“I’m coming back to my sources, completing a full circle,” said wildlife artist Ralph Oberg, relaxing in his Montrose, CO studio and looking out on a breathtaking view of the San Juan Mountains. “That’s what this is all about, coming back to where I feel I can be myself one hundred percent. I’m really excited about the work because it’s like all the pieces are fitting together for me now. I’m 51 years old -- a little late in some people’s book --and it’s been a long road but I think it will prove out.”
The full circle Oberg is referring to is his journey from painting wildlife photo-realistically to plein air landscapes back to wildlife artist. But this time it's about something more.
Oberg attended Colorado State University in 1969 but thought the art program revolved too heavily around experimental and abstract art. “My focus has always been towards the representational, so I was not interested in anything but basic drawing. After two years I quit, I didn’t graduate. I started surviving then.”
He picked up a job in an architecture firm only to leave when offered the opportunity to go to Alaska for the first time on a mountaineering expedition. “I had such a great time I never looked back. I had already begun to sell my paintings when I was at the university and that kept me alive. I was living on very little but enjoying the freedom. I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to live it, and travel around the country and make sure I had the freedom to go into the mountains.”
Mountains, especially the San Juan Range where Oberg once took a 12 day solo hike of more than 100 miles through the wild and pristine land, have always greatly influenced his work. The animals he photographed early on in his career became images displayed in wildlife exhibits like the Birds in Art Show at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum and lithographs for Ducks Unlimited, as well as gaining him a membership in the Society of Animal Artists. “Right out of college I was doing tightly rendered watercolors -- hairs and feathers and wildlife pieces -- because I lacked any real training in fine arts as far as a painterly approach. I was rendering photographs and I was pretty good at it,” he said.
But all that changed when he ran across the works of Carl Rungius. “As a wildlife artist, he’s one of my greatest heroes,” said Oberg. “It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that I became aware of the kind of painting that I admire now. The more I looked at Rungius’s field sketches and outdoor paintings, and the more I talked to other artists, the more I realized that getting outdoors and painting from life is where you learn most about color and the mood of things. I basically changed horses midstream with the idea that I was going to go out and learn what I needed to learn so that when I came back into the studio I’d have something to work from.”
Oberg spent the next 15 years working plein air. For a while, he continued making his living on the traditional animal paintings until he felt his landscapes were good enough to sell. “At that point, I just dropped the animals completely. I started taking workshops and studied with Clyde Aspevig, Wayne Wolfe, Len Chmiel, Skip Whitcomb, Michael Lynch, and Hollis Williford. And I started painting outdoors as often as I could. I hooked up with my friend Matt Smith and we traveled and painted together a lot. That’s what took me into the realm of more impressionistic and painterly work,” said Oberg. “Now I’m finally at a point where I’ve decided that my real niche is to fall back on the information and knowledge that I’ve gained about wildlife, my primary love being big game animals,” he said. “I’ve come back to my heart. I’ve come back to what I’ve always felt was the thing I know and love the best.”
Melding his past and present, Oberg eloquently captures the wild mountain inhabitants, primarily elk, bear and moose, in their natural surrounding. Now his regular treks into the San Juan Mountains combined with his long distance travels to such places as the Yukon and Denali National Park in Alaska yield more than rolls of film. His latest trip through Canada with his wife, Shirley Novak, also a fine artist, added over 8,500 miles to their camper. “I did twenty-five to thirty field sketches. This is again in the form of Carl Rungius, in the same country he painted, not only British Columbia and Alberta but also in the area called the Pelly River where he went in 1904. That’s some great country and wildlife,” he said. “That experience for me rekindled my drive and enthusiasm for working in this direction again. It’s like defining myself from the crowd.”
Although he still uses photographs when working in his studio, he says it’s the field sketches that keep his work real. “After painting outdoors, you learn how the world looks, the value balance, the color balance, how things can be exaggerated so you learn how to manipulate the photographs. I can look at my old paintings and tell which one was done from Kodachrome and which was done from Ektachrome, almost,” he said with a laugh.
Oberg explains that a painting done strictly from a photograph will often have shadows that are too dark and skies that are washed out. “A photo is only a single clue,” he said. “When I put my field sketches up against my photographs the difference just astounds me. But I know I have to trust my sketch for the color and value and the spontaneity of the brushwork. The simplicity, strength and dynamics of the sketch very often have greater artistic qualities because it’s a spontaneous personal response. When you get the photograph in the middle it can be very dangerous to your artistic expression.”
Though his sketches are relatively small, his studio work based on these paintings are quite large. And since he is able to draw from years of personal experience not only as an artist but also as a mountaineer, he often combines ideas and images to completely make up compositions. Yet he feels that even at this stage of his career he is still learning and growing. “I’m not as flamboyant a technician as many people I admire. I’m still a naturalist, I’m still a realist, I say I’m a little impressionistic but not nearly to the level of others I admire. But I like that and I want to allow myself to be that way. Like I said, I’m finding myself, I’m not judging myself by other people’s work anymore. I just want to be a good Ralph Oberg.”