Andy Thomas has a way of making history come alive on canvas, particularly history in his own back yard. One of his recent paintings involves the Osage Indians, who once lived along the Osage River in western Missouri. The painting shows a Missouri hill in the early 1800s and a party of tall Osage Indians-—in full war makeup, their heads shaved except for roach clips, some brandishing muskets they have traded for with the French—who appear ready to fight another band of Indians.
The 24-by-36 oil-on-canvas is untitled—-“I’ve got to get a real poetic title for this one,” the artist says—— but does what Carthage, Mo., painter Andy Thomas does so well: Capture a moment in Western history. “They were unusual,” Thomas says of the Osage. “They averaged more than 6-feet tall, some of the Indians were described as being 6-foot-7, 6-foot-5, and one image always struck me was, ‘How would a 6-foot-5 Indian look riding on an Indian pony, which was probably 13 hands?’ I always wanted to paint that, but when I go to paint it, it looks so comical, I think, ‘This can’t be right.’ But I do try to paint ponies as small as I can bring my conscience to paint them.”
Thomas, 49, grew up with an interest in art, pursuing a career after high school by working in advertising as a commercial artist and attending night school at Missouri Southern State University. He stayed in advertising for 16 years, working his way up to department manager, but by the time he was 33, he “got the itch.”
I had always wanted to just paint,” he says. “I said I’d better try it now while I still had some energy and if it failed, I would go back to work.” Sixteen years later, he’s still at it. “I’ve been extremely lucky,” he says. “I had worked in the corporate world, putting in 50-60 hours a week, so I had good work habits. When I woke up that first day, I clocked in and sat right down and painted. Probably that first year, I painted an average of 12 hours a day. I know a lot of people who try to be artists, and they work just a few hours a day, and I think that at some point you have to kinda count your wages.”
Thomas paints various subjects, including portraits, nudes and still life, but his one constant has been historical subjects. “I think almost every man likes history to some degree,” he says. “The marriage of art and history is too tempting not to delve into it.”
Those historical moments include Wild Bill Hickok facing Dave Tutt in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865; artist Frederic Remington with the 10th Cavalry; action at the Little Bighorn in 1876; and plenty of Civil War scenes. “That first year I left work, I got a commission to paint a Civil War mural, and that started me painting quite a lot of Civil War,” he says. “It’s tapered off some, but I still do a lot. None of the (trans-Mississippi) battles had been painted, so inherently there was a great value in just documenting battles west of the Mississippi. Now I’m doing more Westerns than Civil War paintings.”
One of his favorite subjects is Abraham Lincoln. “They always talk about how sad his face was,” Thomas says, “and how he aged a lot in office, and that’s all true, but he also laughed a lot. The reason he doesn’t smile in those pictures is because the exposure was a very long time. Nobody smiled, and he had those droopy hound-dog eyes. But I wanted to draw him like he’d just told me an off-color joke or something.”
His favorite subject, though, is Kit Carson. A portrait of Carson served as the Wild West cover in April 2007. “I was moved to paint his portrait as a guy you’d not want to tangle with,” Thomas says. “He doesn’t look mean, but I believe that’s not a guy I want to bump when I’m in a bar.”
Any dream projects? “Really,” he says, “I wake up and I get to pick and choose the subjects I want to paint. I have that luxury. It’s really a great life. It’s not really work, I guess.”
A shorter version of this story appears in “Art of the West” in the October 2007 issue of Wild West Magazine. Also please visit www.andythomas.com.