(American, b. 1960)
Montana artist Bye Bitney will probably never be accused of pretentiousness. At 30, the Flathead Valley native has attained extraordinary success, yet when it comes to self-promotion, he remains remarkably reticent. Bitney prefers to let his paintings speak for him and with good reason... his work shows a level of sophistication not often seen in an artist who has only been painting professionally for a few years.
In high school, Bye Bitney (his given name) studied with painter/sculptor Frank DiVita, then went on to work in commercial art, painting realistic wildlife pictures. After he made the decision to become a professional artist, it took little time for his work to gain notice in the art world. Art critics praised both his keen draftsman's eye and expert use of muted colors, and his career has been on the rise ever since.
In a region where the majority of artwork depicts cowboys and ranch life, Bitney's still lives, landscapes and portraits are a bold departure. Although he resists categorization of any kind, Bitney acknowledge that he is not a cowboy artist.
"It was only a few years ago that I felt secure enough to draw a horse," he says, laughing. "I'm a western artist, because I live in the West. But definitions of western and cowboy art are subject to many different interpretations".
Bitney lives in the modest cottage and studio he built on a corner of his family's property on the western shoreline of Flathead Lake. The furnishings are sparse... the only luxurious features are the French doors that fill his studio with the clear north light. Their many-faceted panels take in a breath-taking view of the lake and the majestic Swan Mountains behind it.
Bitney finds many subjects for his brush and palette in the sweeping rural vistas of his home state. A landscape may evolve from a scene experienced on a drive through Flathead Valley. An idea for a still life may spring from works by another artist. Often, the subject develops from something that simply captures his interest.
"Right now I'm doing more and more people," Bitney says. "I'm staging things, making more controlled use of light."
Unless he's planning a very complex subject, Bitney rarely blocks anything in on his canvas. To that end he almost studiously avoids any hard preconceptions of how a painting will turn out. "I start off with a very general idea because it's much less stressful to keep the initial concepts vague and have a work evolve from the process."
To accommodate his loose conceptual approach, Bitney almost always paints on heavy Masonic board. He picks a likely spot on the gessoed surface and begins to apply paint. At one time, his finished works had to be cut down to be framed. "I find I have to cut them down less and less," says Bitney. "I'm planning my compositions better."
The interpretive realism of painters such as John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla and Russian immigrant Nicolai Fechin hold a particular fascination for Bitney. Thumbing through a prized illustrated biography of Fechin, Bitney notes, "There are a lot of loose and abstract passages in his paintings, but his draftsmanship is impeccable. I find this genre of painting to be a challenge because the inherent looseness gives an artist room to flow with whatever happens on the canvas."
For all the seeming formality in his approach to art, Bitney is nevertheless committed to achieving a personal mastery of composition and draftsmanship.
"Every time you begin a work, you hope to end up with a beautiful painting," says Bitney. "Yet the entire process is a learning experience. It's important to take advantage of all the accidents and mistakes that occur along the way. I am continually honing my skills to the point where, one day, they don't get in the way."
Until about a year ago, Bitney divided his time equally between oils and watercolors. Although the properties of each medium often dictate different techniques, his oil and watercolor works show remarkable similarities. More recently, Bitney has begun to use alkyd-based paints due to their faster drying times.
Bitney's painting schedule is not a conventional one. He can often be found fine-tuning a painting a month after he started it. In the meantime, he sometimes has up to a dozen other paintings in the works. Other times, he may spend the entire period sailing on Flathead Lake without putting down a single brush stroke.
A closet to the side of the studio has often been the repository for neglected Masonite boards. Recently, Bitney has been trying to reduce the number of unfinished works around the studio. "It takes discipline to work back into a painting that has somehow fallen short," he says. Now he tries to have no more than two works in progress at one time.
"I try to get something licked out in one sitting," he says. "The fun is over about three-fourths of the way through. You've either won or lost. After that, you're just mopping up," says Bitney. "Even when it comes out right, you are never 100 percent pleased. But you reach a point where you're just not going to learn any more from it."
Outside critiques pose no problem for Bitney. "I am able to see some of my own mistakes and it's refreshing to have other people see something else...good or bad... in my paintings. The mistakes I make foster a freer environment for growth and I don't end up taking myself so seriously."
Bitney credits his open painting style and philosophy to the influence of Washington artist Delbert Gish, whom he met in 1982. "Gish approaches art solely for art's sake. The trappings of the art scene and the achievement of commercial success aren't big priorities for him," says Bitney. "Because of that, he seems to be one of the happiest and most secure artists that I've met. In fact, right now Gish is not even painting in his studio... he's working with the Peace Corps in South America."
Bitney is reluctant to discuss his long-range goals. "It would be arrogant of me to say where I think I'll be several years down the road." For now, it's likely that he will continue to pursue his artistic style on his own terms.
His paintings continue to receive rave reviews, but modesty prevents him from dwelling too long on that subject. Gazing over a mug of tea cradled in his hands, Bye Bitney comes as close as he ever will to blowing his own horn. "All of my works seem to sell equally well," he says quietly. "That's reassuring."