What you see: Finding the Buffalo, a 1988 oil on canvas by Howard Terpning. Bonhams estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.
The expert: Aaron Bastian, specialist in Bonhams’s California and Western art department.
Let’s start by talking about who Howard Terpning is, and what makes him interesting to collectors. I tried to think of another living artist who isn’t a mainstream contemporary artist, but whose works still sell for six or seven figures on the secondary market, and I couldn’t come up with one… Howard Terpning is a fascinating character, and a titan of contemporary Western art. Like many in this space, he has a background in illustration. He did it for a couple of decades before wandering over to this side of the fence. Pleasing an art director and working to a deadline carried over into his self-defined artistic practice. He’s one of if not the most decorated artists in this space. I don’t want to bore your readers, but it would take pages to list them all. He won the National Academy of Western Art’s Prix de West. It’s a big deal to win it once. He won it twice. He’s won the Thomas Moran Memorial Award for exceptional artistic merit [given at the annual Masters art exhibition and sale held at the Autry Museum of the American West] twelve times, including eleven straight between 2005 and 2016. He is immensely recognized in his field. Anyone in this space knows who he is.
What makes Howard Terpning paintings so exceptional? It’s not just that any one painting is spectacular, it’s consistent quality over the decades. I think that’s why the value is what we see. They’re so well-planned that you don’t see bad Howard Terpnings. They don’t make it onto the market. They fall apart earlier in the process.
How prolific is he? I’m sure the family has it [a total count for his body of work] but it’s not public. Big finished works take him a couple of months. I don’t know how many he might work on simultaneously.
Is he still painting, or has he retired? As of two years ago, when he was 90, he was still painting. He’s going to die with a pencil in his hand. If he can’t paint oils, he’s going to draw. I can’t see him ever stopping.
Howard Terpning has been painting Western art since the late 1970s. Are there periods or phases within his work that collectors prefer, or has his work been scarce enough that they can’t be that choosy? It’s a somewhat complicated answer. What we see for the top ten [for him] on the auction market is in a fairly narrow period for production in the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Is that indicative of what the market thinks is most valuable? Some of that is those are the works that are available. Maybe there’s a great late 1990s work out there that will blow us away if it comes to auction. I think this work [which dates to 1988] is in the sweet spot, but I don’t know if the sweet spot is real.
Finding the Buffalo measures 36 inches by 32 inches. Is that a typical size for a Howard Terpning painting? It’s sort of middle of the pack as far as scale goes. He does paint larger, and he does paint smaller. But he’s stretching his own canvases. He makes them any size he wants. The finished drawing he does [in the lead-up to creating the painting] always informs the size and proportions of the canvas.
What do we know about how he works, and how he might have made Finding the Buffalo? His technique is pretty well-documented. He starts with a series of sketches leading to a finished drawing. The drawing informs the size of the canvas. It’s traced and essentially transferred to the canvas, which is not a blank canvas. There’s one tone brushed onto the whole canvas. The drawing is transferred on, then he begins. There are videos of him doing this. [Jump to the 4:20 mark to watch Terpning embark on the first step of creating a painting.] Lights and darks are applied over the midtone. He can quickly define the whole composition.
Then he finishes it? That’s where the real time is spent.
So the drawing, the scaling-up for the canvas, and the transfer of the drawing–that’s a kind of scaffolding for creating the finished painting? Yes. I think it’s a rigorous approach he gets from his background in illustration.
How might he have arrived at the content and composition of the image we see in Finding the Buffalo? He has a huge archive of reference images. The rocks in the background could be a combination of images of a few different rocks. And he has a huge archive of objects. He’d have a quiver as a historic reference, but he’ll modify it to make it historically accurate to [the quiver of] a Comanche scout.
How often do Howard Terpning paintings feature the Comanche people, as we see in Finding the Buffalo? He always has a specific tribe in mind. Comanche, I hesitate to give a percentage, but he’s painted them many times. I don’t know if they’re a favorite per se. It’s the Plains peoples who are his fascination.
And the Comanches are among the Plains peoples? Yes. Terpning has a deep connection with and fascination with the nomadic style of life these people led.
How rare is it for Terpning to place an animal front-and-center in his works, as he does here with the horned lizard? I don’t know another work like it. It’s very unusual. The lizard is front and center, but it’s not the center point. You look at the scouts, look at what they’re looking at, and–oh. Everything is centered on the lizard, but the lizard is more like one of the rocks, and he puts the focus on the Comanche. Terpning is ultimately a figure painter, and Finding the Buffalo is no different. I think it’s a really neat painting in that it’s a subtle painting. In another Terpning painting in the sale, My Medicine Is Strong, the medicine man is on a rock and he’s clearly having a religious moment. Here, it’s a little quieter compared to some of the narratives Terpning likes to convey.
What’s going on in Finding the Buffalo? What’s the story? This is from Terpning himself: Comanche scouts believe that if they ask the horned lizard where the buffalo are, whatever direction he runs in is where the buffalo are. If he breaks left, go left. They’re watching the lizard very intently, especially the scout in the back–his anxiety is piqued. And I love that even the horses are staring at the lizard. [Laughs]
What’s your favorite detail of this Howard Terpning painting? There’s a splash of blue beadwork right at the very center of the painting. There are a few other touches where he uses bright blue, but this is the only spot where you get that color, and he does it right in the center of the painting. I love it as contrast. I look at the painting and it feels hot and oppressive under the bright sun, washed out. The splash of blue yanks your eye to the middle of the painting. Then you look down, and there’s the lizard. It’s so restrained, and it speaks to how valuable the beads would have been.
What is the Howard Terpning painting like in person? It’s more subtle in person. When you have a painting with large patches in the same tonal family, your eye is better at appreciating the subtle tonal shift than the camera is. The lizard blends into the rocks even a little more. The background behind the scouts is very rich, and I don’t think you get that in the reproduction. And the camera doesn’t capture the thickness of the paint. Terpning is reliant on impasto [the buildup of paint on the surface of a canvas], and it casts shadows. Not a big shadow, but a tiny ridge of paint can cast a tiny shadow. The camera can’t capture the change in physical height–that texture–but the eye can perceive it. He uses it to give the rocks a real three-dimensionality.
On the webpage devoted to the lot, you at Bonhams have included a photograph of the back of the painting. Could you talk about the information Terpning put on the back of the painting, and how him bothering to do that helps collectors, dealers, and specialists like yourself? I would say this is true almost universally among art buyers–there’s going to be interest in the back of a painting. In this case, we have information from Terpning. He signs it, puts the title on the back, and says how big it is in his own handwriting. He signs it in two different places and reminds you that he retains the reproduction rights [laughs]. And there’s a brief narrative [that explains the scene] affixed to the back of the painting. It’s a printed label, but it is his language, his words. And there’s a CAA (Cowboy Artists of America) label still on the back [from when the painting was first shown and sold in 1988] that says $60,000.
How many Howard Terpning paintings have you handled? In the last five years, we’ve sold six. There aren’t a ton that circulate. At all the auction houses put together, ten or 15 go up at auction every year.
Is it unusual to have three Howard Terpning paintings in the same auction, as you do here? It’s only happened to us once before. [Laughs]. But it’s not unheard of. We’ve just been very lucky recently.
What’s the world auction record for a Howard Terpning painting? It’s $1.9 million, set in 2012 at the Scottsdale Art Auction. Its name was The Captured Ponies, and it’s not an outlier. Nine Howard Terpning paintings have sold for more than $1 million since 2006. We had one in 2019 that sold for just shy of $1.4 million.
Why will this Howard Terpning painting stick in your memory? There’s a real subtlety to this one. I like how quiet it is. It’s a painting that rewards you for looking at it longer. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much is going on, but as you look at it, there’s a lot going on. It’s a sophisticated picture in terms of how it was painted and the narrative it conveys.
How to bid: The Howard Terpning painting Finding the Buffalo is lot 41 in The Eddie Basha Collection: A Selection of Western American Art, a sale taking place November 25, 2019, at Bonhams Los Angeles.
Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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