A black-hatted cowboy dangles a lariat from the back of his saddle horse in the 16-by-20-inch oil Shaking It Out. At first glance you might mistake it for a Charles M. Russell or N.C. Wyeth painting, as it is authentic down to the minute detail. You’d be right about the authenticity, but the artist is 79-year-old Don Prechtel.
Prechtel found the inspiration for Shaking It Out at the 320 Guest Ranch south of Big Sky, Mont., where he and other artists had come to paint. “We had a model come in wearing gear that belonged to another one of the artists, gear from about 1916,” Prechtel recalls from his studio in rural Creswell, Ore. That in itself isn’t surprising—posing a model in authentic wardrobe “is typical for any artist like myself who does period paintings,” he says. What was unusual is that Prechtel hadn’t supplied the gear.
“I started collecting in the early ’60s,” he says. “Over the years I’ve bought a lot of Western gear—some nice chaps, wrist guards, hats, antique guns. One day I got a complete Civil War uniform. I was working, making 125 bucks a week, and went to a show, and a guy had a complete saber, saber belt, holster and the hat. I bought the thing for 95 bucks, thinking, My wife’s going to kill me for spending a week’s wages.” She didn’t, of course. In fact, wife Charmalee has championed Don’s art throughout their 56-year marriage.
And he still collects. “I was given a freight wagon two years ago,” Prechtel says. “Still has all the writing on the side. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but it’s nice to have.”
“I’ve always liked history,” he says. “My dad was an avid reader of history magazines, and a lot of my friends have been collectors of Western paraphernalia and military stuff. They also collected art—bronzes, paintings, you name it. So I kind of did the same thing.”
Prechtel considers himself a general historical painter, though he also paints Civil War subjects and cops to his obsession with the West. “I’ve always been fascinated by it,” he says. “And shoot, I live in the West—90 miles from the ‘end’ of it.” His influences were artists from the 1930s and ’40s like John Clymer and Norman Rockwell, as well as earlier illustrator Howard Pyle.
Although interested in art since childhood and later choosing to attend a commercial art school, Prechtel didn’t get serious about art until the late 1960s. “I hung a painting at a gun show,” he recalls of the breakthrough moment, “and a gentleman came by and bought it—a young lawyer with not much money. One day I went to see him and asked, ‘Do you think you could find someone who could pay me a salary so I can paint?’ And he said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ So for three years he did that.”
That was 1969, and the philanthropic attorney was John E. Jaqua, who helped form sportswear giant Nike and became a board member in 1968. “He donated money, time, expertise to many, many people in many different professions,” Prechtel says. The longtime arts patron died in 2009.
By the early 1970s Prechtel had become a founding member of the Northwest Rendezvous Group of Artists, and his career was taking off. Could he have done it without Jaqua’s help? “I had a long discussion with him about that,” the painter says. “He said, ‘You would have done it anyway.’” While the driven Prechtel might agree, he remains grateful for the support.
His typical painting regimen begins with “doodles, sketches and idea things.” If something strikes his fancy, he’ll bring in a model or models, take photographs, make sketches and then do color studies and a small painting “to see what it looks like and then go on to the bigger ones.”
Although he has been at this for 47 years, he notes, “I’m always learning. I’ll look at other people’s work and wonder how they got those colors, where they applied them, things like that. I have to keep thinking about what I’m doing.”
His advice to beginning artists is simple: “Know how to draw if you’re going to be a painter.” Motivation is critical. “I met an artist once who at the time was a member of Cowboy Artists of America,” Prechtel recalls. “He told me he had met one of the great illustrators at a bar, and he asked this guy, ‘How did you learn to paint?’ And the guy said, ‘By going out and painting.’ Then the guy turned around and walked off.” WW