Saturday, June 15, 2024

Color and imagination

Staff Writer | June 13, 2023 1:20 AM

OTHELLO — Duke Stoker paints the landscapes he sees in his imagination.

The painting of the ranch house at the base of the mountains is an example.

“That’s actually Mt. Rainier right there,” he said, pointing to the mountain dominating the background. “I just threw it in there because it needed a mountain.”

Stoker, Othello, is a watercolor artist who specializes in landscapes, mostly reflecting the areas in the Southwest where he grew up. He was the Artist of the Month for April at the Old Hotel Art Gallery in Othello and is working on getting more exhibitions.

“None of these paintings are actually off of (existing locations). These are all in my head,” he said.

There are a few exceptions - one painting actually does depict the hills of Northern Arizona - but although most start with a real place, that’s just the start.

“I do little - I call them postcards, to give me where the darks and stuff will be. I have a sketchbook where I sketch out (an idea), and I’ll move things around until I get satisfied,” he said.

The rose, orange, red and white walls of the canyons in his paintings are examples.

“There’s a little bit of abstract in them. You don’t really see strata like that,” he said. “I just throw in a little abstract to make it fun.”

Night Stage to Tombstone depicts the legendary town, more or less.

“Those mountains are actually up in Northern Arizona. I brought them down to Southern Arizona, just to get the effect I wanted,” Stoker said.

Nor are his paintings landscapes alone.

“Every one has some kind of human interest in it,” he said. “A landscape to me is just dirt and leaves, so you have to have something, some (animals) and maybe a human. If you look real closely at some of these, you’ll see people standing around, way back in the back.”

Sometimes Stoker devotes a few paintings to one subject, such as the ranch house he calls Pinto Paradise. One painting in the series depicts the house from the outside, while another shows the view from the kitchen looking out. The same tree and meadow from one is visible in the other.

“There are some cattle out there, and it’s called Counting Cattle, or Counting Head,” he said.

“That one, there’s quite a bit of thought put in there, to get the beams and the shadows, and the mottled-looking walls right.”

Painting with watercolors takes concentration, because watercolors, once they’re on the paper, are there to stay.

“There are no mistakes in watercolor. If you make a mistake you’ve got to try and cover it up somehow. And it doesn’t always work that well,” he said. “Usually if you try to change your color once it’s down, it turns into what they call mud. So it takes a lot of thought.”

A watercolor artist sometimes just has to go with it, something Stoker did with the painting he calls Blue River Camp.

“The Blue River wasn’t supposed to be that blue, but I couldn’t take it out,” he said. “So actually, I think it turned into a little abstract there - it’s really, really blue.”

Sometimes the abstract look is intentional, like the picture of the Virgin River where it runs through the canyons of Zion National Park in Utah.

“There are some little ruins back in there (in the background). That’s called Canyon de Chelly, the ancient ruins there. If you look at pictures of Zion, the form is there, but it doesn’t look like that. I put the abstract look to it,” Stoker said.

Watercolor is like other forms of painting in that the final result is built in layers.

“Some of these paintings have four or five layers of paint on them before you get to the detail work,” he said.

Color is what attracts him to a subject, he said, and the more vibrant the better.

“I don’t really go for shape, I go for the color. I want the color out there,” he said. “A lot of watercolors are really subdued.”

He wants his paintings to tell a story, he said. One depicts a couple about to go on a picnic. Another shows a man going home to his cabin on a stormy night.

Stoker is a cabinetmaker and upholsterer as well as an artist; he built the wooden box he calls his portable studio. He’s been painting, on and off, most of his life.

“I started in earnest about five years ago. But I’ve been dabbling in it ever since it was in high school,” he said.

He took up painting more seriously upon semi-retirement, one of a number of creative endeavors, songwriting being an example. Stoker is an enthusiastic gardener as well as an enthusiastic fisherman.

“I’m probably a better fisherman than I am a painter,” he said.

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at



Duke Stoker’s paintings line the stairway during his exhibit at the Old Hotel Art Gallery in Othello.



Duke Stoker sets up his portable artist studio. A cabinetmaker as well as a painter, Stoker built it himself.



A cabin in the desert is the subject of a Duke Stoker painting.