Out West

A Cowpuncher Paints The West

Artist Rygh Westby shares his authentic cowboy life on canvas.

Since 1936, Western Horseman has published over 1,000 issues and over the years, many have displayed covers with paintings by established or up-and-coming Western artists.

Rygh Westby an artist from Benson, Arizona, produced quite a few of them – many during the 1980s.

“I’m pretty happy with those,” Westby says. “All of my paintings are life stories I have experienced, and I know most every horse and everyone in them. So it’s gratifying when a cowboy will tell me that he recognized a horse or a friend in one of my paintings, or on one of those magazine covers. I feel strongly that the cowboy West is a place where romance collides with reality, where culture clashes with commerce and common sense.  With that, the motivation for each piece has to be strong enough to get me off dead center. It’s been a lot of hard work but the love of horses, cattle and the Western landscape keep me inspired and, frankly, is what makes me tick. I am fortunate to have a wife who shares this love, because it’s almost like asking her to put up with a mistress sometimes.”

Rygh Westby’s first Western Horseman cover “Bill Larsens’ Mess Wagon,” 1981.

Rygh and his wife, Trish, were married in 1972. At the time, he had a camp job on a the Baca Grant – part of the 1860 Luis Maria Baca Land Grant south of Crestone, Colorado. Trish’s dream of marrying a cowboy had come true, despite it being her mother’s “worst nightmare,” as Rygh describes it. Throughout the last 50 years, they have worked together on ranches from Montana to Arizona and points in between. They raised their three kids – Russell, Monty and Amanda – where they had room to breath and love life. After they lost their small ranch in Wyoming, what Rygh calls, “the equivalent of being blooded in battle,” they moved back to Arizona and started a successful horse training business.

Rygh and Trish Westby

A self-taught artist, he never took lessons, or painted with anybody, it just wasn’t possible. He is still convinced he learned the most about painting from looking at Western Horseman magazine covers – that always seemed to be around. So he painted at night while using bunkhouses or barns as his studio. He says he was never alone, as a serious motivation was the influence of artists such as Charlie Russell, Frederick Remington, Maynard Dixon and Rygh’s artist friends Joe Beeler, Bill Owen and vaquero artist Jack Swanson of Carmel Valley.

“El Segundo,” by Rygh Westby, on the cover of Western Horseman in May 1989.

It was while working for the historic Padlock Ranch in Montana he made his first sale of a painting through a gallery. Prior to that, he traded paintings to pay for doctor bills – whatever the young family needed. The sale of that small painting led to his creating a body of work over the next five decades – in oils, watercolors, pen and ink and bronze, depicting the cowboy and his life.

All of a cowboy’s treasures – his two or three good bits, a couple of good hackamores, saddle, and other assorted junk – wouldn’t make much of a garage sale, but he’s satisfied with them.”

Rygh Westby

“I have always had to find my own way in art,” he says. “When I was in junior high, a lady in our neighborhood gave me some art lessons. She would clip out photographs from magazines as source material – this was during the golden age of magazines like Life and the Saturday Evening Post. She’d say, ‘Here, try and copy this.’ So I started with pastels, because that was cheaper than oils. I took some classes in high school and in college in Colorado, but I found the more formal instruction I was looking for didn’t lend itself to someone inspired by the likes of Russell and Remington. During spring break, I helped out a friend on a ranch near Como, Colorado, and discovered I needed that life. I needed to be a cowboy as much as I wanted to paint cowboys. With that in mind, I did the really smart thing and quit college and got married.”

Rygh’s artwork – be it a painting, a drawing or a bronze – tells a story of a time or an event he experienced himself and, in many cases, he is the painting’s lone subject in the black hat.

“Yeah, I guess it looks kind of narcissistic,” Rygh says, with a bit of a chuckle. “A lot of times, I was the only one there. I worked alone a lot, not always with a crew.”

Rygh told me the backstory of several of his paintings. We started with one titled Limpia Camp on the Leoncita.

“This was a place on Limpia Creek, north of Fort Davis, Texas,” Rygh says. “It’s actually on the Leon Cedar Ranch, which is an old historic Texas ranch. My friend Jeff Gray is in that picture…that’s Jeff and me (black hat), branding his calves. There are a lot of mavericks on that place, and it’s a really rough, rocky brushy place, and he’s there all by himself. Jeff and I have worked together on and off for 40 years.”

Rygh’s painting titled El Segundo, features his friend, artisan Jeremiah Watt.

“All the gear in that picture was made by Jeremiah,” Rygh says. “He and his wife Colleen were on an outfit outside of Glade Park, Colorado, together and stayed out with the wagon for most of the summer, as I remember. They were way, way out near the Utah border. I don’t know how I found them, really. I just kept going downhill until I ran into them. They were camped with the wagon out there, and I brought my teepee and helped them brand for a week or so. That Colorado plateau area where it borders on the canyon lands is just absolutely gorgeous country. We worked a lot in the Little Dolores River area and I recall there were a lot of thunderstorms there. I’ve never experienced thunder like that in my life, bouncing off the canyon walls. We had plenty to do, because it was a short crew, but all good cowboys. It was a good time.”

“Padlock Mess Wagon,” by Rygh Westby

When Rygh Westby speaks of the wagon, he says the word with reverence, as the ranches that still use wagons are getting fewer and fewer. He has painted many historic wagons including the Padlock Mess Wagon.

“As I remember, the year was 1975,” Rygh says. “That was the move from Black Hair Camp to Tullock Creek in Montana. The move between those camps was probably 10 miles. Floyd Workman was the foreman, and he’s in that painting. He’s got the lines and the fellow next to him is John Adamson. He’s pretty famous in the cowboy world. There were only five grown men out of a crew of 10 that year; the rest were kids.”

One of the interesting aspects of that painting is looking at the individual horses and how each could stand-alone and be accurate. Westby caught them in various moments of movement that could only be seen by someone who has truly watched horses and how they move.

“I don’t do a lot of big branding scenes anymore,” Rygh says. “I tend to focus on individual cowboys and individual horses and even individual cows. Nothing tickles me more – and I’ve had it happen a number of times – when some cowboy will see one of my paintings and say, ‘That horse looks like old Bud.’ And I’ll say, ‘That is old Bud.”

A painting that lends itself to that description is Cowboy’s Helper.

“That’s got a real story that is particularly pretty poignant,” Rygh says. “I broke that horse for my friend Bob Douglas of Sheridan, Wyoming. He came out of a wild bunch of horses and in photographer Bank Langmore’s book The Cowboy, there’s a picture of an old Montana cowboy named Thad Helvey. He was in a camp about 20 miles north of Douglas’ place working by himself, and he had this horse that had been caught up with a wild bunch – a nice, big, gray colt. Thad, who was in his 50s then, was out in the round corral working with this bronc of a horse – I mean, this horse would try to crawl out of an eight-foot corral.”

Rygh went on to say Thad’s employer was so fed up with this horse, he gave Thad an ultimatum. Either Thad had to go, or the horse, who they called Booger. Thad insisted that if the horse had to leave, so did he. He then drove down to Douglas’ ranch and asked Douglas to buy the horse, as he now didn’t have a job nor a horse he could ride.

“So Bob bought him for $250, and then calls me up, and said, ‘I got a horse for you to ride,’” Rygh says. “Long story short, I bought him and rode him for a while – as did Trish – and while he could be a tad goosey, he had a great turn around and a great stop and really worked his way into our hearts.”

One of the things I like about cowboys is that materialism isn’t much of a problem with them.”

Rygh Westby

Every horse is different and every painting of Rygh’s tells a different story, yet for all the years he has cowboyed and painted, each opportunity has given him a chance to learn something new about his beloved West. In 1983, the late, eminent photographer and writer Kurt Markus wrote a profile of his friend, Rygh, in the September issue of Western Horseman, and what he wrote about this fine artist stands today.

“Perhaps the most significant statement about Rygh Westby the artist – apart from the work itself – is that he is not only his own man and will choose his own path, but as an artist and a human, he will forever change and deepen.” Markus wrote. “He always he believes he can do better.”

See more of Rygh’s work on Instagram – #ryghwestby.

Some of Rygh Westby’s Western Horseman covers:

  • March 1981 – Bill Larsens’ Mess Wagon (Westby’s first cover)
  • May 1989 – El Segundo
  • June 1983 – Branding on Grapevine Creek
  • October 1990 – Corralling the Bulls

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