery in Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ, because he wants nothing less than his best work in the galleries. Even juried competitions are approached with caution and only when he feels ready. Recently he was accepted into the prestigious Oil Painters of America exhibit. He aspires to inclusion in the Masters of the American West show, held each winter at the Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

Homer’s parents were his mentors. From his dad, now the chief of police in Nampa, ID, he inherited a Texas-style, old-boy, old-school love of country. From his mom, a painter and ceramicist, he learned about art. In elementary school, he spent hours tracing and copying the Rawhide Kid and other western comic heroes, trying to make his own drawings look as good. He was driven and frustrated and, even to this day, when art gets the best of him he considers chucking it and becoming a cop.

The second oldest of seven kids, Homer and his brothers were outdoor zealots who built treehouses and climbed cliffs. His dad took them camping and hiking; Homer is still an avid rock climber.

Throughout high school he never took an art class, and after graduation, with no idea what he wanted to do next, he and a couple of buddies enlisted in the Army. For two years in the early 1980s he was stationed in Germany, assigned to patrol the Berlin Wall. Military life, as he thinks back, was mostly about cleaning the barracks and keeping his shoes shined.

OIL, 36 X 24.

After his discharge, he was again uncertain about his future. Back home in Farmington, he enrolled in the community college’s architecture program, where he excelled at math and mechanical drafting but otherwise felt disengaged. When a friend invited him to Tucson to work in a distribution warehouse, he jumped at the chance. Several jobs later, spreading hot tar on a roof on a 110-degree day, he made up his mind to find a new career. Conveniently, the Art Center of Tucson was located on his route home. One day he stopped in to inquire about their commercial illustration program.

“Once they showed me what commercial artists do, it hit me that it was a fit. I learned illustration in various mediums—acrylic, watercolor, gouache, pencil, charcoal, and computers. The biggest thrill for me was that I was able to make money from drawing and painting.”

More than a decade later, Homer has overcome his fear of oils, the granddaddy of art mediums, and from his principal teacher, cowboy artist Ron Riddick, he has grasped the techniques of painting—such aspects as mastering drawing, choosing color, and controlling values.

In his studio, he takes a high-tech approach to such classical concepts: He uses his computer to sketch preliminary ideas, sometimes combining four or five different photographs he has shot during visits to ranches in southern Arizona near his home. Working digitally, he switches backdrops and adds trees and horses, looking for the right composition for his next painting.

Some of his pieces begin during excursions with friends from the Tucson Plein Air Society, which he co-founded. As a beginning oil painter, he spent three years painting figures, still lifes, and landscapes only from life. But most plein-air landscapes, he contends, look unfinished. And yet the occasional outdoor painting foray today keeps him fresh.


Most of his work these days is started in the studio, on stretched canvas or masonite panels with glued linen. Typically, a new piece begins with what he describes as spontaneous “paint slinging.” He makes every effort to get a good likeness in the first sitting—though it’s often impossible with his bigger oils—and to keep his son Curtis from making his own painterly contributions directly on the canvas. Like the old masters, Homer works from thin to thick paint application, striving for a variety of washy and impasto sections.

As he paints, he often ponders the lives of his European counterparts from 300 years ago who worked without benefit of high-tech tools. “They would have died to have the resources we have,” he speculates. “It makes me want to push myself even more. I feel that artists are lazy. They take things for granted. Every time I look at an old painting, I see that very few people today are doing the quality of work that was done a couple of hundred years ago.”

Homer stresses, “I want to use every idea that’s come before me—impressionist and classical and modern. Although I’m very picky about modern. I don’t have a huge appreciation for it, but I do apply a lot of abstract design principles. My feeling is that art is an evolution. There are a lot of good ideas out there that have come along. Why not benefit from them?”

For an artist who was raised amid the looming rock mittens of Monument Valley and beneath blue skies as vast as oceans, the people who inhabit the land are his most meaningful inspirations. “The area I grew up in was a reservation community and there were a lot of Navajos,” he recalls. “I have a great appreciation for their lifestyle, history, and ceremonies, but I think there are plenty of people painting Indians. I want to do something that honors my own heritage.”

Featured in June 2004