Watercoloring the West with Don Weller
November 2, 2012
Oakley-based visual artist Don Weller has been a watercolor artist for more than 12 years.
His talent has landed him commissions for magazines and other periodicals including Time, Park City Magazine and The Land Report, which he and his wife Chikako design.
In addition, Weller is represented by a collection of galleries that include the Overlook Gallery in Moab, Deselms Fine Art Gallery in Cheyenne, Wyo., the Wilcox Gallery in Jackson, Wyo., the Southwest Roundup Studio Gallery in San Juan Bautista, Calif., the White Buffalo Gallery in Glen Rose, Texas, and Park City’s Montgomery-Lee Gallery on Main Street.
Back in 2009, the artist released an art book called "Watercolor Cowboys."
Initially a hardcover, the book, which is available in softcover at http://www.weller.com , http://www.amazon.com and the Montgomery-Lee Gallery, is a collection of some of his favorite works of cowboys, cattle and western landscapes.
Earlier this year, Weller released his second book, "Another Cowboy." This publication is a coffee table book that also features some written words from friends, colleagues and clients.
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"The self-serving stuff is printed in small text, while the more informative stuff is bigger," Weller said with a smile during an interview with The Park Record.
That gentle demeanor is one of Weller’s trademark attributes. The other is how he captures the drama, action and stories of the West in his works.
"I’ve been a visual artist forever," he said. "I started as a graphic designer and that’s, in a way, a visual artist."
He also made a living as an illustrator, which is also a visual artist, Weller said.
"I drew a lot of pictures when I was growing up Pullman, Washington," he explained. "My dad, who was an architect and was the head of the architecture department at Washington State (University), gave me a pencil and paper to keep me from squirming around."
Weller started drawing cowboys, because he got involved with the local rodeo in town while in high school.
"When I got out of high school, I didn’t know what to do, but go to college, because all my friends were going," he said.
He attended Washington State, and, he says, "did whatever the art teachers told me to do."
"I was basically doing abstract expressionist paintings and life drawings of naked ladies," he said.
After college, Weller found himself in Los Angeles, Calif., and landed a production job designing brochures for the University of California Los Angeles extension.
"If someone needed an illustration, we’d do that," he said. "If someone needed a photo, we’d take it.
"I got to really love graphic design doing that, because it involved a lot of problem solving, and since I had gone through college doing all those abstract paintings, I was tired of them," Weller said. "So, I got into every aspect of graphic design, including type."
Weller met Chikako, known to her friends as Cha Cha, in L.A. and the two worked in the design business for nearly 20 years, he said.
In the mid-1970s, the couple had bought a second home in Connecticut and started a design conference in Park City, which allowed the two to come skiing and dining every winter.
"We got tired of traveling back and forth from the east to the west and sold the house in Connecticut and used the money to buy a house in Prospector Square," Weller said. "We rented that house out, and I remember one year the tenant had to go visit her family for a couple of months. So, Cha Cha and I came out and lived in the house for a month or two, during the summer."
The two loved the experience so much, they decided to live in the home permanently after the tenant moved.
"A few years later, we built a home here, but still had the L.A. home and drove back and forth during the year," Weller said. "One day, as we were driving down the canyon to San Bernardino, we watched the freeways fill up and decided to leave for good."
Although we were doing well in the business of graphic design, and we were having a lot of fun, L.A. never felt like home, he said.
"We moved to Utah permanently in 1984, after L.A.’s Summer Olympics, and after a few years in Park City, the Wellers moved to Oakley. They have been there for 18 years.
Although his wife continued to work on various graphic design projects, Weller returned to painting.
"When I started, I began with some acrylics and watercolors, but I realized that if I wanted to get good at watercolors, I would have to focus only on them," he said. "In a way, it’s like doing colored drawings. With oils, you can change things as you go along. You can smudge it, or paint over it and do all kinds of things. Watercolors, for me, aren’t like that."
Weller starts a composition with a lot of pencil drawings.
"Then I take the essence of those drawings and move them to the watercolor paper," he said. "As I put the watercolors on these drawings, I try to erase the pencil marks."
Weller chose the West as his subject because he likes horses and cows.
"When I was a kid, my plan was to be a rodeo cowboy," he said. "I did some high-school rodeos in Pullman, and when I went to college, I was on the rodeo team."
When Weller started painting again, it was like starting a new career.
"Success in graphic design is measured partly by doing good work and partly by having friends tell their friends about what you’re doing and getting bigger projects and developing a network," he said. "In painting, it’s the same thing. Producing the works isn’t hard, but selling them is like starting up a network from scratch."
Also, many galleries aren’t looking for another painter to represent.
"Gallery owners probably see several painters in a day, and finding a gallery to represent you is very tough," Weller said. "But as you become more well known, it does get easier."
Weller, who is also known for showing cutting horses, which are used to separate groups of cattle within a herd, he enjoys watercolors because he learns something new from each painting.
"They’re like my teachers," he said. "Sure, you can learn from books and people, but I try to invent new ways to watercolor all the time, and there is no one who can teach you that."
As far as collectors are concerned, watercolors hold up to oils, Weller said.
"They’re good as long as you don’t hang them in the sun," he said. "The type of art I do these days also includes wildlife art and landscapes, and you will always see one or two watercolor works in a show that also has oils and acrylics."
Weller has mixed feelings about commissioned works.
"Usually, if people want to commission something, it’s a painting of their horse or one of their children riding on a horse," he said. "I don’t try to do too many of those, because they bore me, and I’ve found that when I paint a person, their family members are going to be really critical."
Still, Weller does commissions every once in a while.
As a designer, he’s painted Elton John for Time magazine, and has done covers for Westways magazine, as well as album covers for Angel Records. More recently, he has painted posters for the Oakley Rodeo, the Heber Valley Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair and the Summit County Land Conservancy.
Weller said there are two rewards of being a watercolor artist.
"A big part is doing the painting," he said. "The other is having somebody like one of your works enough to buy it."
For more information about Don Weller, visit http://www.donweller.com.