Waco, Texas native and nouveau artist Thomas Blackshear II uses strong colors and shapes to depict the strength within Western and Native cultures.
“Western nouveau” is how Thomas Blackshear II characterizes his arresting portraits of cowboys and Indians. Curves, leaves, and animals often adorn the figurative artworks. Art nouveau was an international art and architecture movement that prevailed from 1890 to 1910, inspired by plant forms and nature. Blackshear has an affinity for this decorative style that accentuates linear contours and relies on a color palette of muted greens, yellows, browns, and blues. “Art nouveau incorporated nature with artistic expression. It took the curvy lines and organic shapes of nature and combined them into a beautiful design form that took over the world, to be honest with you,” he says.
Buffalo Hunt, 48" h x 48" w, oil and gold leaf on canvas board, 2019.
Blackshear, 67, hails from Waco, Texas, but he’s lived in Colorado for almost 30 years. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art in Chicago, worked for Hallmark Cards (where he apprenticed to the famous illustrator Mark English), and has designed more than 30 U.S. Postal Service stamps starting with the Black Heritage series. He had a long and storied career as an illustrator (he’s an inductee into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame), including doing ads for major publications and companies, before he embarked on Western art seven years ago and began turning heads at the Prix de West, where he won the Express Ranches Great American Cowboy Award in 2022 with Two Americans of the Old West.
The painting is a portrait of two Black cowboys with swagger. “For whatever reason, Black cowboys have almost been erased from the history of the West,” Blackshear says. “I wanted to do a painting that showed there were also cowboys who weren’t all white. Most people don’t know that they say 25 to 30 percent of cowboys were Black. I wanted them to look proud. This is probably right after Reconstruction and the Emancipation Proclamation, and this is the first time in their lives that they can stand up straight and strong and look you right in the eye. They were also people who had a purpose and dignity.”
Two Americans of the Old West, 43.25" h x 33.5" w, oil on canvas, 2022.
His portraits tend to be inspired by contemporary and vintage photos, from which he gets ideas then poses a model to perfect his lighting. He draws an image, puts the drawing on a projector to transfer it to a canvas, then does color roughs. In Cougar’s Song, an athletically built Native American plays a flute to a cougar, seemingly taming the animal. “In the Native American culture, they would use the animals as symbolic connections to the spirit world,” Blackshear says. “In my imagination I’m thinking, instead of the spirit of the cougar that gives the Indian brave strength, why don’t we just make the cougar real? Like they have a relationship where they became friends. So it’s based off the strength and the power that the animal spirit guide would give to the Native American.”
Cougar's Song, 32" h x 52.75" w, oil on canvas, 2022.
A snowy-white owl flies in front of a portrait of an Indian elder in the decorative Wisdom, with oak leaves in the background. “The owl symbolizes wisdom. Oak trees also represent wisdom,” Blackshear says. “The smoke coming off his head is the essence of his wisdom—it’s like a vapor of wisdom.” This painting was inspired by an old photograph of a Native American. Blackshear changed the man’s hair and put different clothes on him, also carving wisdom into gold leaf with an art nouveau font.
A curious, skeptical Indian carrying arrows peeks through leaves in Hunter’s Watch, while a sleeping Black cowboy wearing a purple necktie is seen in profile in front of a Maynard Dixon painting in Dixon Dream. “I paint personality,” he says. “I want to zoom right up on the character so you can think you know who he is.”
Dixon Dream, 30" h x 22" w, oil on canvas, 2015.
For the decorative Buffalo Hunt, Blackshear posed a friend on a wooden horse in his studio, which is in a Colorado Springs warehouse. “It has a little more design to it than a realistic look. I love the horse, the design of the mane, the big clouds in the background.” The horse’s mane and tail are depicted in raised three-dimensional gold leaf.
A stylized close-up of a Black cowboy wearing a yellow and brown hat with a yellow and red scarf is called Neon Cowboy. It’s part of a recent contemporary series. “It’s more electric, more exciting. The reflection of the light on the side of his face reminded me of a neon light.”
Tone is all-important in Blackshear’s paintings, which often convey a sense of dignity and nobility. “I’m painting the romance of the West. I’m trying to do beautiful paintings that touch something in the heart, some response or memory,” he says. “It brings a certain feeling of nostalgia.”
Thomas Blackshear II is represented by Broadmoor Galleries in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Los Angeles, Legacy Gallery in Santa Fe; and Trailside Galleries online. Visit the artist online at thomasblackshearii.com. See his work at Prix de West Invitational Art Sale & Exhibition in Oklahoma City at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum through August 6.
This article appears in our August/September 2023 issue, available on newsstands or through our C&I Shop.