By Mark Mussari
Leathery. There’s no other word to describe Chris Owen’s rich, highly textured paintings. Filled with dark shadows and warm tones, they sing in deep shades of sienna and burnt umber. “There’s a ruddy, leathery color to the cowboy,” confirms Owen. “Some of my lighting and mood are an extension of it. I like my work to bring that mood to the fore.”
Owen understands the colors and moods of the cowboy better than most. Born in Billings, MT, he spent much of his childhood on his paternal grandparents’ ranch in the Judith Basin. “My grandparents were salt-of-the-earth ranchers who lived the simple life,” he recalls fondly. “I was raised in that tradition.” Each canvas he paints today reflects his lifelong, hands-on experience, conveying an authenticity lacking in more romanticized views of cowboy life. “People are a product of their experiences and environment,” he emphasizes, “and it still informs my art to this day.”
Aside from ranching, Owen’s earliest memories consist of drawing. “I’ve always been involved in art, from when I was a small child,” he says. From the beginning, his talent found solid support at home. “My mother had a background in the visual arts—in photography and collage,” he notes. And even today his father acts as his “impresario” business manager. In school, Owen took every art class he could. “It also became my major in college,” he adds. Intending to become a fine artist, he spent two years at Montana State University in Billings before transferring to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. “I was in the product design curriculum,” he says. Still, his fine-art proclivities would not let go, and Owen finally decided to leave the design college to pursue fine art. Years of struggle ensued. “I often had to take day jobs to pay the rent,” he remembers. “It has been quite a journey.”
College exposure to art history left Owen with a special affinity for the old masters. “I’ve always loved the way they depicted individual textures and shapes cascading across each figure,” he says. That painterly emphasis on movement through color and light found fertile ground in the artist’s imagination, and today he brings an old world quality to his new world scenes.
In Owen’s golden ranch scenes, he has found his own western niche for imparting the emotive dance between painter and painting. His approach lends a distinct openness to his narratives, echoed in the use of white space on certain paintings. In these scenes, the narrative fades back onto the blank page, reopening it to interpretation. “A painting can exist on many levels,” he says. “There’s that sense of something that has already happened before and the sense of what is about to happen. It’s the evidence of the artist having been there.”
The realities of ranch life define the artist’s work. “People in ranching have formed a culture of reliance on each other,” observes Owen, “of taking care of neighbors, animals, and family. It’s that sense of hard work being its own reward—of a job well done.”
One of the most alluring qualities of the Montana artist’s paintings is his depiction of the symbiotic relationship between horses and humans. “Horses are also individuals,” he contends. “Each has a personality and a temperament inherent to that specific animal.” He sees this relationship as both magical and dynamic: “There’s a freedom that attends having horses in your life. It’s in their willingness to accommodate people and work with them.”
Owen deftly translates this symbiosis into his paintings, especially in his more reflective works: A cowboy rests atop a horse, and both horse and rider are markedly at ease. In contrast, another painting depicts two cowhands chasing a runaway, and both cowboys and horses are driven with individual, definable determination. Owen employs a strong color sense to reinforce this approach, so, tonally, horse and rider become one. The more loosely rendered environment enveloping them follows suit. “There’s an interplay and cross-validation between the figures and the ground they inhabit,” says the artist.
He sees this reciprocity as a tension between the objective and the subjective. “I find that incorporating nonobjective elements affords an incredible dynamism that is not immediately recognizable. The viewer may experience a rhythmic correlation among motion, form, and brushwork. These painterly elements are arranged with subjective approaches designed to lift our cognitive veils beyond the ordinary, to see the world in unique, extraordinary ways.”
Owen’s artistic process usually begins with a photograph. “Things can happen in a photo that you could never dream up,” he observes. “Though it can also be a limiting factor. I don’t use it as a literal roadmap from which I proceed—it’s more of an inspiration.” Although he also works in oils, Owen became enamored of gouache in art school and has stuck with it. “It’s my natural medium,” he says. “I’m familiar with all of its nuances.”
When working in gouache, his first step is laying out both warm and cool washes on the paper. “Wonderful accidents are allowed to happen,” he says of this early stage. “I draw an image, paying special attention to shapes and their relationship to each other.” At this point he applies what he calls “mood washes” to give each painting a sense of design, motion, and direction. He then adds more darks and shadows. “Once the figures are in place,” he says, “I establish a relationship between the figure and those earlier washes—whatever is necessary to bring the painting to fruition.”
In the world of western art, Owen’s paintings are surprisingly dark and make rich use of contrasts between light and dark. “My palette is intentionally moody,” he says. “There’s a brooding quality to some cowboy imagery. I’ve always thought it adds a layer of texture to a painting to bring out that quality.”
That textural essence surfaces in both his gouaches and his oils. In his gouache FLIGHT, for example, a white horse bursts from a background of powerful brown, green, and yellow brush strokes. “The vigor with which I executed this painting represents my attempt to convey the power of the moment,” he explains. “After a light watercolor wash was laid down to determine the painting’s tonalities, I applied progressively darker passages to bring out the horse.”
In his oil ROUGH COUNTRY, three cowboys on horses struggle down a jagged hillside, emphasized by the painter’s angle from above the figures. A chromatic interplay occurs across the three figures, uniting them in more than behavior. Rich rusty browns draw the eye from the first rider’s chaps to the second horse and then back to the third rider’s chaps. Owen balances the dark orange-browns with the soft blues of the riders’ shirts. The first horse’s head strikes the same angle as its rider, whose eyes are hidden beneath a hat, creating an axis and reinforcing Owen’s human-horse symbiosis. The painter describes the overall effect as “the look of an old daguerreotype.”
“I’m always amazed at the ease with which cowboys sit on a horse,” he comments. “Whenever I witness them searching rugged terrain for missing cattle, I am always left with an impression of grace and majesty.”
Owen maintains two studios—one in the town of Billings and another in a cabin he built about 10 minutes west of town. “I work from eight in the morning until five in the evening, every Monday through Friday,” he says of his work habits. “I also go on one or two outings a month to take photos.”
Owen hopes his paintings speak their own language. “I’m trying to remove myself as much as I can from the work,” he says. “An artist can only suggest. The rest must happen on its own. Anything else can become quite contrived.” Perhaps this attitude explains the inviting quality that attends all of his paintings, their moody tones drawing in viewers on a visceral level. “The artist should not try to be too much of an imposition,” he concludes. “I believe in letting the painting be a painting.”
Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ.
Cheyenne Frontier Days Western Art Show and Sale, Cheyenne, WY, July 21-31.
Western Visions Miniatures and More Show & Sale, Jackson, WY, September 3-7.
Featured in July 2011.