Kevin Courter | Personal Panoramas

By Rosemary Carstens

When painter Kevin Courter creates his stunning portrayals of the California landscape—from the coast to the Sierra Nevada mountain range—he draws upon an abundance of inspiration that he has accumulated over a lifetime. “As a kid, I roamed all over this area. Now, when I’m out driving around looking for subject matter for my art, I’m always reminded of how blessed I am to have grown up here.”

At Lands End, Point Lobos, oil, 24 x 20.

Born in Palo Alto, CA, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Courter has decades of nostalgic memories to inform his California visions. As a boy, he fished and hunted with his father, three brothers, cousins, and uncle, and he often rode his bicycle out to the nearby marshlands with friends. His years spent observing the region’s evolving countryside imbue his paintings with deep, personal knowledge that shines through his work. A piece titled AT LAND’S END, inspired by Point Lobos near Carmel, is an excellent example: One senses the artist’s presence as he gazes at a limitless sea stretching to the horizon. With windswept Monterey pines and rugged headlands protruding from the foreground, the view seems to beckon the viewer in, just as it has beckoned the artist throughout his life.

Mostly self-taught, the 46-year-old Courter has always insisted on finding his own way to his present mastery of craft. His high school art teacher, Bill Rushton, guided him with a light hand, something Courter deeply appreciates. “Many teachers try to shape you to paint as they do,” he says. “That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to develop my own signature, my own method, one that would reflect what interests me in each composition.”

Today, Courter constantly studies paintings in museums and galleries. When he spots an effect he admires, he rushes back to his studio to work out the technique for himself. Rushton and Courter still see one another, and his former teacher continues to mentor him. In the late 1990s, when Courter made a dramatic transition from very detailed wildlife and landscape paintings to his current, more painterly style, it was Rushton who helped him through the process.

In many ways Courter’s landscapes pay homage to self-taught painter and prominent lithographer Russell Chatham, who was also born in Marin County, and also to the renowned tonalist Arthur Mathews. Mathews was one of the founders of the American arts and crafts movement and had a significant influence on the evolution of California art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “I admire the simplicity in these artists’ compositions, how they edited out extraneous detail,” says Courter, referring to both Chatham and Mathews. “It allows the viewer to take part in the making of a story, to let his own experiences flow into the painting—something I strive for in my own work.”

Dunes of 17 Mile Drive, Pebble Beach, oil 16 x 34.

But Courter’s work is never derivative; it is always uniquely and powerfully his own. He has taken the concepts of tonalism—working in closely related values to create mystery and mood—and the challenge of distilling a scene down to its critical components and combined them to create his own signature style. “It’s important to me,” he continues, “to get rid of ‘noise’ and capture the character of the moment. And I’m constantly trying to grow.”

Bill Hill, owner of New Masters Gallery in Carmel, CA, discovered Courter’s work about six years ago. “I saw right away it was exceptional,” he says. “He was about 40 years old, but the quality of his work was as if he’d been painting for 50 years. His work makes you feel like you are in a museum’s early California artists’ wing—it’s that good. I immediately recognized his innate talent, and he’s become one of the top painters in the gallery, winning several awards and becoming nationally known.”

Reflecting recently on Courter’s increasing success, Mark Smith of Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX, pinpointed the artist’s “iconic sense of nature’s majesty. When we as viewers wander ‘into’ one of Kevin’s paintings, it gives us a feeling of belonging, of being present in the scene. How Kevin edits his subject matter is key to his success; he retains and simplifies only those elements that build and enhance his narrative.”

Courter’s compositions emphasize the importance of both positive and negative shapes. Those shapes are the key elements in the scenes he chooses to paint, particularly in his tonal paintings, where he combines soft brushwork and edges to create a mood and pays close attention to the interaction of warm and cool colors and the relationships between values. “The main players in these paintings are generally the skies,” he says. “They give paintings such as SERENITY a sense of mystery and a bit of romance. The color in my skies is what often moves people, taking them back to a memory once forgotten.”

Serenity, oil, 14 x 18.

The artist’s ability to change the time of day in any given landscape is one of the unique aspects of his process. “I’ve spent years studying the light and colors at sunrise, sunset, and in moonlight—those hours when a scene is most beautiful,” he says. For example, SERENITY emerged from a scene captured in the middle of the day, even though it appears in the finished painting to be early in the evening. “I can even paint nocturnes in the middle of the day. This technique has been especially useful on overcast or low-light days. It is on those days that shapes become everything in my search for landscapes to paint.”

Although he spends long hours in his studio and travels far and wide to find scenes that inspire him, he still loves hunting, fishing, and backpacking and is an avid Giants fan. He and his wife, Janice, also get excited about setting challenges for themselves as a couple. For Janice’s recent milestone birthday, they trained for months to hike Yosemite’s iconic granite Half Dome.

Preparing for the demanding 16-mile climb required a sustained commitment to fitness—not unlike the artist’s commitment to achievement in his art.

Courter’s studio is small but welcoming. A leather club chair sits in one corner, usually reserved for the family’s chocolate Lab, Sienna, who, Courter says, will be a natural when hunting season rolls around. A large easel is set up against one wall, along with tables of paints, brushes, and other tools. The usual assortment of paintings, art books, desk, and computer are present. But it is the treasures on the walls that most reveal the interests and personality of the artist: a mounted pronghorn antelope head and a beautifully preserved pheasant (shot on the artist’s first hunting trip with his father and uncle), an expanse of elk horn, two delicately rendered John Gould hand-colored lithographs of hummingbirds, a vintage mirror, and a couple of framed selections from Courter’s antique photograph collection of people painting.

One of his favorites, taken in the early 1900s, features the Prince of Sweden seated comfortably in the back seat of a convertible motor car as he paints the scene before him. Clearly, Courter is a man of eclectic tastes.

Collectors and judges alike appreciate the quality of Courter’s paintings. Among his many awards are those he’s received at the Carmel Art Festival, including the Emerging Artist of the Year award in 2005, Best of Show 2006, Artists’ Choice and People’s Choice 2007, People’s Choice 2009, and Second Place in 2010. Two collectors who especially value the artist’s work and continue to add new pieces to their collection are Steve and Cynthia Edwards of Sacramento, CA. “We have fallen in love with Kevin’s work,” says Cynthia.

“We have several of his landscapes and also a beautiful still life of a cream-colored magnolia flower emerging from leafy darkness. Kevin’s work feels so personal to us. One of our favorite paintings is a scene in Carmel of the church where we were married. His rendering of the sky is divine—we had to add that one to our collection!”

California’s panoramic scenery has long inspired creative imaginations, and California painters have always been among the top ranks of American artists. Kevin Courter is well on his way to joining that distinguished group, and his interpretations of California’s landscapes will no doubt stand the test of time. “With all that is going on in the world today,” Courter reflects, “it’s important to also have something in our lives that reminds us of its beauty and goodness. Beautiful art brings hope into our lives and our living spaces.”

New Masters Gallery, Carmel, CA; Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; The Garden Gallery, Half Moon Bay, CA; Sekula’s Fine Art & Antiques, Sacramento, CA; Debra Huse Gallery, Balboa Island, CA; Holton Studio Frame Makers, Emeryville, CA;

Featured in February 2011.