Artist Robert Louis Caldwell expresses a lifelong love of nature in his drawings and paintings
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the February 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
He couldn’t have been older than a preteen when he first felt that tug of enchantment. To this day, the event seems as vivid as if it happened yesterday. Early in his junior-high years, Robert Louis Caldwell went on a scouting canoe trip in upstate New York. One morning, he arose before sunrise. Leaving his tent to distract himself from a wave of homesickness, he took in the surrounding woodlands in the predawn light. “Suddenly, behind me, there was a rustle of leaves. And out of the woods came this huge deer with enormous antlers.”
Still overcome by the memory almost three decades later, he grows silent. Then, his voice hushed, he offers: “That was a wow moment. You just have to sit back and ask yourself, ‘Is this really happening?’”
From that point on, he says, “I’ve always been drawn toward nature and wildlife. I have a deep desire to be outdoors as much as possible.”
How fortunate that the spell nature casts upon Caldwell harmonizes perfectly with his other calling: art. Over the past decade, his love of the outdoors and his talent with graphite pencils and oil paints have combined to make the self-described “traditional realist,” now 41, a rising star among wildlife artists.
“If you were talking to my mother,” Caldwell laughs, “she would swear she knew I would do something creative when, at the age of 2, I took a crayon or pencil to a sheet of newspaper and drew a tractor-trailer.” But he himself doesn’t remember any particular aesthetic skills emerging until an introductory art class in seventh grade. “We were drawing simple shapes, and I glanced down at those I’d just drawn, and they looked three dimensional. I remember going, ‘Holy smokes! That looks real!’ That was the moment art grasped me for the first time.”
That hold grew even stronger at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, VA, where his family had moved during the summer between eighth and ninth grades. “The art teacher was fantastic, and things exploded for me. I was doing art nonstop. As a senior, three of my seven classes were art, and I also worked as an aide to the art teacher. My other teachers just let me sit in the back of the class and draw.”
His twin passions for art and nature merged in a project his art teacher urged him to complete during senior year: a storyboard for a conservation-themed promotional competition at the local PBS station in Alexandria. Caldwell’s submission won, and he created a clay-animated stop-motion video in which “planet Earth evolved into a dove and flew away.”
When the time came to apply to college, Caldwell drove up to Baltimore to attend an open-portfolio day where representatives from several regional institutions were present. “I took my portfolio to Virginia Commonwealth University’s table,” he says, “and the assistant dean looked at it, closed it, and told me to please come back in an hour.” Caldwell didn’t know what to expect when he returned. “She looked at the portfolio again and said, ‘You are welcome to come to our school. You are in.’”
Caldwell entered VCU in the fall of 1991, and his freshman-year foundation courses led him to concentrate on sculpture. But the first semester of the following year disenchanted a budding artist who had once marveled at his ability to make things seem real. “It was all very abstract and conceptual,” Caldwell remembers, “and I didn’t like that route.”
He left college midway through sophomore year and wound up working as a sales rep for a lumber company. “I would drive out to remote building sites in the deep countryside. I loved being out there in the woods.” He began taking his camera along, “to document what I saw,” he says. “And then, I would do sketches at night.”
The rediscovered pleasure of drawing eventually led Caldwell to re-enter VCU in 1997. After a year refining his skills, he began to focus on illustration. But one big hurdle loomed: “I could draw, but I couldn’t paint,” he says matter-of-factly. “Once you added color, it became harder, really complex.”
Nevertheless, toward the end of his senior year, he found a way into painting—by working monochromatically. Using black and white alkyds (synthetic oils) on illustration board, he successfully completed an image inspired by a scene in the short story “The Distance of the Moon” by famed Italian writer Italo Calvino. Caldwell’s effort won an award from the Society of Illustrators in New York. To this day, the strikingly realistic yet fanciful image of a young man balancing a full moon on the end of his fishing pole hangs on the wall of Caldwell’s studio, which he recently moved from his home to the ArtHaus Visual Arts Studio in Midlothian, VA, where he also teaches drawing and painting classes. “It reminds me that, yes, I can do it,” he says. “Some days, you need that.”
He certainly needed such reminders during the years immediately following his graduation in 2000, as he came to realize how hard it was to break into illustration work. He began building a fine-art portfolio while helping support his family—he married college sweetheart Kristen in 1995, and they have a son, Robert Jacob, now 11—by hand-coloring prints for a Richmond-based decorative art company.
At first, he concentrated on drawings. But gradually, through books, he taught himself color theory and painting techniques that literally built on his strengths, using a time-honored process known as the Venetian method. First, following reference photos or sketches, he does a polished and detailed pencil drawing on a rigid maple plywood panel that he has prepped with multiple coats of gesso. Then he seals the drawing and applies a burnt sienna wash “to tone the surface so I can judge my values better.” Finally, working from dark to light and from the background to the foreground subject, he layers in the paints, achieving remarkably lifelike results. The entire approach can take up to six weeks for a smaller painting, and as long as six months for a larger work.
Gradually, his efforts earned notice at the wildlife art shows he’d begun to attend. In 2006, his works were displayed for the first time in the Aldie Mill Art Show & Sale in Aldie, VA, and at Art at the Mill in Millwood, VA. Then, 2007 saw his first major triumph, after he submitted to the renowned Birds in Art show, held each year at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI. “Everything changed on the morning in May when I got that big envelope,” he says. That envelope held notification that his piece had been accepted. “The show is nothing but prestige.” He phased out his gig hand-coloring prints to devote more time to his own art and began submitting to, and being accepted by, other top shows. Respected galleries offered representation. And in 2008, the Society of Animal Artists bestowed on him its Haller Distinguished Young Artist Award.
Such success enabled Caldwell to devote his full time to art starting in 2010. It also led him to delve more deeply into the wild. In early 2012, he traveled to Africa for the first time with a group of artists on an eight-day visit to Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park, a journey he financed by preselling works from the trip to some of his collectors. “When you see them in their natural habitat instead of in captivity in a zoo, things change for you,” Caldwell contends. “Their behavior and their muscle mass—everything is different. I will never paint a zoo animal again.”
This past October, he returned to Tarangire for two weeks, hosted by the African Wildlife Trust as part of its Artist Ambassadors Against Poaching campaign, which aims to build global awareness to save the 33 elephants, on average, killed for their trunks each day in Tanzania. That connection led him to create THIRTY-THREE (AFRICAN ELEPHANTS), a limited-edition print created from his original graphite drawing of a herd of pachyderms gathered around a baobab tree. “It’s the largest and most complex drawing I’ve done to date, showing the actual scene I saw the morning after I met Pratik Patel, the founder of the African Wildlife Trust,” Caldwell explains. On October 18, Caldwell personally handed Patel a check for his proceeds from the print and an accompanying DVD time-lapse video of the work’s 55-hour drawing process.
Africa also yielded a fine example of one of Caldwell’s more intimate subjects. COLORS IN THE CANOPY depicts a lilac-breasted roller perched on a branch of a baobab. Caldwell says, “I fell in love with the trunk’s textures, its greenery, and flowers,” which provided a perfect complement to the bird’s rainbow-hued plumage.
Caldwell based the painting on just a few of the 12,123 photos he took on his first trip to Tarangire—which, combined with the 15,964 images he shot there last October, should provide reference for many works to come. So he feels filled with inspiration for the 12 to 15 paintings he’s aiming to complete for a three-artist show he’ll participate in in October at Lovetts Gallery in Tulsa, OK, along with more pieces still for a big group show at the Irving Arts Center in Irving, TX, called The Gallery of Artists: Diverse Expressions of Nature, scheduled for August 16 through September 14.
Among those works will probably be his largest painting to date, a planned 4-by-6-foot scene of elephants, hippos, and birds gathered around a watering hole. He’s also toying with the idea of painting a portrait of a Masai warrior he met in Africa. “But I wouldn’t call myself a figurative artist,” he quickly adds. “Painting people is really interesting. But animals can’t tell me that I haven’t painted them the way they think I should have.”
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