Tom and Barbara Hill | Shared Passion

By Rosemary Carstens

This is a tale of two talented artists who found each other and embarked on a wonderful journey to share their passion with collectors and admirers. It all begins with watercolorist Tom Hill, who has traveled to more than 70 countries, taught over 300 painting workshops throughout the United States and abroad, and authored six books about painting, color, and travel. He’s participated in more group and one-man shows in leading museums and galleries and racked up more awards than he can count. “Tom Hill is one of the great watercolorists of this generation,” says Seth Hopkins, director of the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, GA. “His work has blazed a trail for younger watercolorists to find a receptive audience within the western genre.”

Hill was born in 1925 in Texas, where his father worked as an oil-company lawyer. At age 3, his family moved to Southern California, where Tom grew up. Those were Depression years, and times were hard. His mother helped the family survive by selling encyclopedias and Childcraft books. Tom’s interest in art bloomed early—when his parents passed away, he discovered among their things a crayon drawing of pilgrims he’d done on brown wrapping paper in the first grade. As early as high school, the young artist was receiving recognition. He began sending out samples of his work to ad agencies and snagged a job as a shop boy for a gold-leaf lettering master. His experiences there proved invaluable if, at times, a bit tough; his boss was, as Tom puts it, “cantankerous and demanding, quite rough around the edges.”

Tom’s growing talent won him a full four-year scholarship to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which was abruptly interrupted for World War II military service. In the Navy, he created visual training guides for a school near Pearl Harbor. Following the war, he became a set designer and storyboard artist at Universal Studios in California. From there the hardworking 25-year-old artist was hired by the Chicago Tribune to illustrate its Sunday Magazine; later he covered the Korean War front as an artist-correspondent and accepted assignments all over Europe to render postwar impressions.

In time, Hill launched a successful freelance illustration business in New York City. His work appeared in magazines like Reader’s Digest, Redbook, New York Times Magazine, and others, as well as in books. Eventually he moved to Arizona to work as a full-time fine-art painter and, by the early 1970s, he had ceased commercial work completely. All along the way, there were no shortcuts for Hill. As his friend and artist Harley Brown quoted him in his introduction to Hill’s book Travels With My Paintbox: “The price must be paid. It takes time and determined effort to become a real artist—and I don’t know of any shortcuts. Learning to draw well is at the beginning. Solid drawing is to painting as the alphabet and grammar are to writing.”

In the late 1970s, fate reached a gleeful hand into Tom Hill’s life and changed it irrevocably. While in San Diego to teach a workshop, a student approached him about purchasing one of his paintings—a lively figurative composition titled CHATTING IN THE MARKET. That student was Barbara, and Tom found her irresistible. Mustering his considerable charisma as they discussed the painting and the purchase, Tom (no doubt with a twinkle in his eye) leaned closer and said, “Shall we seal it with a kiss?” The rest is history—within two years they were married, and 32 years later, that painting hangs in their bedroom as a continuing symbol of the life they’ve chosen.

Unlike Tom, who grew up in urban California, Barbara was born and raised in rural Kansas, living on her grandparents’ farm. Her love for the outdoors, nature, and animals and her ability to perceive the mood, light, and color of a scene is exquisitely reflected in her paintings.

Barbara Hill, A Peaceful Refuge, oil, 12 x 16.

Barbara Hill’s ability to capture quiet moments in the lives of her subjects is especially well represented by A PEACEFUL REFUGE. The two ducks, lulled by the heat of the day, are portrayed relaxing in a shady spot along a waterway’s banks. The artist’s active brushwork and skillful handling of light, shadow, and color instantly inform the viewer that this is one of those sizzling summer afternoons when time ebbs slowly. It is the artist’s keen interpretations of such scenes that are the foundation of her success.

But Barbara’s road to becoming a full-time artist was very different than her husband’s. She graduated with a bachelor of science degree in microbiology from Colorado State University in 1956 and worked as a certified bacteriologist for a time, initially studying art as an avocation at night school and attending workshops. “Perhaps my work as a bacteriologist, which often required me to prepare detailed and precise drawings of what I saw through the microscope, laid the foundation for my present work as a professional artist,” she says today.

Barbara has exhibited in many one-woman and group shows, winning numerous awards, and her paintings are included in private and corporate collections across the country. Her bestselling book, Painting Animals, Step by Step, continues to be in high demand.

Barbara and Tom Hill are both prolific artists, and each has his or her own signature style. “Tom and I paint so differently,” says Barbara, who works primarily in oils. “Our individual styles have not rubbed off on one another.” Seth Hopkins, too, remarked on how harmoniously the couple works: “They complement each other very well. The opportunity to call upon the other when needing a fresh critique, to access a sympathetic yet expert opinion, improves the work of both artists. We are very pleased to have their work in our permanent collection.”

When asked about his style, Tom brushes the question aside. “Forget about style,” he says. “Learn your medium. In the process of making a painting, an artist makes a thousand little decisions—this line here, this color, this mark—those are your unique personal expressions, like handwriting. It comes from doing a lot of painting: each stroke changes the view and makes your work reflect you and what is called style.”

Whatever you call it—style or personal expressions—Tom certainly has a knack for making his thousands of “little decisions,” and the resulting paintings are alive with his well-practiced ability to put paint on paper. He usually begins with a study, creating several pencil sketches, and then moves to color. His scenes frequently include people and, at times, larger paintings contain crowds of figures, with those in the foreground rendered in superb detail. Each foreground figure has been worked out individually in advance to create its unique appearance, corrected and reworked until Tom is satisfied, and then transferred to the composition. His methods are time-consuming and precise; to view a market scene from one of his trips brings its rainbow whirl of humanity to life as if you are right there in the midst of it. As Tom succinctly puts it, “Light and color are my bag!”

Tom Hill, Puerto Penasco Harbor at Low Tide, watercolor, 14 x 21.

Boats are also among Tom’s favorite subject matter. “I love to paint water, docks, harbors—all of it,” he says. He is especially attracted to cluttered boatyards and time-worn vessels, such as the ones he portrayed in PUERTO PEÑASCO HARBOR AT LOW TIDE, a Mexican port located below the Arizona border where the Sonoran Desert meets the Sea of Cortez. Here the artist’s notable mastery of saturated color, vibrant light, and dark contrasts speaks for itself.

Tom is always on the lookout for innovative and interesting projects—and not just in his art. He has built eight homes, including Casa Loma, the couple’s present distinctive Southwest-style home about an hour south of Tucson, AZ. Casa Loma exemplifies the careful attention to design and detail that is Tom’s signature. Embedded in rolling grasslands—vast expanses dotted with mesquite, spiny paloverde trees, and the ubiquitous jumble of prickly pear cactus—their home reflects their welcoming and adventurous spirits.

Guests enter through a large foyer where many of the couple’s paintings are displayed. The paintings read like a narrative of their travels and poignant moments—from Tom’s vivid portrayals of Italian coastal villages or Moroccan market scenes to Barbara’s elegant, richly hued landscapes and animals. Their separate, airy, well-organized studios show their works in progress—a scattering of beautifully rendered pen, ink, and watercolor animal drawings cover Barbara’s drawing table, while Tom’s latest scene from their travels is already taking on brightly hued detail.

Tom and Barbara Hill share an abiding love—for each other, for the world’s cultures, and for the beauty of the natural world. Nothing makes them happier than to know others are enjoying the fruits of their labor. Their paintings allow us all to share in the richness of their visions. As Tom often says, “What more inspiration could an artist ask for?”

K. Newby Gallery, Tubac, AZ; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ.

Upcoming Show
Mountain Oyster Club Western Art Show and Sale, Tucson, AZ, November 20.

Featured in August 2011.