Ask award-winning artist George Carlson about a detail in one of his paintings — a tree, a rock, a bird, a cloud — and his answer is likely to be amazingly comprehensive.
Carlson is among the 114 artists who will participate in the 39th annual Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition and Sale, which opens June 8 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
For art lovers drawn to historically authentic depictions of the Old West, the Prix de West weekend will include seminars, artist demonstrations, a live auction, the unveiling of the artwork selected for the annual Prix de West Purchase Award and the eagerly awaited art sale and awards banquet.
Twice a recipient of the Prix de West Award, Carlson, 71, is the only artist to have won for both sculpture and painting — his bronze, “Courtship Flight,” was selected in 1975 and his oil painting, “Umatilla Rock,” won in 2011. Both works are now on permanent display at the museum.
During a Skype interview shortly after the announcement of his second Prix de West win last year, Carlson said he knew he had to paint Umatilla Rock because “looking down that spine of rock gave me goose bumps.”
Merely looking at the scene and painting the canvas were not his only efforts regarding this little known area of central Washington state. Before he even picked up his paintbrush, Carlson hiked the remote area at different seasons and times of day, photographed it, sketched it, made color charts of it, studied topographical maps and satellite photos, researched it geologically and took aerial views of it from a plane.
That immersion into the soul of his subjects — in the case of Umatilla Rock, an intense study of its unique and complex geologic history — has long been Carlson's artistic trademark.
“I always want to grow as an artist,” Carlson said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Harrison, Idaho. “I like to feel a landscape or subject deep in my core.”
Carlson said he is bringing three oil-on-linen paintings to this year's show. Two of the artworks feature scenes from the same savagely beautiful region of central Washington that Carlson depicted in “Umatilla Rock.”
Carlson calls the area “scab lands” because the terrain was continually cut and scraped by glaciers and floods over the eons, and never fully healed before the next onslaught. “I think I relate to that land because I'm also a sculptor — I like its texture as well as its look,” the artist explained.
“Stillness in Moonlight,” a 42-by-42-inch sky and landscape painting priced at $60,000, depicts a site located about 10 miles south of Umatilla Rock. “Doing that painting was a challenge,” Carlson said. “It took a lot of patience to get the clouds just right, to build up colors underneath. I also didn't want the land mass to compete with the sky. While I was working on the painting, a full moon came and it all just worked.”
I couldn't resist painting that. The whole painting is about repetition of birds, their tail feathers and their colors.”