Idaho artist Robert Moore paints spectrums beyond his perception
By Gussie Fauntleroy
The fact that light enters the human eye, travels through miniscule nerves to receptors in the brain, and is translated into sight is a marvel to painter Robert Moore, who points to visual perception as an aspect of—and here the thoughtful, soft-spoken artist quotes from the Psalms—how “fearfully and wonderfully” we’re made. That’s one reason Moore is drawn to impressionism in his art. Just as the eye and brain make sense of raw data from light, the Idaho-based painter imagines the act of painting in a similar way: an almost magical translation of vision into pleasing relationships of color and form.
“I’m not as interested in detail as in the larger shapes, the design, how the values of masses link together and create interesting shapes,” he explains, sitting in his spacious studio in the tiny town of Declo, ID, not far from his rural home. “Painting is how I can understand that and put it into my own vocabulary on canvas for someone else to enjoy.”
The world that Moore sorts out on canvas is often one of shifting, speckled light, twisted branches, and winding mountain streams—the wildness of aspen groves and rugged peaks. Or of tamed but beautiful farmlands near the broad Snake River, where he grew up and still lives. It’s a world intimately connected to the 54-year-old artist’s boyhood, and an expression of his ongoing passion for the outdoors. For more than 30 years, since his days as a student in art school, Moore has shared that passion with galleries and collectors around the country. With an ever-evolving approach to the practice of painting, his art reflects a blend of dedicated discipline and pure creative joy.
The discipline in Moore’s life began early. The youngest of five children of a schoolteacher mother and a father who farmed and also taught school, young Robert spent summers helping raise barley, beans, and sugar beets. His favorite memories, though, revolve around the river and nearby mountains, where fishing, hunting, and exploring were the stuff of a boy’s adventurous dreams. An interest in drawing developed as a result of being the “obnoxious younger brother always trying to get my share of attention,” he remembers, smiling. “I drew to get approval and found that I was gifted in it, to a certain degree.”
Moore’s artistic gifts remained largely unexplored through high school and into college at the College of Idaho, where he followed his father’s practical advice of studying for pre-law. But by the end of his sophomore year he had come to a different conclusion about his direction in life. “I realized I wanted to be like a farmer. I wanted to work outdoors and have a direct relationship between what I did and a harvest, but I didn’t want to be on a tractor,” he relates. “So I thought maybe I could be out in the mountains painting, and then sell my paintings. It was a romantic dream, but I was passionate enough to follow that dream.”
Moore pursued his dream by switching to an art major and later receiving a full scholarship to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, where he earned a BFA in illustration, graduating with honors. In art school his sharply honed focus allowed him to take advantage of learning opportunities in ways that specifically suited his goals. “I knew what I wanted: I wanted to learn to draw and paint well and get gallery representation,” he remembers. “So I was selective in applying my energy and time at the Art Center.”
Part of what that meant was carefully planning his paintings—which he created as assignments for illustration courses—so any text that he had to incorporate could later be painted over and the work could be sold as fine art. The young art student also began attending workshops, including one sponsored by the Cowboy Artists of America in Kerrville, TX, where he met painter Robert Duncan and was introduced to the owners of Trailside Galleries. After being turned down by a number of other galleries, Moore began a relationship with Trailside that has lasted more than 25 years.
Another pivotal experience at the Art Center was having impressionist painter Dan McCaw as an instructor. “When I met Dan, I knew I had my role model and my dream defined. He was doing what I wanted to do,” Moore recalls. “He was such a great human being and teacher. I was with him for the next seven terms.” While McCaw helped shape his student’s approach to painting in general, another instructor’s excellent color-theory training addressed the particular circumstances of Moore’s vision—circumstances that might have severely inhibited a less determined artist.
Moore is colorblind; all the colors of the rainbow appear to him as shades of yellow and blue. The “neutrals” in the middle of the spectrum span toward warm or cool, yet remain within a range of yellow or blue, he explains. “That’s one reason I’m not highly into realism. I can’t replicate the tones in nature.” Instead he has learned to orchestrate color progressions using value relationships, rather than specific colors, to create a pleasing result. “It’s like with a song—what’s important is not so much which key you’re in but the relationship between notes,” he says. “You can start with any color as a ‘tonic chord,’ and as long as you keep those colors in a certain relationship with each other, it still feels like natural color.” In another analogy underscoring the relative roles of color and value, Moore imagines twelve pairs of sunglasses, each with a different tint. No matter which pair you put on, he points out, everything looks beautiful in that hue.
This concept was borne out one autumn day when Moore, teaching painting soon after earning his BFA, noticed a student had left a pile of “dark neutral paint” on her palette after class. “Having come from a background where any small amount of paint would be like a bologna sandwich,” he jokes, “I picked up her colors and put them on my palette.” When Moore’s wife saw the resulting painting she asked him what he’d been looking at when he did it. “Without realizing it, what I picked up was a pile of dark green,” he recounts. “So I changed the painting’s title from FALL ASPENS to EARLY SPRING ASPENS.” The painting quickly sold.
For Moore, getting out into the land of aspens, rivers, and big skies often means traveling on an all-terrain-vehicle equipped as a plein-air painting rig. A metal box on the back holds a large glass palette, and when the box is opened, a canvas can be clamped to the lid. Army-issue ammo canisters hold mineral spirits, and canisters with beans inside keep paint-filled brushes separated from each other. Moore also takes multiday backpacking trips into the wilderness areas he loves to paint. When not traveling or painting on location, he paints and leads workshops in his studio, a renovated 10,000-square-foot former bean warehouse. A few miles away, close to the Snake River, is a five-acre parcel of land where he lives with his wife and six children.
Whether Moore is working in the studio or en plein air, he often enjoys painting large. OCTOBER’S VOICE, for instance, is a 6-by-8-foot scene of an aspen grove, rendered through unrestrained expression in a loose, vibrant style. The lively experience of putting down paint on large canvases is amplified by another aspect of the artist’s distinctive approach—simultaneously working on two separate areas of a canvas by using a brush in each hand.
The practice began many years ago after Moore broke his left wrist, his dominant hand, just weeks before the opening of a solo show. To finish preparing for the show, he trained himself to paint with his right hand. Later he added the left hand back in and learned to use both at the same time. “I can paint a bad painting twice as fast as anyone else,” he jokes. In seriousness, he points out that painting with both hands involves an enjoyable physicality he compares to dancing or boxing, both hands busy yet in control. “It helps me to remain aware of both sides of the form I’m painting,” he notes. “I don’t know how it happens, but it’s second nature now. It’s part of being fearfully and wonderfully made.”
In keeping with his penchant for ongoing artistic development, Moore recently began experimenting with another unconventional method of applying paint and creating color effects. He produced SOUTHWEST SPLENDOR, depicting massive buttes in a Canyonlands setting, with the canvas lying flat. Squirting paint from caulking tubes, Moore briskly worked the colors with fingers, brushes, and palette knives. “You end up with many pieces of broken color, all of the same value, and the eye mixes it into a harmonious chord,” he observes. “It produces a lot of surprises. I mix color that’s beautiful to my eye, and I keep the process going until it works as a whole. There’s an energy and immediacy to it. It’s a lot of fun.”
Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Dana Gallery, Missoula, MT; Hueys Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Kneeland Gallery, Ketchum, ID; Montgomery-Lee Fine Art, Park City, UT; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; www.rmoorefineart.com.
Fall Classics: A View to the West, Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, October 17-22.
Holiday Show, Kneeland Gallery, December 20-January 25, 2012.
Featured in October 2011.