Closing the Circle
Don Weller abandoned his cowboy dreams to pursue a graphic design career. The past 30 years, however, he’s combined his passion for horses and painting, expressing it in vivid watercolor.
Story and photography by JENNIFER DENISON
The walls along the stairway leading to Don Weller’s second-story art studio are filled with framed photographic memories. One photograph—showing a cowboy riding a catty cutting horse crouched to the ground holding a cow in an open pasture—stands out.
“That’s Buster Welch,” Weller says proudly. “I took this photograph on his ranch [in Merkel, Texas,] during a roundup. I wanted to shoot a photo of a cutting horse working a cow in wide-open spaces, no fences and no telephone poles, and I knew Buster would do it. He worked cattle the traditional way, horseback.”
Slack, 14-by-17-inch watercolor
The photograph was for a book Weller produced for the National Cutting Horse Association in the 1990s. Fascinated with cutting, cowboys and the Western lifestyle, Weller began photographing these subjects before he started painting them as a full-time artist. Weller’s interest in horses and drawing developed when he was a young boy, but he didn’t combine the two into a profession until late in life. Raised in Pullman, Washington, in the 1940s, during the heyday of Hollywood Western films and television shows, Weller aspired to be a cowboy.
“That was my plan, but [Pullman] was all wheat fields and no cows,” he says. “I had a horse as kid, and I rode on the country roads. One day I found out the [Washington State College] rodeo team practiced just two miles from our house, so I rode there and watched them.”
Before long, the collegiate cowboys had Weller roping and tying calves with them. He continued to rodeo throughout high school and then while attending WSC (now Washington State University). Team roping had not yet spread to the Northwest, so he competed in wild cow milking and calf roping. He hauled his horse, Sandy, in a trailer he made in high school shop class and towed with an old Chevy coupe.
Weller entered college as a pre-vet major, but he used his elective credits for art courses instead of the science classes he needed to get into vet school. Plus, his true talent was drawing. Heeding the advice of one of his instructors, he carried a sketchbook with him everywhere and practiced drawing as much as possible. Still interested in the cowboy lifestyle, though, he submitted cartoons to Western Horseman in the 1950s.
“I came up with clever captions, but the drawings were terrible,” he admits with chagrin.
After graduating from college with a fine arts degree, he made the difficult decision to sell his horses and leave his cowboy dreams behind to pursue a graphic design career in Los Angeles, California. His designs and illustrations appeared in children’s books; on postage stamps, posters and album covers; and in magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated and Time.
While teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, he met Cha Cha, his wife of 38 years. Seeking a smaller town, the couple moved to Park City, Utah, in 1980, and he did freelance graphic design and illustration. There, Weller rekindled his love for horses.
“I was at a [grocery store] and saw a copy of Western Horseman,” he recalls. “I hadn’t seen the magazine for years and I thought, ‘The West really is still alive.’ “Inside [the magazine], I saw a small ad for the National Cutting Horse Association.
Consumed with horses, cutting and cowboys, Weller began painting them almost exclusively around 2000. He had used watercolor as an illustrator, so it was a comfortable choice of medium for him.
After selling hirst painting in 2001, he committed to being a full-time Western artist. Fond of all jewel tones but partial to purple, Weller uses a vivid palette for his paintings to inspire imagination and for emphasis. His contemporary, graphic style harkens to his professional portfolio. His subjects are painted with the raw authenticity and realism of someone who has lived the Western lifestyle. However, he takes more abstract, less detailed liberties in parts of his paintings, such as his backgrounds and faces. He also experiments with watercolor and gouache (an opaque watercolor) to create bold contrast, and leaves enough white space to relax the eyes.
“In some places I want to give details, but other places I want to leave it open for interpretation,” he says. “I like to control where people look [in a painting] by using contrast to draw attention to the most important elements. I don’t like to add a lot of detail to people’s faces because then [the viewer] call in the blanks with their imagination.”
If you liked this article, read about Wyoming artist Clark Kelley Price in Solid Gold.