GLOSSY NEW MEXICO LIGHT SHINES through sprawling bay windows at artist Gary Niblett’s home, in the northern foothills of Santa Fe. His American West oil paintings in gilded frames fill the space. His little dog, Chloe, follows as he shows off some of his favorite works, pencil sketches, and a studio where he keeps a collection of Western memorabilia that ranges from fringed suede coats to silver-trimmed saddles.
While he works in a familiar style, Niblett’s technique, process, and creative skill impart an ethereal quality to his depictions of Western life both past and present. The pink, red, and cream bluffs at Ghost Ranch. A rancher herding his cows in a green valley beneath golden clouds. Abiquiú’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church at sunset.
“Subtle moments mean so much to me, the soft inner moments,” says Niblett. “There is so much to be said about that, and that’s where I always go. I think everything should have some kind of story behind it, to add to the meaning of it, and why you painted it.”
Born and raised in Carlsbad, Niblett started painting horses in high school. He attended Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales, for a year before heading to ArtCenter College of Design, in Los Angeles. While he was painting in a night class, a scout from the Hanna-Barbera animation studios recruited him to join its background department, where he worked on titles like Charlotte’s Web and Scooby-Doo.
In 1973, Niblett left animation and dedicated himself to Western art. “The West is my number-one interest,” he says. “Not just cowboys, but anything in the West.”
Many of his paintings are inspired by photographs he took on reenactment wagon train trips through Arizona and Utah. Niblett would ride horseback for days with his camera gear. “I would run to get ahead of the wagon train, stop and photograph, throw my camera back on me, and hop on the horse and go again, all day long,” he says. “I got a lot of wonderful material.”
In 1976, he was voted into the Cowboy Artists of America, becoming the youngest person ever admitted, at age 33. His work has been shown worldwide in exhibits at the Grand Palais, in Paris, and China’s Beijing Exhibition Center. The New Mexico Capitol has his A Stranger’s Welcome in its permanent collection.
Over several months, Niblett has been working with the Carlsbad Museum to curate a retrospective of his work. Gary Niblett: His Life and Art opens with an artist’s reception and chuck-wagon dinner on November 5. “To look back is really amazing,” he says. The collection includes photographs from his childhood, pieces he made in art school and at Hanna-Barbera, and about 40 of his later paintings.
“I am absolutely delighted to do this,” says museum director Dave Morgan. “This guy really knows how to capture light—it’s just beautiful.” Morgan points to some of Niblett’s paintings of Native American life as his favorites.
“It’s amazing to work with him,” he says. “You can just see that he loves to paint.”