Bart Forbes | Dreamscapes

Bart Forbes paints expressive interpretations of universal places

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Bart Forbes, Texas Lupine, oil, 30 x 48.

Bart Forbes, Texas Lupine, oil, 30 x 48.

This story was featured in the February 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  February 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

When Texas artist Bart Forbes is asked to describe his paintings, he replies with one word: “Intuitive.” Beyond that, Forbes prefers to remain a bit illusive. For him, the meanings and the messages lie in the eye of each new beholder. He is fond of quoting one of his favorite artist, Edward Hopper, on the subject: “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.”

One side effect of working intuitively, however, can be the gnawing sense that a painting is never quite finished. “I am always finding something else a painting needs,” Forbes says from his Dallas-area studio. For example, in 2013, Forbes painted a nocturne entitled NIGHT LIGHTS. He framed the piece but never sent it out to a gallery. Something about the work bothered him. Then one day last January, three years later, he took NIGHT LIGHTS off the wall and out of its frame. The original painting depicted a warm night sky—almost orange—a color that results when light is reflected on clouds. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Forbes says. “I decided I wanted to keep the night sky, but I decided to go with a cool color scheme instead. I painted over the large sky with cobalt blue, and the painting began to come together in the way I had imagined.”

Forbes included NIGHT LIGHTS in his solo show, titled My Mind’s Eye, held a month later at Valley House Gallery in Dallas. It was the first painting to sell. Forbes realizes that he is not the only artist to obsess over whether or not a painting is finished. He tells the story of the French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, who was known to carry a miniature set of paints to his exhibitions to make last-minute adjustments to his works. “He would go and make changes to a work while the painting hung on the wall in a museum,” Forbes says with a laugh. “I think that is the epitome of never finishing a painting. I have never gone that far.”

Although he paints still-life and wildlife works as well, Forbes is best known for spare, expressive landscapes that border on abstraction. His subtle color palettes suggest various seasons of the year. But the viewer would be hard-pressed to associate a Forbes scene with a specific place. That’s because his artistic goal is to offer interpretations of various landscapes and natural wonders without referencing, say, the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon. And his landscapes most often lack traces of mankind or any man-made elements. “In a sense, my paintings are more dreamscapes than landscapes in that they don’t depict any particular place or time,” Forbes says. “I am not a painter of dramatic sunsets or beach scenes.”

Stepping into Forbes’ studio in Plano, northeast of Dallas, one is likely to hear a distinctive American sound wafting through the air: jazz tunes by everyone from the legendary Duke Ellington to today’s star Norah Jones. Jazz, Forbes says, has much in common with his style of painting. Both are improvisational, a word the artist uses interchangeably with “intuitive” in describing his creative process. Indeed, a Forbes work is an exploration of visual riffs, rhythms, and color notes as well as experimentations with texture and form.

For the artist, inspiration might spring spontaneously from simple, everyday experiences because he is always thinking about art, he says. A scene from the Yorkshire countryside on the television series Downton Abbey might capture his attention, and so might a grove of trees on a fall day that he observes while walking his dog, Cleo.

Forbes often begins a painting with a thumbnail sketch based on a fleeting memory from a lifetime of travel or on something from his fertile imagination. On occasion a painting may originate from a plein-air sketch or a photograph taken with his cell phone. The artist works in oils on either canvas or panel, usually on a textured surface that he creates with gesso or even modeling paste. “I try to have a feeling for what I am trying to say,” Forbes says. “Sometimes it takes me a day or two to finish a painting, and other times a day grows into weeks and maybe months.”

He relishes the problem-solving aspect in painting that accompanies each new vision. For instance, Forbes recalls that after finishing HALLOWED GROUND, he got the feeling, once again, that the work wasn’t quite right. It needed something to enhance the composition. He decided to add a meandering stream in the foreground—a design element that helped carry the viewer’s eye through the picture plane. “I sometimes think that painters are like stage directors in that they control where the viewer’s eye will go in an image by how the painting is composed,” Forbes says.

Forbes typically has several works in progress at any given time. On this particular day in his studio there are the beginnings of a nocturne on a small easel while a larger easel sits at the ready for a landscape that’s been percolating in Forbes’ mind.

Forbes’ familiarity with various landscapes began early. His father was in the Air Force, and his family moved every two years or so, from Oklahoma to Ohio to Guam and beyond. Art was a
steady companion in each new locale. The young Forbes drew cowboys, horses, and houses on every available space, often filling the flyleaves of his storybooks. His parents encouraged his artistic talent, and he eventually went on to earn a fine-arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The art education at the university was adequate, but Forbes wanted more professional training, so he enrolled in classes at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, where he pursued illustration. When it came time to seek work, an instructor advised him to head to the Southwest. There he would have many opportunities to create original artwork. By contrast, if he moved to New York City, which was teeming with talent, he would probably be reduced to producing storyboards for a much longer time. Forbes heeded the advice, and in 1967 he moved to Dallas where he landed a job at a small advertising firm.

After four or five years of establishing his career in Texas, he found an agent in New York, and from his home base in Dallas, his client list began to flourish on a national scale. In the 1970s and through the ’80s, Forbes became known for his loose, realistic style, producing artwork for Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, the National Football League, and the Professional Golfers’ Association. He also created portraits depicting an array of luminaries, from U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter to sports figures like Mickey Mantle and Jack Nicklaus. In 1986 Forbes was named Sports Artist of the Year, an honor awarded by the American Sport Art Museum & Archives in Daphne, AL. Soon afterward he was named the official artist for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

Today a glance around his studio reveals remnants of his former life as a distinguished illustrator. A painting portraying basketball great Michael Jordan—which eventually became a book cover—hangs on one wall. Nearby are portraits of jazz musicians Ella Fitzgerald and Wes Montgomery and CD covers for various music labels.

But the heydays of illustration began to fade in the 1990s with advances in computer-aided design, and Forbes began to think seriously about a second career as a fine artist with a gallery to represent his work. The idea of getting away from the structured needs of an agency or magazine appealed to him. The opportunity to make his move occurred in 2004, after he donated a still-life painting to the Dallas Museum of Art for an exhibition. Cheryl Vogel, owner of Valley House Gallery, saw the painting and contacted Forbes with an invitation to show his works. In retrospect, Forbes says, that was the turning point, the moment when he began to paint with a newfound purpose. And for the past 12 years he has enjoyed his reincarnation as a full-time fine artist and painter.

The initial challenge in his second career, he says, was “learning how to let go.” After a 35-year career creating more realistic works, mostly involving figures, he had to clear his head to work more freely. “Fine art is harder than illustration work,” Forbes says. “This requires more of my own thinking and intuition because I like each painting to be a fresh and different challenge for me. I don’t like to do the same painting over and over. That’s what keeps painting exciting—all the endless possibilities. I feel very blessed to be able to spend my days doing the one thing I really love to do.”

Valley House Gallery, Dallas, TX; Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, Telluride, CO.

This story was featured in the February 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  February 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook