TORRINGTON, Wyo. — It was around 1971 when Bud Watson, 82, started teaching night classes at Eastern Wyoming College and started to need quiet things to do at night.
“I never got home until 10 at night and then everybody’s already in bed,” he said. “I would be all wound-up and that’s when I started painting.
“It’s something that, if it’s too hot outside, you can come in and paint. Too cold outside? You can come in and paint. Too wet outside? You can come in and paint.”
He had no formal training to start with. Everything he has done since has come from either experience or from the classes he’s taken in Denver along the way, and the time he spent in Torrington’s art club.
“A professional artist I’d become a really good friend with early on said they were like hieroglyphics,” Watson said, laughing. “I do OK now. I feel I do.”
Another way he’s learned to paint is from his critics.
“Some of them I get aggravated at, but most of them you can learn from,” he said. “They do nothing but make you better, because they point out the good as well as the not-so-good.”
That said, he doesn’t always take their advice, especially when it comes to color.
“I paint dark,” he said. “I don’t use real bright, brilliant colors. The local critics always say that it’s too dark. I paint dark, and if you look around, there’s no brilliant colors in any of my paintings. That’s how I prefer to do it. That’s just the way I am.”
His major subject matter is animals — drawing inspiration from his lifelong love of hunting.
”I’ve always been a friend to wildlife,” he said
“I started hunting with my grandfather and my dad,” he said. “I took my grandfather out on his last hunting trip around ’98, and hunted with my dad just six weeks before he passed away. They were not just out there shooting animals, they were enjoying life and nature. They were what I’d call old, true hunters: they didn’t know where they was going in the morning, but they knew how to hunt.”
The animals are the focus in most of Bud’s paintings: deer and elk, foxes and birds, dogs and rodents, using photo references to get the wildlife right.
“So many wildlife artists can do it from memory,” he said, “but to keep the proportions right, I always use pictures. To paint one animal, I might use 15 pictures.”
He typically sketches out the painting, then goes over it with oil. That’s his preferred medium, since it allows for corrections.
“You’ll get a painting that you’ll think is close to being done,” he said, “but then something’ll glare at you. That’s why I like oils, you can paint right over the top of them. I’ve got a lot of friends who are watercolor painters, but I can’t paint with watercolor. You can’t paint over mistakes.”
Painting, for him, is part instinctual.
“I don’t know how to say it, but when I paint it, I don’t care whether it’s a bird or a mammal, I can feel the body when I’m painting it,” he said. “Just like petting a dog. You can feel his shoulders, you can feel his back, you can feel his hips, you can feel his loin. It’s the same with a bird. When you paint it, you have to feel it, or at least I feel it when I paint it.”
He particularly enjoys painting antelope, based off of his experiences hunting the animals.
“I was a bow hunter for years,” he said. “I’ve shot deer within 5 feet of me and that’s simple, but an antelope is a challenge with the senses they have. I just loved hunting them and getting close to them.”
When he paints, Watson prefers to create a whole scene. Rather than try to recreate the blurring of perspective, he shows everything in detail.
“I don’t give perspective,” he said. “I do it so I can feel that it’s real. Ain’t nothing wrong with the other style, but I guess mine is more of a photo-finish than a projected-finish.”
That amount of detail he puts into his backgrounds, he said, is probably a mistake.
“I know I put way too much detail into the background,” he said. “Most artists fade everything out. They say the focus is on the animal. Well, in my opinion, I can still see the tree behind the animal. I have to do it my way.”
Watson does not paint full time. It usually takes him a month to finish each piece, finding time to paint when the weather outside is rough. Since retiring in the mid-90s, painting and showing has taken more and more of his time.
“I show in different shows,” he said, “I’ve been doing pictures for the Game and Fish stamp contest for over 20 years now.”
Many of the paintings he now does are commissions; old hunting dogs are a particular favorite among his requests.
Watson’s paintings are usually on display at the Goshen County Fair, the art gallery downtown, or in local shows. At this year’s fair, he took best of show.
“I do OK,” he said. “I really do.”