Out West

Don Weller Paints Cowboys

Don Weller painting "Black Bovine Boogie"

Artist and graphic designer Don Weller creates art honoring the world of working horses and cowboys.

Montana artist Russell Chatham has described his reason for creating art as “an attempt to search for something beyond ourselves.” The watercolors of Don Weller are a series of important steps in artist Weller’s similar lifelong and evolving search he is taking with his art. And while the journey may take many turns, with clarity of direction not always evident, Weller may well have an advantage.

Don Weller's painting Airborne
Courtesy of Don Weller

He is, by training, a problem solver, and his own story proves that out. I first became aware of Don Weller back in the 1970s as one of the powerhouse group of graphic designers that were working in the Los Angeles, California, design community. I was working as an art director at A&M Records, and Weller’s work was already hugely popular and sought after—not realizing at the time that this big-time designer had grown up horseback—not near LA, but near the Palouse River close to his childhood home in Pullman, Washington.

His creative origins were not found in type books or volumes of Swiss design elements, rather in his drawings of horses and cowboys. He became quite proficient at his art as he headed into high school, while also team roping in high school rodeos. Horses and art were what drove Weller, and he continued to rope as he worked his way through Washington State University, earning a degree in fine arts.

Don Weller sitting in a chair with dog, Buster.
Courtesy of Don Weller

Realizing he needed to make one of those life decisions, he gulped hard and sold his horses, deciding to move to LA. There he embarked on what would become a legendary career as a graphic designer. His portfolio grew exponentially as his works appeared on album covers, posters, in ads in many magazines, as did his illustrations. His work was praised by his peers and given many awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators. From magazine covers to posters, Weller designed material for clients from the Hollywood Bowl, National Football League, National Cutting Horse Association, Rose Bowl, and the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Throughout his long and celebrated design career, horses continued to fill his dreams, and after meeting his wife, Cha Cha, while he was teaching in Los Angeles at UCLA, they decided they were ready to leave the pavement and headed for a little ski town near Salt Lake City. Continuing to work, he did several projects for NCHA, including a landmark book about the world of cutting—the ultimate “dance” between a horse and a cow.

Don Weller's painting "Victory Lap" of a bucking horse and pickup men
Courtesy of Don Weller

Weller has produced four books. His newest, to be released this month, is titled Tracks, A Visual Memoir, which Weller describes as a “visual memoir of a life in art. Easy reading, it’s mostly pictures.” But in addition to more than 130 paintings, sketches and illustrations, there are short stories and illustrated pages of his design career in Los Angeles. The books are reflections of his time horseback—years that Weller gave to himself. Stricken with cutting horse fever—a disease for which there is, apparently, no known cure—he found the only successful therapy was to ride and hunt cattle as often as possible. So now he paints the horses and cowboys he knows and competes with. A group he believes in much more than the life left behind on the streets of LA.

“I have been searching my earliest memories, and although I can’t find a time I ever believed in Santa Claus, I’m sure I’ve always believed in cowboys,” he says.

Don Weller painting "Working Hats" of cowboys tying down a calf
Courtesy of Don Weller

His paintings—watercolors and oils—depict moments in time, mostly during the bright heat of the day. Shadows lie directly underneath. Bright cloudless skies, speckled and minimal backdrops, push the viewer into the action at hand—ropers roping, cutters cutting, or a quiet scene with horses at rest.

Weller’s world is one of depicting competency. His subjects are at peace with what they are doing—confidence without arrogance, capability without fanfare, riders and horses in tune with each other, doing the workday dance of a life in the livestock game.

His horses are broke, not broken. Their timecard punched, ready for a day of work, not silliness. It is a timeless place, where humans and horses work together. 

View more of Don’s artwork and his books at www.donweller.com

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