He Gives 'em the Boot

Nelson Boren has won renown for his impressive watercolors of cowboys -- all painted from the waist down

By Valle Novak

The "Detail Man" carefully adds a layer of dark paint to his work in progress, outlining the sole of a gigantic cowboy boot. The boot, some three times the size of actual footwear, is nonetheless apropos to the size of the painting, 62 inches by 42 inches. The image on the watercolor paper is a trademark of the artist - chap- clad legs, one bent at the knee ­ presumably propped on a fence rail, the foreground foot shod in a weathered cowboy boot. And it ends at the waistline.

Nelson Boren explained his unique style in an article written some time ago for Watercolor magazine: "... I came across a photograph of a cowboy walking away from the camera. The picture showed only a lanky young man from his belt to his knees, but it conjured up all sorts of feelings about the ranching life I had known as a child. I realized that the picture didn't have to tell a complete story ­ I could do that myself with just the suggestion of who this person was."

And Boren has indeed done just that. Looking at his heroic-size vignettes, one can decide who the subject is, and what he's doing. Meanwhile the painting beckons with a wealth of other detail: weathered leather chaps, battered boots, rusty spurs, a beautifully beaded glove.

Detail ­ there's that word again ­ and it's Boren's credo.

Growing up in Arizona, Boren worked during his high school years on a friend's ranch, learning to haul hay, fix fences and run cattle. He learned that cowboys are not men of legend, but "honest and humble" and so, today, as he salutes them through his art, it is as "every man" (or perhaps "every-cowboy"), leaving the viewers to supply the face in their imaginations.

When Boren entered Arizona State University, he majored in architecture, and it was there he was introduced to watercolors. It was, he relates, a horrible experience with an "impossible" medium, best forgotten.

Upon graduation ­ prior to which he had met and married wife Jeanne ­ he had to make a living, so immediately went to work. His success as an architect was considerable, and he became well known, but after a period of time Boren became disillusioned. His artistic nature was being denied.

Then, some 10 years after graduation, Boren decided to sign up for an evening watercolor class. This time, things were different. With more time and inclination to spend on the medium, Boren delighted in its transparency, vivid colors and short drying time. He knew this was what he wanted to do.

The Borens by now had seven children. "I couldn't in all consciousness forsake my business," said Boren, "and I felt that the only way to get motivated in art would be to get into a gallery and somehow sell a painting."

Any artist knows that such a naive thought isn't worth considering. Yet, that's what happened. Boren painted several pieces, "took an armload in to a gallery, sold two. And man, did I get motivated!"

What followed was not only a change of vocation, but of lifestyle and venue. After 15 years as an architect, Boren and his family were ready for a new beginning. In July of 1990 they moved to an 18.5-acre farm outside of Sandpoint, where countless adventures awaited. After cows and horses, the clan has settled to sheep, chickens, one turkey, and the compulsory cat and dog. Jeanne has become a Master Gardener and is active with the LDS Church youth group; three of the children are now in college; the remaining four attend local schools; and Nelson works on his giant watercolors in a many-windowed studio a few feet from the house.

He has become successful beyond all dreams, receiving many honors and awards. His paintings repose throughout the country in businesses, Western restaurants, and wherever their size can be shown to best advantage. This year he was selected as the Reno Rodeo Poster Artist of the Year, and in September, he and two other selected artists will be featured at the prestigious Carmel Show in California. His work is also currently being shown at the Museum of Nebraska Art Show, "Steps in Time."

Boren bends over his painting with a water-filled brush, letting it puddle on an expanse of brown leather chaps. He paints "on the flat," without an easel, and discovered the "puddling" technique on his own. It gives the look of wrinkles or weathering when it dries, achieving a unique depth of texture to boots, jeans or leather.

He lifts his eyes from his work to rest on a vista of barn, gardens, fertile fields and forests with the purple line of the Selkirk Mountains as a backdrop. "This was a good move for us," he muses. "We're really happy here."

Boren's watercolor figures may not show faces, but you can bet they're all smiling.

Valle Novak is a Sandpoint writer and editor and knows almost everyone in town.

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