Karmel Timmons | Drawing on Determination

Karmel Timmons’ art has provided constancy through times of change

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Karmel Timmons, Patiently Waiting, pencil, 16 x 22.

Karmel Timmons, Patiently Waiting, pencil, 16 x 22.

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

People often tell Karmel Timmons her drawings look exactly like photographs. She thanks them politely. She knows they mean it as a compliment—they’re saying how impressed they are by her mastery of the medium of pencil drawing and her rendering of exquisite detail. She doesn’t need to tell them her intention has nothing to do with reproducing a photograph. Nor is that actually how her art looks.

In fact, as Timmons’ collectors—especially those in the horse world—intuitively grasp, the Colorado artist uses photos as reference but imbues her drawings with ineffable qualities well beyond what is captured through a camera’s lens. “I know it’s a successful drawing when people can just feel something in it, something outside the visual,” she says. Among the intangible qualities viewers tell her they appreciate is a certain look in a horse’s eye, an immediate recognition of her equine subject’s character or mood.

Not surprisingly, Timmons personally knows many of the horses she draws. For 16 years she lived surrounded by horse ranches near Elbert, CO, southeast of Denver. Although she now resides in Denver, she continues to visit friends who own horses and spends time with trainers and traveling to horse shows, carrying her sketch pad and camera wherever she goes. In recent years, inspired by weekends with her sweetheart in a remote, off-the-grid cabin in the foothills of southern Colorado’s La Garita Mountains, wildlife has also begun to make its way into her art.

Looking back, Timmons thinks she could have enjoyed growing up as a cowgirl, engaging with horses in a wide-open landscape from a young age. But that’s not what happened. Instead, with both parents in the U.S. Navy, her early life was packed into boxes and unpacked every year or two as the family moved between Minnesota, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, California, Japan, and Guam—all before she turned 11. The one constant over the years was a love of drawing and art. Timmons’ mother was a talented, though not professional, artist who was especially interested in drawing horses. For Karmel, however, human portraiture was more compelling for many years.

When her parents divorced, Timmons’ mother moved with her three children to a town near Ogden, UT. Karmel’s two aunts lived nearby and also had a strong interest in art. As a result, the budding young artist was exposed to museums, paint-outs, her mother’s artwork on the walls of the family home, and drawing materials always around and ready to use. “It was a subtle way of educating us about art,” she says. “It definitely stuck with me, growing up.”

While still in high school Timmons attended the summer art program at Utah State University, where she lived on campus and studied illustration and design. For the most part, drawing was simply a hobby at that point in her life, and being away from home for the first time had its distractions. Still, she now sees that she absorbed a tremendous amount of knowledge in what would turn out to be her only experience with formal art instruction. Following high school graduation, a brief marriage gave her a daughter and took her to Colorado Springs, where she worked as a bookkeeper for a time after her divorce. Art remained mostly on the sidelines during those years, occasionally rising to the surface as a commissioned drawing of someone’s baby or home. Then, in 1999, everything changed.

Married again and living in a wooded, rural setting near Elbert, Timmons and her husband purchased four horses. She had never drawn a horse, but one day as she watched the large, elegant animals quietly grazing, she got the notion to try. “When that little thought came into my head,” she marvels, “I had no idea how it would end up.” She pushed through early frustration and pulled out her inherent determination as she taught herself to draw a horse, well aware that those with horse experience would expect no less than absolute accuracy. Of the equine form she says, “It’s very complicated, not easy to draw. When I was learning, I would literally run outside in the middle of a drawing to look at my horses.”

After about a year of intense focus and endless hours of work, Timmons reached the point, for the first time, of feeling satisfied with a drawing of a horse. A few years later in 2005, she won the People’s Choice Award at the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale. She went on to win the award four years running, and in 2008, she was honored as the show’s featured artist. More awards followed, along with participation in the Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale, the Phippen Museum Western Art Show & Sale, and others, and exhibiting through such venues as the American Academy of Equine Art. Her collectors include top thoroughbred horse trainers and owners, as well as those who just love the exquisite beauty of the horse.

Initially Timmons focused primarily on detailed, close-up imagery of horses’ heads and necks. Over the years her compositions developed and expanded to include the entire animal, multiple horses, and sometimes a horse and rider. More recently she has also begun drawing wildlife, including bison, ravens, and bears. At the moment her drawing table even holds a still life depicting a rope and spur, although the horse itself is still represented in the piece. Behind the objects on the wall in the drawing is a sketch of a horse. “I’m changing it up a bit,” she says.

What haven’t changed are the kinds of horses and tack Timmons loves to draw. Early on as a full-time artist, she met horse trainer Mindy Bower, sister-in-law of famed trainer and natural horsemanship teacher Buck Brannaman, who served as the primary inspiration for Nicholas Evans’ novel The Horse Whisperer. Bower, Brannaman, and other horse owners and friends of the artist practice vaquero-style horsemanship, training and riding thoroughbreds and using masterfully crafted, hand-forged and hand-braided gear. “I love drawing the art within the art,” Timmons says of the traditional buckaroo gear.

Some of this tack is visible in MOVING FORWARD [see page 50], a strikingly cropped image of a beautiful blaze horse and rider appearing to step straight toward the viewer just a few feet away. For Timmons, the piece symbolizes a time in her life when resolute forward motion was her main goal. A few years ago, after she and her husband divorced, she took over all the art-business-related tasks her husband had been handling for her, including marketing and framing her work. Because her mother had owned a frame shop when Timmons was young, she knew how to cut mats and assemble frames, but she had never used a frame saw. Her ex-husband showed her how to operate the saw, and she soon became adept at making her own frames. In assuming the marketing of her work, she established her own approach, including learning computer-aided design tools in order to produce calendars and cards.

“It’s nice having all these different ways of expressing my creativity,” she says now. Immediately following her divorce, however, when faced with becoming more self-sufficient in many ways at once, there was only one thing to do—just like the the horse in MOVING FORWARD. “He’s looking intensely forward, taking a step at a time. That was me,” she says. “He’s listening, concentrating, doing exactly what he’s asked to do, and he knows what he’s doing. I love the intensity and strength in the horse’s face.”

Timmons’ artistic process requires its own brand of focus and fortitude. She begins with photographs, usually ones she has taken. These become reference for a simple line drawing to set down the composition and make sure the initial form is correct. She traces this drawing onto archival paper and then begins the time-consuming phase: adding fine detail and layer upon layer of meticulous shading using progressively darker charcoal-wax-blend pencils. “I’m not drawing every hair; I’m drawing the impression of every hair,” she says, noting that her work is not, in fact, photo-realistic. After many days the final image emerges, rich in tones from white to black and with a solid feeling of three-dimensional form.

Just as important, Timmons captures subtle but penetrating suggestions of an animal’s temperament or state of mind and infuses her images with an atmosphere of calm. AFTER THE RIDE was inspired by a photo taken by a friend about 10 years ago. “I just love the expressions on those three horses,” she says. “They’ve been out walking and trotting all day, and now they’re tied up to the horse trailer, getting ready to be unsaddled and put away. The one in the middle is so sweet, just peering out.”

These days, Timmons no longer owns horses or rides—her art consumes the time and attention they would require. Instead, she carries the equine spirit around with her as works-in-process, which her medium allows her to easily transport. At home in Denver, the focus of her neatly organized workspace is a drafting table angled just right. In the small mountain cabin, her partner, Jeff, built a special angled table that folds against the wall to save space when not in use. In either place, the artist says, “The drawing table is my comfort zone. When I sit in my chair to draw, it’s home.”

Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Bozeman, MT; Wild Horse Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO; Dancing Wolf Gallery, Elbert, CO; www.karmeltimmons.com.

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

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