Don Weller combines his lifelong loves of drawing and cowboying in expressive watercolors
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the August 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art August 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Drawing and the cowboy life have long been dual passions for Don Weller. No matter to him that it took six decades or so to bring them together in perfect harmony through a career as a full-time fine artist.
He couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 when drawing first seized hold of his imagination. “My dad, who was an architect, took me with him to talk to some guy. And I was fidgeting,” Weller recalls. “The guy had a book on how to draw—you know, one of those popular how-to-draw books back in the early 1940s, where you make a series of circles, and one becomes the head, and another the hips, and another the shoulder.” His father’s client thoughtfully handed the impatient boy a pad of paper and a pencil along with the book. “And drawing has kept me from fidgeting ever since,” Weller says.
Weller drew all the time, right through grade school and junior high in his hometown of Pullman, WA, using his budding skills to express his cherished dreams of becoming a cowboy. In fact, by the time high school rolled around, he didn’t even have time to take any elective art classes, so focused had he become on competing in calf roping, a precursor to his hoped-for western lifestyle.
Still, he’d noodle around with paper and pencil whenever he could, even selling a few cartoons he drew to Western Horseman magazine. “I came up with clever situations and clever captions,” he says, with a note of chagrin and a chuckle. “But the drawings were just horrible.”
By the time he entered Washington State University, however, he’d decided to aim for something more practical yet still related to cowboying, and he enrolled in the veterinary pre-med program. “I was raised where there were wheat fields and no cows, and had no ranch to inherit, and the West was all carved up by barbed wire, unlike the West I’d been reading about in Will James’s books,” he says. “So that wasn’t going to work out too well.”
During his first two years of college, he took every elective class he possibly could in art. He took a particular shine, not surprisingly, to his drawing class, where he vividly remembers the instructor telling everyone, “‘You can’t learn to draw just in class. You have to practice drawing all the time.’ I took that to heart. I had a sketchbook, and I took it everywhere and drew wherever I was.”
Only problem was, Weller soon learned, that some of those elective credits he earned in art should have been applied to the science subjects he’d need in vet school. “After two years, they told me to go take those classes and come back to see them next year. I was going to be in college forever.”
Weller switched to an art major so he’d be able to graduate in four years. In 1960, with his degree and a portfolio in hand, he moved to Los Angeles, where he was eventually hired by UCLA Extension—a well-established continuing education program on the UCLA campus—to design its catalogs and brochures, which he also began to illustrate. “Most of the time,” he says, “I was getting paid to learn.” During his two years there, his graphic design and illustration portfolios grew more impressive, and he went on to work for small design firms in the area before launching out on his own.
That freelance career was wildly successful. His work appeared in three children’s books; on five U.S. postage stamps; on numerous record albums; on posters for the Hollywood Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the NFL, and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; and in articles in Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, and other periodicals. Time magazine’s memorable July 7, 1975, psychedelic cover declaring Elton John “Rock’s Captain Fantastic”? Weller created that illustration, along with others for the cover of TV Guide. He designed business logos and corporate annual reports. And he also shared his expertise by teaching part time at UCLA, where he met his wife, Cha Cha, and also at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
Eventually, though, he and Cha Cha grew weary of the hectic grind and found themselves yearning for a simpler life. Right after the 1984 Olympics, they moved to Park City, UT, and then 10 years later they headed out to their own little piece of property in the countryside 20 minutes east of town.
The move to Utah set Weller in a new direction, one that would eventually lead to his current, contented situation. He developed an interest in riding cutting horses, a competitive event in which horse and rider are judged by their skill and speed at cutting individual cattle from a herd. That led to a book project for the National Cutting Horse Association and another that he published himself containing his photos and drawings of cutting horses. Those projects required visits to ranches across Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and Montana. “It felt like my childhood love of horses and cowboys came rolling back,” he says.
Eventually, he began to try his hand at painting those cowboys and horses in watercolor. He shared these earliest scenes at first with just family and friends, considering them self-taught learning experiences while he continued working in illustration and graphic design. “My paintings,” he observes, “whether they’re failures or successes, have always been my teachers.”
Then he reached a milestone that told him he was onto something good. “In 2001, I sold my first painting in a gallery, to somebody unknown, not to a relative,” he says. He’s been pretty much a full-time watercolor artist ever since, going on to earn awards at respected exhibitions across the West.
At this stage, Weller’s watercolor successes have him riding high in the saddle—both figuratively and literally. “I do want the paintings that I do to look like whoever painted them enjoyed painting them,” he says. “I hope they look like they were fun to do.”
A work like PITCHIN’ A FIT certainly captures his spirit of fun. “I paint bucking horses now and then,” he explains, “and I wanted this one to show a guy who just got surprised by a horse that looked like an ugly son of a gun.” The painting showcases some of the hallmarks of Weller’s signature style. There’s a strong graphic quality, enhanced by the geometries of the corral fence and its bold early-evening shadows. Every detail of horse and rider—the animal’s musculature and movement, the startled cowboy’s posture, the reins and other tack—is portrayed with absolute believability, a feat that begins with the painstaking working drawings he does based on his extensive reference photos before ever picking up watercolor paper. “When I really start painting, I know where everything wants to be,” he says.
But then, when transferring his working drawing to the final sheet, he’ll deliberately leave out unimportant details, achieving a style he thinks of as “relatively realistic, and a little impressionistic,” he says. “I don’t want to render a painting in a way that it loses the hand of the artist. I don’t noodle it, and I don’t use a T-square or a triangle. I just kind of draw it. My theory is, if things like the buckles are in the right place, somebody will believe what’s happening.” That sensibility leaves Weller free to take a less realistic approach in other parts of a painting—the almost abstract sky and dust swirls in this work, for example, or the opaque gouache that captures the depth of the landforms of Canyonlands National Park in COWBOY CHURCH [see page 108]. Of the latter work, explains Weller, “This was an experiment in using color and gouache to control where the viewer looks. When you’re actually standing out there, you can focus your eyes wherever you want. But in painting, you’ve got to establish the focus of interest.”
Now, at the age of 77, Weller has established the focus of interest in his own life as “a full-time painter of cowboys.” He spends his painting days contentedly at work in a second-floor studio that affords him north light and lovely views of the Kamas Valley and the start of the Uinta Mountains. Cha Cha takes charge of the downstairs office, holding the reins on the business side of things. Asked what he might like to be doing in the future, his answer is sure: “I’m doing just what I want to do now—a little skiing, a little horse riding, cutting cows, and a lot of time painting. Painting is my passion. And if I ever get watercolor figured out, I might try oils.”
Cowboy Bronze Fine Art Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Deselms Fine Art, Cheyenne, WY; Folger Galleries, Midland, TX; Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Montgomery-Lee Fine Art, Park City, UT; Southwest Roundup Studio Gallery, San Juan Bautista, CA; The Howell Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK; White Buffalo Gallery, Glen Rose, TX; Wilcox Gallery, Jackson, WY.
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