Full Attention. Photography: Courtesy Howard Halbert

The artist’s work resembles photography so much so that you might be questioning the art before you.

If you find yourself muttering, “There is no way this isn’t a photograph,” you may be looking at a drawing by pencil artist Howard Halbert. Add to the disbelief the fact that the Texas-based Halbert has only been drawing in earnest since 2010 and your neurons will most certainly short-circuit. There’s nothing fancy in his arsenal of equipment: just simple No. 2 pencils, a sharpened gum eraser, and occasionally a carbon pencil for the really dark shades. Oh, and the handheld “old-fashioned little silver sharpener” that he seldom puts down while he’s drawing, but uses incessantly, dropping the constant flow of shavings into the ever-filled wastebasket at his side. And that — aside from the magic in his eye and hand — is pretty much it for this self-taught pencil prodigy.

As a child growing up on a thousand-acre cattle ranch south of Fort Worth, Texas, Halbert loved to draw. He also loved horses, getting his first around the age of 3. Upon graduation from high school, though, the young man tucked away his pencil and went to work full time on the family ranch. “There wasn’t much time for anything but ranching,” he says. “We got up early in the morning to feed and check on the cattle, planted crops to grow our own hay, baled it, made silage, and the like.” But, he says, the love of drawing remained. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I never forgot about it even though I didn’t do it for so many years. Life happens, and that was the life we had, being in the cattle business. But I always hoped — one day — it would come up where I could start it again.”

That opportunity came 20 years later when the family cattle business ended, and, after “trying a couple other things,” Halbert decided to pursue his art. At first, it came slowly, and his drawings weren’t what he hoped for. He stayed with it, though, spending 10 to 12 hours every day with pencil and paper, gradually and painstakingly perfecting his skill. “You know, I think God was looking out for me, and I think it’s a gift that he wanted to show through me because as I went on, it kept improving. I spent a lot of time in those two years, and after the first year I started to see a great deal of improvement.”

Patiently Waiting. Photography: Courtesy Howard Halbert

As he continued to improve, he started to think that maybe “someone might want to take a look.” Halbert shared his drawings with some close family members. He also showed them to renowned oil artist George Hallmark (a former schoolmate of his cousin), who strongly encouraged him to pursue his art. After Halbert eventually “worked up the nerve” to email five galleries in Santa Fe, he got a reply from McLarry Fine Art: “Chris McLarry asked me to come out and show my art in person. When I got there, they treated me like family. They loved the drawings that I had with me, but I had only done three. They said, ‘We need at least five more right away. You need to go home and get busy!’ ” That’s exactly what he did.

Continued devotion to his calling, persistence, and determination are paying off: Though Halbert still thinks of himself as “the new kid on the block” in the Western art world, his photorealistic drawings are now winning prestigious awards and finding their way into the homes of Western art enthusiasts around the country.

But he hasn’t forsaken his roots. Halbert is still a fan of drawing the Western life he knows and loves, especially the horse. “What draws me to the horse’s face,” Halbert says, “is the movement of the ears as they listen, and, of course, their eyes. When you look deep into a horse’s eyes, you can see down into their soul.” His soulful subjects are horses he personally knows — many he uses for reference come from close friends Toby and Tooter Allred of the T-T Ranch in Cleburne, Texas. First Halbert photographs them and then sketches and draws the outline. “Once this is completed, the shading process begins. It’s very time-consuming. I have spent well over 100 hours to complete some of the larger ones.”

One of those labor-intensive works, Full Attention, won the 2016 Volunteers’ Choice Award at the Small Works, Great Wonders Show & Sale at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum [in Oklahoma City]. We’re fairly certain everyone who sees it shakes their heads, unable to believe it’s not a black-and-white photograph.

Howard Halbert is represented by McLarry Fine Art in Santa Fe and The Howell Gallery of Fine Art in Oklahoma City.

From the May/June 2017 issue.