Eric Bowman | A Passion for Painting

Eric Bowman solidifies his reputation among a new generation of western artists

By Norman Kolpas

Eric Bowman, Picture Show, oil, 30 x 30.

Eric Bowman, Picture Show, oil, 30 x 30.

This story was featured in the January 2019 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2019 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

The New Year is shaping up to be a landmark one for Oregon-based painter Eric Bowman. The events he has scheduled for the first five months of 2019 herald his arrival among the ranks of a new generation of accomplished, highly collectible artists who portray cowboys and their horses—as well as, more broadly, the western landscape and figurative subjects—in a style that engagingly walks the line between realism and impressionism.

Consider the list of openings, which he’ll most definitely attend: On February 9, he makes his debut appearance, with four paintings, at the prestigious Masters of the American West Art Exhibition and Sale at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. Just days after that show closes in late March, four more of Bowman’s paintings are featured in the Night of Artists show at the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio; it’s his second consecutive year in that show after selling all of his available works there in 2018. Then, come early May, he gets his first large-scale show of a dozen paintings at Maxwell Alexander Gallery, which enjoys its own sterling reputation for representing top-notch contemporary western painters like Mark Maggiori, Logan Maxwell Hagege, G. Russell Case, Jeremy Lipking, and others.

Yet, despite the love and understanding of the West that’s evident in his paintings of cowboys and their horses in vast, rugged spaces, and despite his reverence for the many western artists who have preceded him, you won’t see Bowman sporting any sort of traditional garb at the opening receptions for those events. “You’ll never find me wearing a big belt buckle and a hat and boots,” he says, laughing humbly. “When I was a kid in the 1960s, I watched Roy Rogers on TV, had my cap six-shooter, and played cowboys and Indians with the other neighborhood kids. But I’m not a cowboy. I’m a painter who loves the cowboy as a heroic American image. But I’ve also painted subjects from jazz singers to ballet dancers, from portraits and nudes to landscapes.”

Bowman first played his childhood cowboy games on the streets of Covina, CA, in the shadows of the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Partway through grade school, the family moved 50 miles south to San Juan Capistrano, site of the famous swallow-thronged mission established by the Spaniards who colonized California in the mid-18th century.
From the beginning of his education, he established a reputation as “the class artist.” While other first-graders were drawings cars as simple rectangles with circle wheels, Eric’s full-perspective renderings won admiration for their detailed wheel wells and fenders. “When you get the accolades, that fuels your interest, and you keep getting better,” he muses. By middle school, “I knew I was going to be an artist of some kind and thought I was going to go to art school.”

He spent his senior year of high school in Portland, OR, where he’d moved with his mother. But he’d already set his sights on returning south to pursue a fine-arts degree at Pasadena’s respected Art Center. That plan changed, however, when an Art Center admissions officer informed him that they first required two years of study at a junior college. “I did not want to go to school to do general education,” Bowman says. He also hoped to live on his own, “and I couldn’t see myself paying rent and buying groceries at the same time I was paying tuition.”

Instead, after graduating in 1979, he moved back south to the town of Costa Mesa, briefly living with his dad before getting his own place. At first, he met his living expenses with a series of jobs including demolishing old swimming pools and working for a friend’s landscaping company, all the while looking to earn a living through “something in the arts.”

That something finally came along in 1981, when a friend of his father’s offered Bowman a position in his company’s art department. “An advertising guy there taught me the basics of layout, design, and paste-up,” he says. A year later, he’d learned enough to launch himself as a freelance graphic artist, living farther down the coast in Dana Point and tackling a wide assortment of creative jobs including logos, cartoons for local newsletters, silkscreen T-shirt designs, and even airbrushed artwork on surfboards.

Meanwhile, Bowman was nurturing another dream, to become a comic-book artist, and was working on a portfolio to showcase his abilities. His mother convinced him to return to Portland and seek guidance from a colleague’s son who was already working in that field.

He headed back north in 1987 to show his portfolio to that contact. But the meeting did not lead him to comic-book fame; instead, he gained a studio space in a converted Victorian mansion known as the Art Farm, filled with freelance illustrators working for Portland-area ad agencies and design firms. “That was where my artistic education in drawing, illustration, and painting really started,” Bowman says. He stayed there for three years before moving to another group studio across town, where he continued gaining knowledge over the next two years by “looking over the shoulders of established professional artists. That was a really good growth period. I learned what I would have at Art Center, plus how to run my own business.”

In 1990, Bowman met Debbie, a wonderful woman at his church in Portland, and they married in 1992. Six months later, they bought their first house, and the mortgage payments necessitated moving his studio there. He continued working regularly for local clients, including Nike and Adidas, then gradually cast his net farther, gaining illustration assignments for publications like Boys’ Life, Field & Stream, and even a couple of covers for Time magazine.

Amidst all this professional success, Bowman experienced an unexpected turning point. During Easter in 1999, he visited an illustrator friend in Pasadena, who in turn introduced him to a high-school classmate, the successful contemporary plein-air and western artist Tim Solliday. “I hung out with Tim for the weekend, and he talked about plein-air painting and working with live figures,” Bowman recalls. “Before then, I’d never even heard the term plein air.” Bowman expressed an interest in making a transition to that new direction. Solliday’s response: “He told me that it would take me five years to get a handle on fine-art painting.” Undaunted by such a level of commitment, Bowman bought the sort of portable French easel favored by plein-air artists. “And I went outside and started painting,” he says. “That’s when my journey to fine art began.”

Solliday’s time-frame prediction proved correct. While still pursuing his successful freelance illustration career, Bowman painted outdoors every chance he could, as well as drew and painted from live models. A move in 2002 to a tranquil half-acre property on the outskirts of Portland in the town of Tigard—where he and Debbie still live with their daughter, who’s now 13—gave him his “dream studio of all time” in a 2,000-square-foot wooden building shaped like a Quonset hut.
Around 2005, Bowman entered his first fine-art event, the Sherwood Forest Plein Air Painting Competition in Chico, CA. “I won first place in the Quick Draw,” he says, amazement still evident in his voice almost 14 years later. In 2006 and 2007, he took top honors again in the next two shows he entered. Gradually, galleries approached him to see if he’d like to be represented. The 2008 recession and a resulting drop in freelance illustration work afforded him more and more time for painting, and by early 2013 he was a full-time fine artist.

It’s a life that suits him perfectly, from the process he follows in gathering reference materials to the final works from his easel. “Painting is my passion, and painting with oils in particular. It’s a very organic and sensual medium that engages my senses, moving that material around and letting the texture of the canvas underneath dictate abstract shapes and brush strokes,” Bowman enthuses, describing the small-scale felicities that enhance the impressionistic quality of his wholly realistic, representative scenes.

Take, for example, the painting SOLITAIRE, a deeply serene depiction of a solitary cowboy astride his palomino in the shade of giant boulders. The work results from the artist’s diligent, highly mindful process. The setting was inspired by his plein-air studies in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a dramatically rocky terrain northeast of San Diego and south of Palm Springs. The horse and rider were based on a reference photo shoot in the equestrian enclave of Pacific Palisades, CA, set up for him and Tim Solliday by Beau Alexander, Maxwell Alexander Gallery’s director—“though I then scraped down and sanded them and painted in different ones, manipulating and stylizing and simplifying everything” to achieve more of the contemplative scene he desired. Finished in four or five painting sessions stretched out over a couple of weeks, the painting perfectly captures an image he wants to continue exploring in his work: “the idea of the cowboy as an iconic hero, usually alone, who has the time to look around, notice nature, and appreciate his surroundings.”

And that’s precisely what Bowman himself now possesses the ability to do. “My career philosophy has always been to go through the doors that open for me. I love the outdoors. I’ve loved the West since my childhood. I love painting. Now that this door has opened, I am happy to step through.”

Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY; Maxwell Alexander Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson, AZ; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR; Vanessa Rothe Fine Art, Laguna Beach, CA.

This story was featured in the January 2019 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2019 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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