artist Karen Roehl

Horses and cowboys and cattle, oh my!

January 17, 2020

If you think Western art is all about cowboys and cattle, you’re not wrong. But you’re probably not envisioning the diversity of artistic styles represented at the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale, a well-respected show that happens every year at the National Western Stock Show. While it does include its fair share of representational work, the Coors show offers innovative interpretations of Western art, including the horse paintings of Karen Roehl (BFA ’07).

Summer Time-painting by Karen Roehl
Summer Time by Karen Roehl

Roehl came to painting later in life, after having spent a career as a graphic designer. But over the years, her desire to create art overtook her—and her garage. Over the years, she had collected materials to do everything from jewelry-making to tin art. The trouble was that while Karen had a virtually unlimited supply of stuff, she had a limited amount of time. “No human being is going to be on the planet long enough to do all this,” she said.

Roehl realized she needed to commit to a medium, and while she enjoyed making different types of art, there was one medium that combined two very important elements: “Painting was the one I liked doing the most in terms of process and results,” she said. 

Karen Roehl's studio and details of two horse paintings
Details of two horse paintings in Karen Roehl’s studio, alongside animal photos the artist uses for inspiration.

From John Singer Sargent to abstract expressionism

After deciding to go back to school, Roehl enrolled in the Visual Arts program at the University of Colorado Denver. The location of the campus was close to where she lived, and the program was flexible enough to work with her schedule. More importantly, returning to college marked the moment she decided to commit to being an artist full time. “I wanted to completely immerse myself in it, so I decided to go and get the degree, to take the art history and all the required courses that give you a full spectrum of experience,” she said.

In fact, it was the art history classes that ended up shaping her as an artist. When she started the program, Roehl wanted to paint like one of her favorite artists, John Singer Sargent, a nineteenth-century realist known for portraiture. “But when I became aware of what the abstract expressionists were doing, I became completely into that,” she said. Now, she combines the two: abstract expressionism with the realism of horses. 

Wild Breed, painting by Karen Roehl
Wild Breed by Karen Roehl

Covering a painting with another painting?

Roehl’s process is unique in that she first paints an abstract painting. When it’s complete, she chooses a horse image to superimpose on the abstract painting. “I don’t have a horse picture in mind when I start the painting,” she explained. After choosing a horse, she draws the animal’s silhouette on the canvas in chalk. Then she slowly fills in details of the horse, leaving parts of the original abstract painting untouched. Sometimes, a swirl becomes the horse’s hoof or a line becomes the horse’s muscle. “I like the serendipity,” she said.

The results showcase Roehl’s skill in realism and abstraction. In some ways, her paintings encapsulate the entire genre of Western art. The Coors show exhibits a wide range of artistic styles. “Traditional Western art, there’s always an audience for that,” Roehl said. But younger audiences are expanding the definition of what constitutes Western art. “To keep Western art alive, curators want to bring in more contemporary work,” she said. Roehl’s paintings offer a nod to tradition while still pushing boundaries.

Rockin Horse, painting by Karen Roehl
Rockin Horse by Karen Roehl

Why horses? 

Originally from Canada, Roehl and her sister were lured to the United States by her parents, who promised they’d find cowboys and horses in Colorado. “We thought it would look like a Western movie,” she said. She did ride a few times, but she’s not an equestrian and has never owned a horse. So why does she paint horses? “I think they’re amazing creatures,” she explains. “Some breeds are fluffier, but most horses kind of just have skin draped over their infrastructure that really highlights things like their bones and their muscles.”

It’s simple, really. Horses are beautiful. Roehl thinks this makes them “wonderful subject matter for a painter—because there’s so much form.”

See the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale now through Jan. 26, 2020.