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Capturing Light and Shadow on Canvas: Robert "Bob" Salo
Written for the Estes Park Cultural Arts Council's Legends & Lore V art show, July 15 - 31, 2011
It seems especially fitting that the Cultural Arts Council of Estes Park would choose to honor the work of Robert R. Salo in this year’s Legends & Lore show. Although Bob didn’t reside in Estes Park, he spent so many hours painting the wildlife and terrain of Rocky Mountain National Park and volunteering with the arts council and Rocky Mountain Nature Association that his fellow artists considered him a local. And a talented well-loved one at that.

“This was Bob’s artistic home the later years of his life. He was a kind-hearted soul. Warm and willing to share his art expertise with others, including children. He was humble, too,” says Lynda Vogel, CACEP’s executive director, “but he was always confident in what he did. Bob knew what he wanted to express in his paintings and he made his animals come to life.”

Lynda first met Bob in 2003 in Jackson when he was a participating artist in the National Arts for the Parks show. The first thing she noticed about Bob’s work—aside from the anatomical correctness of his elk—was his, “great color harmony and presentation. Like other traditional western wildlife painters, Bob used a limited palette and mixed his own colors,” states Lynda. “It’s a good method that creates great results.”

Raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Bob spent his life capturing images on paper or canvas that triggered his imagination. His childhood summers were passed at his Finnish grandfather’s farm where he milked cows, baled hay, and handled a draft-horse-driven plow. When done with his chores, he’d sit under an apple tree observing the movements of the cows, horses, chickens, cats and dogs he saw daily and sketch studies on paper. During the winter, Bob scoured the public libraries in neighboring towns, traveling as far as 15 miles to look for art books he could borrow. With his metal watercolor kit, he’d practice mixing his own colors and try to replicate the scenes depicted on the books’ pages. That sense of curiosity and passion for accuracy continued to be Bob’s trademarks as he evolved his own distinctive broad-brushed style.

He attended art school for just one year after serving in the U.S. Army, but learned lessons during that time that proved invaluable. He made the principles of perspective and composition his own and defined his palette, which consisted of two reds, two blues, and two yellows. Although that year ended his formal training, Bob never ceased honing his skills.  Whenever he traveled to a city with an art museum, he’d study the masters and how they accomplished their ends. He went on to a varied graphic arts career, which included work with LTV Aerospace, Ford Motor Company and The Christian Science Monitor all the while creating and selling his wildlife, landscape, and still life canvases during his spare time. 

Influenced by masters such as Claude Monet and Carl Rungius, Bob always strove to communicate a mood—be it peaceful and serene or frigid cold—with the light reflected in his paintings. As his wife, Jeanne, recalls, Bob hoped viewers of his artwork would feel the same sensations he did when creating a painting.

“He wanted people to see his work and think ‘I’d like to be up in those mountains, too, watching that bighorn sheep or mule deer.’ He’d want them to feel the wind in their face as it headed down from the summit. Painting outdoors so everything was right in front of him—the light, the context—was what he loved most. It didn’t matter if it was six degrees, or 96 degrees, Bob would paint in any kind of weather.”

Of all the animals Bob portrayed, his favorite was the polar bear. According to Jeanne, Bob had been painting polar bears since long before the couple married— and that was in 1976.

“He liked the simplicity of their shape and how he could play with the various colors reflected at sunrise or sunset in the white of the bear’s fur and the white of the snow.  He could feel the coldness of their world and put that into his paintings. When we went to Churchill, Manitoba, Bob was especially touched by the mother bear’s tenderness and watchfulness of her cub and how it mirrored many of the same attributes of a human mother.”

“He painted polar bears with dignity and pride, never mean or violent,” adds Lynda. “He had a keen appreciation for these bears.”

Aside from painting his own canvasses, Bob enjoyed teaching others how to be better artists and to capture light and shadow. He taught adults as well as children for over 30 years in public and private workshops in Michigan, Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Colorado developing a devoted cadre of students who treasured his patience, honesty, and skill with a paintbrush.

“Bob taught his pupils to see, to open thought to actually see a color in its purest form so they understood that bark was more than brown and snow was more than white,” says Jeanne. “He instilled a sense of confidence in his students, too, encouraging them to develop their own style. He would tell them, ‘I want to bring out the artist in you. I don’t want you to be a clone.’”

In his own words, Bob had this to say about his artwork: “The first thing I create for a painting is an atmosphere. It’s kind of like trying to explain a feeling but it’s important because the atmosphere becomes the concept of the painting and I want my paintings to say a lot. I want them to be specific about the locality, the season, and the time of day. I hope they tell it all.”

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