Kenny McKenna celebrates the unchanging beauty of the West

Many adults cherish childhood memories of a first visit to Disneyland. Few, however, likely found the inspiration there for a career as a fine artist. Kenny McKenna stands among that enchanted few. “At the end of the summer in 1956, the year after Disneyland opened,” he recalls, “we drove out from our home in Concordia, KS, to visit cousins in San Bernardino, CA.” He was not quite 6 years old at the time, but he still recalls the day trip they took to Anaheim like it happened yesterday. “In Frontierland, this guy suited up like an Indian was making a sand painting. That was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and I thought to myself, that’s the life for me!”

Today, McKenna doesn’t spend his days arranging colored sands in traditional Navajo designs—but the oil paints he uses derive their deep hues from the same earthen pigments that color the sand. Using both a brush and a palette knife, he creates richly textured impressionistic scenes that bring to life the sorts of vast western landscapes he first beheld out the family car’s window along Route 66—works that have earned him recognition from top institutions including the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and the Autry Museum in Los Angeles.

Even before that trip to Disneyland, McKenna says, he was enthralled with color. “My mom always laughed about how, when I was about 4 years old, I would get out of bed to watch the color test pattern on the TV.” That passion for bright hues stayed with him all through his school years and found perfect encouragement from his high-school art teacher, Ron Hosie. “For our homework, he made us turn in 10 sketches a week, with the intention that they would be suitable for turning into a watercolor or oil painting.” Inspiration was all around him. “In north-central Kansas, there were lots of barns and farmhouses, and you just hit the great outdoors with a sketchpad,” he continues. “Every once in a while, I thought I should really be doing some abstract stuff instead. I’d have fun with it and then become bored, and I went back to landscapes.”

Sedona From Jerome
Oil, 22 x 15

Along with McKenna’s talent for art, another interest gradually grew for him over those early years: music. His mom signed him up for piano lessons starting in the third grade, but “they really went nowhere,” he recalls. A different, more powerful musical influence came along in January 1964, however, when The Beatles first hit the top spot on the U.S. pop charts with I Want to Hold Your Hand. Thirteen-year-old Kenny thought the group was “the coolest thing I’d ever seen.” So he bought himself a guitar, taught himself to play it, and soon had formed a garage band with friends. “There was one on every block,” he says.

That sudden infatuation with music soon evolved into a true passion. He returned to the keyboard and began immersing himself in the sounds of soul and rhythm and blues. Right after high school graduation, McKenna married his sweetheart, Janet (they are now looking forward to their 53rd anniversary). He began making a living as a touring musician, and in 1973 the couple and their two young children moved to Oklahoma City for its high-caliber, welcoming music scene. Playing in a group that modeled itself after jazz-rock bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, he performed six nights a week in local nightclubs, enabling him to enjoy time with his family during the day.

The Rio Grande Gorge
Oil, 26 x 48

Art, meanwhile, had become a minor secondary interest for him. “I’d paint pictures for the walls when we’d move to a different rental house, or to give to my grandma, my mom, or Janet’s mom at Christmastime,” he says. “That was the extent of it.”

But a turning point came at the end of the 1970s, after McKenna and his family had moved to Phoenix so he could accept a job playing in a club band there. As it turned out, that was the heyday of the mainstream disco craze, and nightly he found himself playing covers of the latest dance hits. “I just went crazy,” he says of the negative impact that genre had on his love for performing. “I needed a new creative outlet.”

One day, in the depths of his career disillusionment, he signed up for a painting class, and the teacher loaned him a copy of Southwest Art. “I played in the band that night and came home and just devoured the magazine. I was addicted. I started painting every day and playing in the band at night.”

Happy Hour
Oil, 12 x 22

A key factor in McKenna’s development as a painter came through the mentorship of Dalhart Windberg, a Texas artist renowned for his romanticized landscape and still-life paintings. “I’d started buying his prints, got on his mailing list, and learned that he was going to do a talk in Irving, TX,” he relates. McKenna showed up early for the event and struck up a chat with Windberg. “Send me some images of your work and come on down,” the veteran artist told his fan. For the next several years, McKenna paid an annual visit to his mentor to “pick his brain. And he was very quick to point out all of your weak points and also all of your strengths,” he says. “That got the ball rolling for me, and I started doing mall shows, sidewalk shows, and art festivals.” In 1987, a gallery in Santa Fe began representing his work, and he left the music world to become a full-time painter.

Twenty-three years later, McKenna contentedly lives the life of a fine artist. After a number of years living in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and more than a decade in Guthrie, OK, he and Janet now live in a 116-year-old Victorian house in downtown Oklahoma City that they bought back in 2012. “The first order of business after we moved in was to convert the third-floor attic, with a 15-foot ceiling at its peak, into my studio,” he says. It’s complete with fluorescent bulbs that mimic natural daylight to help him achieve colors true to the landscapes he portrays.

Not that his paintings happen in a vacuum shut away from the natural world. “I nail the color for my paintings in the great outdoors,” says McKenna of the regular road trips he takes to scenic destinations across the desert Southwest and the Rocky Mountain region. On those journeys he brings along a portable easel and oils to execute what he refers to as field sketches. “That’s what we called them in high school, and I still use that term, though a lot of people today call them ‘plain air,’” he chuckles. For added reference, he snaps photos, which he’ll later have printed.

Before starting on a painting, he works out his composition on a sketchpad with a #2 pencil. In the process, he also determines the format that he feels best suits the scene. For example, he chose a 24-by24-inch canvas for TORNILLO CREEK, which portrays a rocky channel in Texas’ Big Bend National Park, backed by the rugged Chisos Mountains and a sky filled with clouds. That particular work is earmarked for the upcoming Night of Artists show and sale at the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio.

Plaza Past & Present
Oil, 30 x 20
Tornillo Creek (Big Bend)
Oil, 24 x 24

Once he’s ready to commit the painting to canvas, McKenna first roughly blocks in his composition in a thinned-down transparent oxide. “I get rid of all the white, which gives the painting vibrancy, and I also like the way that it complements the greens when some of it shows through,” he says. That step done, he follows no set path to completing the piece. “Sometimes I work from background to foreground,” he says. “And sometimes, for fun, I start with the foreground and work backward. Or sometimes I ask myself what’s the center of interest and then work backward and forward from that. It’s whatever the painting calls for.”

Regardless of the order he follows, his goal is to use “as few strokes of paint as possible. I like to see brush technique.” That approach is evident in PLAZA PAST & PRESENT, a Santa Fe cityscape. He took particular pleasure in capturing the half-dozen or so automobiles along the rain-slicked downtown street. “I never did a painting with a car in it until probably about three years ago,” he admits, adding that he managed to portray each vehicle with only about five strokes of paint. “You’re just seeing an illusion,” he laughs warmly.

Such new challenges, whether small or big, continue to keep McKenna fully engaged in the fine-art career he loves. A few years ago, he traveled to Maine and painted “a bonanza of cool little villages and barns, the rocky coast, and Acadia National Park.” In the not-too-distant future, he looks forward to hitting the road again in search of fresh subject matter. “I would like to spend several days out in Death Valley,” he says by way of example. “And I would absolutely love to paint European scenes. That’s the fun of painting—to not get locked into one thing that’s expected of you.”

This article was originally published in Southwest Art December 2020/January 2021 Issue