Bill's Process By Valerie Owen
During the time Bill Owen was striving to turn his dream of a career in art into a reality, he experimented with subject matter that included the portrayal of historical scenes, Cowboys and Indians. It didn’t take him long to figure out that rather than trying to “think up an idea,” it took all of the guesswork out of the equation if he concentrated on the subject he had been drawn to from the very beginning. It was what was in his heart – that of the contemporary working cowboy.
His Father had been a cowboy in the early 1900s; his Uncle had a working cattle ranch, and as a young man Bill worked as a cowboy. It was what he knew and it was a part of him, and he soon learned it was a part he could not forsake to be in the studio all of the time. As he grew, both as an artist and a person, he came to realize he needed to get out of the studio from time to time to gather research for his art while at the same time continuing to take part in the works on a ranch. Both were his passion.
For almost four decades now Bill has enjoyed the passion, resulting in his taking thousands of photographs on working ranches, mainly in Arizona. Since finding his niche, his creations are almost exclusively of real people, real animals and real happenings. He does not imagine a painting and then hire someone to model for him. If a painting develops in his head, he searches through and studies the photographs he has taken, and if he doesn’t have what he needs for reference, he goes out and searches for it until he finds it.
When Bill returns from gathering research, there are times he is so energized and inspired, that he is driven to start a piece of art right away, fueled by something he has just witnessed. Other times he may work for days viewing hundreds of the photographs he has taken - all reference material he may utilize as he creates pieces of art that record accurately, and in precise detail, the day-to-day life of the working cowboy.
Owen knows there are many ways to paint a painting and he has run the gamut. Without formal art education, he has experimented with various methods in an attempt to achieve what another artist referred to as, “those delicious colors." For some time now, black has been absent from Bill’s pallet. To achieve the rich colors he desires, he mixes complimentary colors together to make gray and uses a “controlled pallet,” mixing Oil of Clove into the paints to keep them from drying out. The pallet he uses for watercolors leans more toward the French Pallet he uses for plein-air.
Bill utilizes a color wheel as reference for the complimentary colors, which can be very simple, yet extremely complicated because it is a never-ending circle with endless combinations. Due to those endless combinations, Bill jots notes and dabs paint samples from each creation onto plastic sheets for his records. He has studied and analyzed those combinations for years in an effort to “figure it all out” and has come to the conclusion that he may never fully accomplish that - but he’ll continue to try. Because his experience has been that there is such a vast amount to learn within the world of art, he believes no artist can ever know it all. Therefore, he believes even truly great artists have died while still learning. And he plans to do the same.
When a painting, and the size it should be has been decided on, Bill mounts the canvas onto stretcher bars and draws the basics of the scene onto the canvas with a Sharpie. After “roughing it in” or “getting the white out,” he then places it into a closet that has racks and a heater, capable of heating up to 110°, to speed up the drying process. Owen prefers to have three or more paintings in progress, rotating them, enabling him to “see” with a fresh eye when he puts one in the closet and takes another one out. The aforementioned reference sheets are then used to match the colors he previously used in that particular piece to set the mood, temperature, and time of the day or night.
A painting may rotate in and out of the drying closet three or four times before it’s completed and Bill signs it. If a title had not come to him prior to the creation of the piece it usually does at sometime throughout the process, and a nameplate is ordered. It is rare that a title is not decided on until the creation is completed.
The frame must be ordered a minimum of two months prior to a piece being finished. Owen finds it helpful to be able to place a painting in its frame from time to time, and prefers to put the finishing touches on with the painting in the frame. The simplicity or busyness, and especially the finish/color of a frame and how it interplays with the subject/colors within the painting are extremely important, as the frame can affect a piece in a positive or a negative way. Trial and error over time has made it seldom that a different frame than the one originally ordered for a piece is substituted.
Bill photographs every finished creation digitally. Images are kept for his record and may be utilized later for reproductions, as Bill retains the copyrights to his art. When the piece is designated for a show, a digital file is provided for publicity and/or the show catalog prior to shipping the art to them.
The process described thus far doesn’t take into account the times that Bill battles a piece. It sometimes seems as if a piece of art takes on a distinct personality or character. Some pieces just flow – easy from beginning to the end. Others are like a contrary child who has their own stubborn mind, and it’s a continual fight. When Owen encounters the latter, he is unable to let it go because “it’s good enough.” He creates his art to please himself, and being the perfectionist that he is, “settling” is not an option. He has to keep at it until he is satisfied that he has done the very best he could do at any given time. So rather than continuing to struggle with a piece, there are times he has to just put it away, sometimes for as long as six months. But he will come back to it and conquer it in the end. Thankfully this doesn’t happen often, as it wreaks havoc on the schedule and deadlines.
Aaahh, deadlines. A successful artist lives by deadlines. Whether it’s just a deadline to acknowledge participation in an upcoming show, order a frame, or taking out time to go to a ranch to gather research. There’s one deadline after another and they must be met weeks or months prior to the actual event. And once the deadlines for an event have all been met, there’s a whole new set of deadlines right behind them. Due to that fact, it is extremely important that a schedule is planned out a minimum of a year in advance, then referred to from time to time to stay on track. I take care of the clerical responsibilities associated with Bill’s art, The Arizona Cowpuncher’s Scholarship Organization, and the websites for both, and organize and maintain two calendars with the deadlines; one for my office and one for Bill’s studio. We work together to see to it that commitments aren’t made when deadlines conflict, while trying to leave small openings where adjustments may be made as needed. Flexibility is the key – which is possible at times and impossible at others.
Bill consistently participates in just two major shows a year, the Prix de West Invitational and Cowboy Artists of America Sale and Exhibition, and the last two years he has participated in the Jackson Hole Art Auction. Owen is a perfectionist and personally has no choice but to take the time necessary to be completely satisfied with a finished product before letting it go, believing fine art cannot be rushed. Therefore, he produces a limited number of pieces per year, despite working an average of six days a week.
Every artist is different; they have their own, unique personalities, and should never be stereotyped. And just as every artist is an individual, no two artists’ work in exactly the same way. Techniques and the process of how one creates can be as individual as the artist himself. The process Bill Owen has developed over the years isn’t for everyone, but it works for him.
Bill questioned sharing some of the details of his process here but I felt it would not only provide some interesting content, but that it could also demonstrate the discipline it takes to plan ahead and pay attention to detail, as well as the foresight necessary to recognize the reality of limitations - some self-imposed and some imposed by age, the clock and calendar. We hope the end result is that you have been provided a window through which you have been able to take a small peek into the world of Bill Owen and his art; a world he was destined to live and work in so that he could share his God-given talent with you.