November 5 – Happy Birthday, Howard Terpning

Posted November 5, 2013

I fell in love with Howard Terpning's paintings of Native Americans the moment I saw this one:

 What you have to know is that the painting is really large. It was almost the size of the wall it was displayed on at the Autry Museum. The water seems to be a powerful force, but even more powerful were the attentive eyes of the Native Americans in the painting. Even those eyes I couldn't see seemed to be checking out the gorgeous landscape in a way I never had: reveling in the beauty, sure, but also calculating how to proceed, on alert for danger, more intimately tied to everything they saw.

Since then I have seen many of Terpning's paintings. One time the Autry had an entire show devoted to his works, with 92 paintings on display. Of course I went! My uncle showed me a DVD about the artist, and it was fascinating to hear how he thinks up and researches, composes and paints his works. For example, Terpning always starts by covering the white of his canvas with browns or sometimes greens—earth tones that sometimes shine through the layers of paint he later dabs onto the toned canvases.

I was struck by how fascinated by the Plains Indians Terpning is. How highly he respects—maybe even loves—their history and culture, their arts and artifacts. I think it is that interest and respect and love that commands my own interest in the subjects he paints.

The biggest thing of interest to me was Terpning's own biography. He knew he wanted to be an artist at an early age, and he also fell in love with the West and Native American cultures early on, at age 15. But it took him a while to be able to focus on his passion. At age 17, he enlisted in the Marines, and he went on to study at art schools using the G.I. Bill to fund his schooling. He did low-level artwork—by which I mean running errands, cutting mats, building crates for other people's paintings—as an apprentice for a successful illustrator; eventually he worked his way up to creating illustrations himself.

Some of the works he did at this point in his life are really familiar to me—he painted some of the movie posters I have seen a bajillion times! Here are two of his movie posters:

Although he was very successful as a commercial artist, Terpning left his comfy home and well-paid practice to become a combat artist in Vietnam. This was in response to an invitation from the Marine Corps; Terpning did some training and then lived with a group of Marines stationed in South Vietnam, going out on patrols armed with his camera and sketch pad.

Terpning said that the experience “profoundly changed” him.

In 1974, Terpning gave up his commercial art career to focus on creating fine art paintings on the subjects HE wanted to paint. And of course that meant the old West. Plains Indians: the Crow, the Lakota, the Comanche, the Kiowa, and many other groups.

  • Here is a gallery of Terpning pieces. Enjoy! 

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