No matter what he paints, Louis Escobedo emphasizes color and emotional impact
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the January 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Half-close your eyes before gazing at WINTER EVENING, a recent oil painting by Louis Escobedo, and the dramatic composition wavering before you seems like it could have come directly from nature: A massive, dark monolith rises to dominate the center of the composition, flanked by two broad rivers beneath a threatening sky. Then open your eyes fully, and the image coalesces into something entirely different, as chilly night descends on a city street not far from the artist’s home in Maryland. Escobedo moved here 11 years ago with Yolanda, his high-school sweetheart and wife of 43 years. “I no longer have the mountains and streams I used to have back in Colorado,” Escobedo explains. “These big old buildings are now my mountains, and the avenues and streets and roads are my streams. You just have to change your mindset. I’m still looking at things more as abstract forms. They’re all still shapes and colors and values.”
And thus he sums up his approach to art just as eloquently as he captures any scene he might choose to portray— landscape, cityscape, still life, or portrait. For the 62-year-old self-described representational painter and colorist, art is a process of discovery he shares with the viewer, a continuous exploration of the way we all see the world and, most importantly, the role nature’s spectrum plays in our perceptions.
“I like color. I’m not really a monochromatic painter,” he says matter-of-factly. “I just hope my colors don’t glow too much, and sometimes I have to hold things back.” He chuckles warmly. “Colors are my kids,” he says. “And I have to watch my values before I let my kids come out to play.”
That sense of play, vibrantly present in all of Escobedo’s paintings, has remained present during a long, sometimes arduous journey from his 1950s childhood back in Texas. Perhaps it has grown all the more joyous through what it has endured.
Escobedo was born and spent the first 15 years of his life in the town of Sweetwater, TX, which he describes bluntly as “a place out of nowhere.” Nonetheless, its public schools inspired his early love of art. “I remember being a little kid, and we had to finger paint,” he says. “I can still see all those colors. It was so beautiful.” When he was 6, his drawing of a cowboy on horseback was chosen as the best artwork in the school. “And then I had to go around and show it to everybody from first to sixth grade, and I was embarrassed by that,” he adds, with modesty still present in his soft-spoken voice.
He kept creating art in the local middle school, where his talent was recognized and encouraged by Miss Snyder, whom he calls “a great lady.” But then, teen rebellion kicked in, and in eighth grade, he found himself declaring, “‘I don’t need art. I hate it.’ And I would walk by that art room, and my heart would melt because I couldn’t be in there.”
The rebellion deepened, and he left home at 15, heading some 260 miles east to Corsicana, TX. Eventually, Escobedo wound up living in “a little bitty shack” behind the home of a friend of one of his uncles, and he finished up his studies—and met and started dating Yolanda—at Corsicana High. He also revived his love of art, began taking lessons from a private teacher, and was surprised to learn that “you can make money in the arts.”
After graduation, he enrolled in the art program at local Navarro College—“We called it ‘Harvard on the hill,’” he laughs—and went on to complete a bachelor of fine arts in advertising art at Sam Houston State College in Huntsville, TX. That led to a job as a technical illustrator for Bell Helicopter, gainful employment that provided security while he steadily built a portfolio over the next several years.
By the late 1970s, Escobedo finally felt ready to embark on a freelance illustration career. He thrived almost instantly, winning a Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators in New York for an image of a diner-style tabletop jukebox with a hamburger close by. “That helped,” he says succinctly of this jumpstart to a list of credits that eventually included work for Texas Instruments, Miller Brewing, Paper Moon Graphics, and Boys’ Life and Atlantic Monthly magazines.
But Escobedo soon found that the constant demand for self-promotion and juggling of clients wore him down. “Around 1983,” he says, “I was burned out, and I wanted to get out of illustrating. So I thought, I’ve got to learn how to paint.”
He set out to acquire that knowledge as assiduously as he’d learned the skills and developed the portfolio of a top-notch illustrator. “I took workshops from a lot of people,” he says, ticking off a list of respected names that includes Ramon Kelley, David Leffel, and Richard Schmid. Gradually, galleries began adding Escobedo to their stables. Around 1990, as his new career really began to take off, he and Yolanda moved with their daughter, Camille, then in her early teens, to the Congress Park area of Denver, putting him within close range of the kinds of rugged western landscapes that helped build his reputation.
Speaking of which, 1994 was when Escobedo really knew he’d arrived as a fine artist. That year, the prestigious Oil Painters of America, an organization founded just three years before to champion the highest standards in traditional representational art, bestowed upon him its Gold Medal Award, the top accolade in its annual National Juried Exhibition. “I’m thankful for stuff like that. You don’t ever really know” how shows like that will turn out, he says. “You just go in there and see what happens.”
What’s been happening for Escobedo ever since has been a progression from strength to strength and from award to award, with recognition continuing to follow him after he and Yolanda moved to Maryland in 2003. The latest achievement: another Gold Medal from the OPA in 2014, making him only the second member to win twice. “I don’t really think about the awards,” he quickly adds. “I just hope that people enjoy the paintings.”
His mastery having only grown with the passing years, enjoyment is a highly likely response when viewing Escobedo’s works. Take, for example, his recent OPA winner, LIGHT SOURCE, a portrait of a young woman created with eloquent simplicity. “It’s an abstract way of looking at a face and its angles,” he says. The subject, her clothing, and the background are all executed in self-assured, surprisingly bold, relatively large brush strokes—employing both muted and vibrant colors that do, as he says, “watch their values.” All of which adds up to an absolutely lifelike face that radiates light.
In similar fashion, his portrait SIMPLICITY presents another young woman who feels irresistibly present, alive, and real—no matter that many parts of the canvas feature abstract passages of blue or buttery yellow. He even took the bold approach here of interrupting what appears to be a pale floral wallpaper background with a bold band of deep blue across the top of the canvas, and then interrupting that with a vertical stroke of contrasting color just to the left of his subject’s head. “I was wondering what would happen if I broke the value there by running a brush right down through it,” he explains. “And somehow, the brain will put the solid color back together.” Indeed, many viewers don’t even notice that element until it’s pointed out. Such small touches can make all the difference to a painting’s success. “Just a couple of slight little dashes and—boom!—it changes the whole thing,” he adds.
“Each painting is a different set of problems,” Escobedo continues. That’s why he’s just as happy whether painting a playful still life of persimmons and kumquats, abandoned cars in a field, or a peaceful water scene. Whatever the subject, he’s looking for some element—and a way to portray it—that makes him feel. “There’s got to be something emotionally strong in it. I’m aiming to evoke an emotional response”—both in himself and in his audience.
That simple goal is what keeps Escobedo painting today in a studio that shares the premises with 717 Gallery in Easton, MD—a gallery run by Yolanda that exclusively shows his works. “I’m a happy-go-lucky guy,” he says of his life story that may have begun in a hardscrabble Texas town but now feels downright charmed. “I feel like Forrest Gump.” Though, he readily agrees, he’d prefer to replace life’s box of chocolates with a palette of brightly colored oil paints.
717 Fine Art Gallery, Easton, MD.
Featured in the January 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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