Richard D. Thomas | At Home in Montana


By Lynn Pyne Davis

Richard D. Thomas is frequently asked where he gets the ideas for his paintings—a question that always makes him smile. The artist, who lives on 21 acres of land along the South Boulder River in a cattle ranching area of Montana, is inundated with ideas from the moment he gazes out his window each morning.

“I could start out in the morning with my camera and go to the Huckaba Ranch near here and catch them branding, which they will be doing this week-end,” Thomas says. “And then I could go on down the road to another ranch—as a matter of fact, I think this weekend another ranch is rounding up cows into pens for branding. And then my neighbor up the road will be working his quarter horse cutting horses. By the end of the day, I could have shot 10 rolls of film, 36 exposures each. And people ask where I get my ideas? Finding a subject for a western artist is no problem. If I could just paint everything that’s available to me, I could paint for another lifetime.

“Of course, this is all reference material,” he says. “The ranchers don’t stop and pose for you, and you don’t want them to. You want to catch them in action, so you go out with your camera, get a feel for what they’re doing, and record it.” Thomas also gleans ideas by exploring the scenic Montana landscape and the state’s rich Native American history, which is visible at events such as powwows and the annual reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Montana experience is new for Thomas, 63, who moved here in 2000 from Colorado, where he had lived for 23 years. He and his wife, Jan, have six horses and enjoy trail riding. They felt that, given their lifestyle, Colorado was getting too crowded for comfort. “If where you’re living starts to have a negative impact on what you do, you find another place to live,” Thomas says. They found land with good pasture, water, and enough space for a riding arena near Cardwell in the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains in southern Montana. “Cardwell is so small you can’t find it on the map most of the time,” he says with delight. “It’s got a post office, but it’s not a town as such.”


Their property came with a house and a barn, and he built a separate studio on the riverbank with a fireplace, wooden floors, north-light windows, and a deck that juts out over the water. The studio is a favorite hangout for Bismarck, a harlequin Great Dane, and Muffin, a terrier mix, who keep the artist company while he works. “It’s pleasant,” Thomas says, “and I get a lot of energy from the river running down through here.”

As much as Thomas enjoys the outdoors, he doesn’t hunt, fish, or camp. “I just get tangled in the line and spend most of my time unraveling when I fish,” he says. “I enjoy sitting on the bank and observing.” In fact, observation is one of the things Thomas does best. It is the key reason he is able to depict his subjects in a fresh and compelling way, without resorting to the cliches of the western genre. Many of his paintings evidence a familiarity with the subject that can be gained only through first-hand experience. “I pretty much paint only that which I experience myself,” Thomas says. “I don’t try to make up anything if I don’t understand what’s going on or haven’t researched it thoroughly. I have respect for the ranchers, the cowboys, and the Indian people, which is why I make every effort to ensure the authenticity of detail. As every artist does, though, I put in my own experiences and feelings.

“When I go out with the ranchers and cowboys when they’re working, I like to know and understand what they’re doing,” he says. “I’m always badgering them with questions. They’re just great people who work the land and are around the animals and love to talk to you about it. It has surprised me that I don’t feel like I’m pestering them. In fact, they’ll give me a call and say, ‘Richard, we’re moving some cows. Do you want to come along?’ And off I go.”

Inspiration for a painting called Branding on the Huckaba came from one such visit to the Huckaba Ranch. The painting depicts about 10 men branding and giving inoculations. When Thomas finished the piece, he took it to the town store, operated by one of the Huckaba brothers, for a cowboy critique. His subjects gathered around the painting to look for themselves, kidding each other with comments such as, “Hey, it looks like I’m the only one doing any work.”

He uses actual landscapes and photographs of models to paint historical Native American subjects and refers to his research library for authenticity in the clothing, accoutrements, and tribal facial characteristics.


Land of the Crow, for instance, depicts Crow Indians in war regalia on horseback in the foreground and snowcovered mountains in the background. Thomas came across the actual horses and the landscape while out exploring with his wife and a friend, and he placed the Crow warriors on the horses to complete the scene. The location for Warrior’s Cover is a green pasture on his own property. The horse is also his own, al-though Thomas took liberties with the ele-gant appearance of his wife’s Andalusian horse to transform it into a sturdy Indian pony.

While Thomas views faithfulness to his subject as important, when he evaluates his own work he is more concerned with elements such as the range of values, the depth of the dark shadows, the subtle effects of light, and the graceful play of hard and soft edges. Thomas applies paint with a looseness that is spontaneous and energetic but at the same time authoritative and controlled.

He approaches a blank canvas by first applying transparent washes of oil or, occasionally, acrylic. The under-painting eliminates the stark white of the canvas and provides a base color. He then builds up the painting by layering thin washes and working toward opaque color. “I’ve been using more transparency in my work as I’ve matured as an artist,” he says. “If you start throwing thick paint on a canvas and push it around and try to make it happen, you could wind up with a canvas full of mud.”

Transparent areas often remain visible in Thomas’ finished works, providing a window into the creative process. He uses the interplay of opaque and transparent paint to enhance the three-dimensional qualities of the painting. For instance, rendering the darkness of a forest in thick, opaque paint would create the visual effect of the eye hitting a wall on the surface of the canvas, he believes. Instead, he uses the thin washes to give the darkness a transparent lightness that draws the eye in beyond the surface, creating an illusion of never-ending depth.


When all the elements work harmoniously together, they give the painting a special dynamic energy that Thomas hopes to convey to the viewer. “I try to paint [a subject] so that you understand what it is, you feel good when you see it, and you enjoy the adventure of traveling through the painting,” he says. “I would like for the viewer to find something new each time.”

Thomas is self-taught and was almost 30 before he ever picked up a brush. Raised in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley of California, he followed a socially acceptable path by getting a college business degree, serving in the Marines, getting married, and landing a steady job. While working for a high-tech defense equipment contractor, he began painting as a hobby. His world changed suddenly when the plant where he worked closed and his marriage ended.

Thomas hit the road as a vagabond artist, painting and exhibiting his work in small shows at hotels, convention centers, and shopping malls across the country. During those years he honed his skills and exchanged notes with other artists, thoroughly en-joying the experience. On his travels he met and married Jan, and his paintings began to catch the attention of gallery owners. Today they hang in major private collections and have been shown in numerous exhibitions, such as the Masters of the American West show at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles and the Western Visions show at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY.


For all his successes, though, his artistic goals remain humble. “I suppose at the end of the year, I want to be better than I was at the beginning of the year,” he says. “I hope that every painting is the best work I can do. The experience of being an artist is achievement in itself. You keep doing it because the challenges you face are still out there, and it’s a never-ending pleasure.”

Thomas is represented by Breckenridge Gallery, Breckenridge, CO, and Trailside Galleries, Jackson Hole, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in June 2002