Wayne Justus captures the cowboy experience firsthand.

Wayne Justus talks about as fast as he paints - and that's not exactly fast. He contemplates each soft-spoken word like a detail in one of his Western paintings.

Authenticity is essential to the work of this Pagosa Springs, CO-based artist, who gathers subject matter by traveling to ranches in the Southwest, sometimes working as a cowpuncher.

"More often than not, I see a landscape and I visualize something happening there," he says.

"Hold-Up At Blanco Basin" is a good example of Justus' fashion and is one of his favorite paintings.

"Years ago, they used to raise a lot of cows in there (Blanco Basin)... so I visualized what it might have been like in those days," he says. An enormous landscape with tremendous detail - thousands of cows, a watering hole, a train, old barns and a water tower - resulted.

Born To Paint A horse lover from day one, Justus started sketching the animal in the fifth grade. Liking the attention his sketches brought him, he stuck with it.

Justus bought and studied every publication he could find with illustrations by Western art icons Charlie Russell and Frederick Remington. He also took charcoal drawing and painting lessons from several accomplished artists.

He sold his first painting in eighth grade at a show hosted by his local art association. His second painting sold to artist Marjorie Reed, who is famous for her paintings of the Butterfield Stage Coach.

Despite how early his talents surfaced, Justus wasn't always sure he wanted to work as an artist. At one point, he was seriously considering a career as a jockey. After recovering from an accident in which he and a horse went over the rail, Justus decided to look for a safer way to make a living. He went to work operating heavy construction equipment.

"I still painted at night, but I didn't have the guts to just drop the security of a weekly paying job to become an artist," he says.

Then, Justus visited his mentor Austin Dual, a former combat artist in Vietnam and a fellow Western artist. Dual had just opened an art gallery on Main Street in Scottsdale, AZ, and he pushed Justus into painting full-time.

"Basically, he said that he didn't want to see me anymore unless I quit my job and just started painting. And, so that's what I did. We ate beans for a long time and I painted," he says.

Though he had a lot of experience on horseback and had team roped competitively, Justus felt he didn't yet know enough about the cowboy life and needed to gather subject matter for his paintings. He finagled his way into tagging along as a "hoodlum" cook's helper on a big outfit in Arizona.

"They still run a chuck wagon on it and do things like they did 100 years ago," Justus says.

At first the cowboys Justus met were pretty standoffish, and, for insurance reasons, the wagon boss wouldn't let him ride with them. So, Justus made sketches, took pictures and did anything he could to make himself useful.

Eventually, he won their respect by helping the horse wrangler move the horses when the camp progressed to the other side of a canyon. One thing led to another, and for several years Justus returned to the ranch for two weeks at a time to help the cowboys.

The turning point in Justus' career came after a month of living on crackers and painting day and night in preparation for the Peppertree Ranch Art Show in California. He sold out at the show, and he and wife Cathy moved to Colorado shortly thereafter.

A former fiddler for a bluegrass band, Justus enjoys backpacking on horseback in the Rocky Mountains and reading books about the Civil War - his great-great grandfather fought in a Civil War battle in Tennessee.

Justus has retold a few Civil War stories through his paintings, and he plans to paint more about the war.

"I'll always paint Westerns. That's kind of my roots. But every now and then I'll throw in a Civil War one since there are so many great stories that need to be told," he says.

This month's cover painting was inspired by the light of the early morning, Justus says. The setting of "Early Morning Chauffeur" is from a ranch near Del Norte, CO. True to his style, he envisioned the cows and cowboy later.

Justus hopes those who view the painting get the feeling of the clean fresh air of early morning, the dew on the ground and the way the early light makes everything golden.

For information on Justus's work contact the Toh-Atin gallery at 800/509-3888 or contact Justus at 970/264-4462.