Cowboy Christmas Eve


Jack Sorenson’s iconic cowboy Santa paintings are a holiday tradition for Western families.

Cowboy Christmas Eve, 18-by-24-inch oil on linen 

Christmas has been artist Jack Sorenson’s favorite time of year since he was a little boy. Raised on a small ranch in Palo Duro Canyon, near Amarillo, Texas, Sorenson says the canyon had cedar trees that grew as tall and straight as pine trees.

“My mom would ask my brother or me to go help Dad cut the tree,” he recalls. “I always volunteered because I liked Christmas so much. My dad would never let me cut down a little tree, though; I had to climb a big tree and cut off the top part.”

It was while looking at a painting by George Phippen titled Boss Has a Young’un, depicting two cowboys in a bunkhouse putting the finishing touches on a rocking horse, that Sorenson was first inspired to create a painting conveying the spirit of Christmas from a cowboy point of view. Then, during a workshop taught by Western painter and illustrator Howard Terpning 20 years ago, Sorenson came up with the idea for his first cowboy Santa painting.

Terpning mentioned that he had apprenticed with Haddon Sundblom, who painted the Coca-Cola Santas of the 1930s, giving Sorenson the idea for a cowboy Santa character similar to the Coca-Cola character. By the end of the workshop, Sorenson had a pretty good idea of how his Santa would look.

The painting on the December 2011 cover marks Sorenson’s 19th painting in his Santa series, and his third Christmas painting to appear on the cover. It is Sorenson’s 11th Western Horseman cover. On the December 2002 cover, Sorenson depicted a cowboy Santa riding down a hill horseback. This month’s Santa is the same guy, wearing the same black boots with cream tops, riding the same bay horse with bells on its bridle. Sorenson leaves it up to the viewer to decide if the rider is the real Santa, or perhaps a dad or grandfather dressed up as Santa and riding in to surprise the kids in the warmly lit house below.

“I always want my paintings to have an emotional connection [with the viewers],” Sorenson explains. “You see classic paintings of Santa flying in his sleigh, pulled by reindeer, and looking down on the houses. That was my idea here, except Santa is horseback on a hill overlooking his next stop.”

Sorenson believes that one of the keys to a successful painting is having a story line in mind. He’s amazed how many people come up to him and describe their favorite of his paintings not by the colors or technique, but rather the story line.

Using broad bristle brushes, Sorenson paints in an impressionistic style. When his paintings are reduced in size for a magazine cover or Christmas card, however, they appear “tighter,” or more detailed. A master at painting realistic snow, Sorenson spent many hours painting outside—with frozen feet. Painting what he sees in nature, not necessarily what’s in his mind, Sorenson combines cool blues with shades of yellow and orange to create snow you can virtually feel on your fingertips or hear crunching beneath your feet.

“I love painting outside,” he says. “You can learn more from painting a horse or a landscape outside than you can ever learn in a classroom. There are details you see from life that you will never see in a photograph.”

Sorenson used a palette knife, rather than a brush, to create the shrub in the lower left-hand corner of the painting. To create the stars, he used a stiff brush to flick white paint onto his canvas. Then, he dabbed a few of the stars with a large brush to create the appearance of twinkling in the night sky.

Inspired by master night-scene painter Frank Tenney Johnson, Sorenson enjoys conveying the cool, still feeling of night by using deep, opaque shades of mid-night blue topped with transparent glazes. His current mentor, Texas painter and sculptor Bruce Greene, introduced Sorenson to a shade of purple he has blended into the horizon of this painting to create a colorful, realistic sky that ties into the horse’s coat color.

He chose to paint the horse at a three-quarter rear view not only because the storyline lent itself to that composition, but also because he says horses look the best at that angle.

Sorenson begins his Christmas paintings in September, his stepfather or son sometimes posing as Santa, using a toy bag sewn by his wife, Jeanne. This particular painting, however, came entirely from the artist’s imagination.

“To put me in the mood, my wife turns the air conditioning on high in my studio and decorates it for Christmas,” Sorenson says.

When he was making the transition from working cowboy and colt starter to full-time artist, Sorenson had two goals in mind: to have paintings appear on Western Horseman covers and Leanin’ Tree greeting cards.

Ironically, his first rejection letter came from Leanin’ Tree in the 1980s. Then, in the early ’90s, the company purchased the rights to use one of his Old West paintings on a card. Since then, they have sold millions of cards with Sorenson’s work on the front, and he’s been one of their top-selling artists for 16 years.

Christmas continues to be a big event at the Sorenson household, just as when Jack was a young man. The artist puts lights on his house in early November so he can “soak in the season.” His five children and nine grandchildren all come home for the holidays, and Jean prepares a large meal for the family. But Sorenson says he’s yet to dress up as Santa.




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