Five years ago, Fred Fields didn't know real cowboys still existed. An artist since the age of 9, Fields had a successful career in fantasy illustration, creating art for book covers and games. Though many sword and sorcery enthusiasts would consider that a dream job, Fields was bored.

“Any time you make your hobby a job, it tends to become a job. It's hard to keep the hunger you had when it was just a hobby,” he says.

What's more, office politics took a toll on his attitude and his work.

“At some point, I was doing bad paintings,” says the Kentucky native who grew up in a small town and later attended the Central Academy of Commercial Art in Cincinnati.

A fresh start

A visit to an art walk in Seattle became the turning point in Fields' career. The idea of doing art for the sake of art inspired him because it had no ties to a book, a game or any other product. “I can see myself doing this,” he told his fiancée, Sandy.

Shortly after that, some shake-ups at the company where Fields worked allowed him to spend three months creating sample paintings, which he took along on a trip to visit friends in Arizona.

One thing led to another. With positive feedback from the galleries in Scottsdale, AZ, and a growing enthusiasm for the scenic Southwest, Fields took a gamble. He moved his wife and infant son across the country to Arizona, built a house, and started painting.

“Everything was new, and it was pretty exciting,” he says. “I didn't have any expectations; I just knew what I needed to do, and I had to make it work.”

A whole new genre

When it comes to subject matter, fantasy art and Western art are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and that's why it's so appealing to Fields. Now self-employed, he lives in Surprise, AZ. He and Sandy have two preschool-aged sons.

Having departed from fantasy art, he focuses exclusively on the contemporary people of the West with ties to the Old West.

“When we first moved out here, I didn't know any cowboys,” Fields recalls. “I shot my dad for one of the cowboys, and another friend of mine posed for a painting.”

But now Fields is getting to know some cowboys and American Indians as he gathers subject matter. He takes photographs at Western festivals, nearby ranches and special shoots set up for artists.

“I tend to pull a lot out of a photograph,” he explains. “I don't put anything there that's not on the photograph.”

Although he works from photos, he never just sits down to paint. Having been an illustrator, he sketches, fixes and moves things around until they are exactly how he wants them. Then he enlarges the drawing and transfers it to canvas stretched over Masonite™.

A typical painting progresses slowly because he uses small brushes; it usually takes a month or so to complete one.

Fields' paintings are incredibly lifelike. In fact, such meticulous detail created a little debate when he painted his grandmother's portrait. Until she took a second look in the mirror, she wasn't ready to claim all the wrinkles he depicted.

Even so, the unforgiving detail is what makes Fields a rising star in Western art. For instance, in “Red Shirt and Yellow Boy,” he gained the respect of the Crow Indian he painted by understanding the meaning of the model's regalia and ensuring his depiction was true to life. That's important because the model is also an historian who makes all his own regalia and knows what everything was originally used for.

“Everything they are wearing means something,” Fields explains. “You can't change the colors on anything.”

Fields is also becoming known for his horses. One painting that's attracted a lot of attention is “Fresh Paint,” which depicts two Pintos — one older than the other. Fields shows the age difference through the size and color of the horses, as well as the way they hold their heads.

In “Cuttin' Through the Dust,” which is the cover image of this month's BEEF issue, Fields portrays a cowboy and a longhorn calf he's cutting from the herd on a dusty day. The painting originated from a photo Fields took during the fourth year of an Arizona drought.

“As soon as the cattle started moving and the cowboys started riding around, the dust came up,” he recalls. “I could taste that dirt for days.”

Fields' originals are at Heritage Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, and Mountain Trails Gallery in Jackson, WY. Limited-edition prints are for sale through his Web site www.fieldsartwest.com or by calling 623/875-9247.

Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF senior associate editor.