“They’re all real folks,” says Bill Anton, referring to the cowboys and ranchers he depicts with his oils. Most of his work—if not all—evokes the traditional working cowboy on his trusted horse surrounded by mountains and the open sky.
Anton’s passion for plein air painting mirrors the ideals of frontier illustrators and other cowboy artists who produced work in the vast outdoors. His work is in the vein of Albert Bierstadt’s landscape sketches and George Catlin’s collection of American Indian paintings.
“They saw the importance of working in the field and had the skills to do it,” Anton says. “The flavor of a place has to be gleaned on the spot.”
Anton’s role is capturing the aspect of cowboys hard at work along with the time and place of the moment. “Sunlight on horsehide, bouncing off rope-burnished chaps and gilding distant mesas are everyday miracles in ranch life, then and now,” he says. “The fundamental elements haven’t changed in 150 years. That is the essence of my work.”
Anton considers the man on horseback in the open country as the “most noble subject in the world,” and his work reflects the balance of man and nature, whether in pure daylight or enveloped within the shadows of dusk.
“I’ve always considered the cowboy as a part of the landscape of the West,” he says. “Putting ‘air’ into the painting sets the mood as much as the set of a horse’s ears or the way the puncher sits on his horse.”
His focus on today’s cowboy lifestyle reflects the artist’s deep desire to see what is real in the American West, which goes beyond what one could read in the pages of a dime novel or history book.
However, he still hopes that the Old West can be seen in his work. “There’s no substitute for leather, and I haven’t seen any plastic spurs yet, thank heavens,” Anton says. “A good horse is still prized, as are good custom saddles.”
“You don’t mind working hard at something you find infinitely valuable,” he adds. “I wanted to be a good painter. I still want to be a good painter. After 30 years, my goals haven’t changed.”