The Journey of Keith Sanders

This interview of American Artist, Keith Sanders,

was conducted in Wimberley, Texas in August, 2010 by I-Pei Hsiiu Hodge.


The evocative, abstract artwork of Keith Sanders maps his subconscious journey through a colorful and traveled life, from his start as an Okie born “with a pencil” in his hand, to the acclaimed master artist in his current Wimberley studio. The multilayer hues of his watercolors and textural acrylic paintings present a tour de force of technique and artistry, from landscapes of simple elegance to portraits of effusive whimsy.

“I think that every painting an artist does, no matter the subject, is a self portrait,” says Keith. “It’s coming out of you and your subconscious; even if it’s as realistic as a photograph, there’s something of you in there. So I call all of them self portraits.”

Inspired by lifetime events that flow from his subconscious onto paper and canvas, Keith’s “self portraits” are often thematic, with multiple paintings based on related childhood memories. A significant collection of these are represented by his “Mother Road” series of mixed media paintings.

As a child of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Keith spent countless hours on the storied Route 66, traveling between his grandfather’s farm in Oklahoma to a tent village in Palm Springs in Southern California. The terracotta soil, ochre dust, cerulean sky, and rainbow hues of the sunlit roadway are among the impressions evoked by this series.

Success tracked Keith in his artistic career, as measured by an impressive dossier of national exhibitions and best of show awards, and more recently as a 2007 and 2009 finalist for the Hunting PLC Art Prize, the largest art prize in the United States. Cheerfully unassuming, however, Keith keeps a black and white photo of the tent cabin that his family lived in while in Palm Springs in his studio, a reminder of his humble roots and of the transient nature of fortune.

With his artistic talent recognized and supported at an early age by his parents, and an influential mentorship by his high school art teacher, watercolorist Andrew Lester, Keith never had any doubts that he would pursue a career as an artist.

Keith began his passion for watercolors in high school, and after graduation he continued his art training at the Art Center in Los Angeles for as long as his scholarship allowed. His parents decided to return to Oklahoma at the cusp of the Korean War, and Keith opted to return with them to get drafted from his home state.

Army medic training brought him to San Antonio as a new draftee, where he met his first wife. After a year and a half stationed in the Territory of Hawaii, Keith settled in San Antonio with his wife and son in 1956 and continued his art studies at San Antonio College and Trinity University. While studying art, Keith found inspiration in the works of several artists, including Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and John Marin, as well as the blossoming art scene in San Antonio.

In 1959 he learned that celebrated watercolorist Milliard Sheets had become the director of the Los Angeles County Art Institute. Intent on studying with one of his heroes, Keith hitchhiked to Los Angeles that year. His trip did not go as planned, however, as he was felled by a kidney stone attack that developed into a critical infection.

Keith made a U-turn after this near-death experience, and returned to his family in San Antonio. In 1969 Keith left San Antonio for the coastal inspirations of sea and fog, bridges and bays, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Almost 10 years passed before Keith, by then an established and active exhibitor, finally had his lesson with Milliard Sheets at a watercolor seminar near Monterey’s famed Cannery Row.

Over the next 26 years Keith moved inland from the Pacific coast to the Sierra Foothills near Grass Valley, continued climbing eastward to Boulder and Evergreen, Colorado, and then settled in Taos, New Mexico. Continuously experimenting and evolving in his style, Keith absorbed and interpreted landscapes in the luminously layered and sensuous planes of his watercolors. Mesmerizing and enigmatic in beauty, his artwork defies easy definition to the lay observer.

Early Morning on the Blanco (photo courtesy of Keith Sanders)

“Abstract would be the closest, but I usually see things in my paintings, either a horizon line or mountains or storms; it varies,” says Keith.

“A lot of people see my work and say, ‘You know, I really don’t like abstract, but I really like this, and I don’t know why.’ I can draw a horizon line here and a curve there and start painting and not know what’s coming. You just start and then things evolve. I have layers and layers of colors on top of the other. Some of these will have 10 to 15 layers. It’s a discovery every time. I’m never done. I just keep going. Sometimes if I see them years later I think, ‘Oh, I should have done this, ooh, I could’ve done that!’ Then I have to tell myself, ‘No! Leave it alone! Leave it alone! I have to control myself,” he admits with a grin.

Echoing that previous medical emergency that returned him to San Antonio as a young art student, a heart attack in 2004 became the impetus for Keith and his wife, artist Marianne Vieregg, to leave Taos for Texas.

“I became a grandfather and great grandfather and had a heart attack on my 70th birthday at [a mall] parking lot in Taos. After I recovered from that, I decided maybe it was time to get closer to my boys and grandkids, so we started looking for a place in the San Antonio area that was in the arts community. We liked Austin, so we settled here [in Wimberley].”

His paintings now reflect the idyllic scenes of the Hill Country, from “Early Morning on the Blanco” to “Jacob’s Well,” but as Keith does not often begin a piece with a set destination in mind, most of his paintings are titled by epiphany after completion.

“Jacob’s Well’ did not come from visiting the place,” says Keith, “but from my subconscious, my imagination. I started with a line here and then there and all of a sudden it’s starting to look like an oil or water well. Then I think, ‘Oh! Jacob’s Well.”

                                      Jacob's Well (photo courtesy of Keith Sanders)

His enthusiasm and love for creative experimentation and sharing painting techniques has made Keith a popular instructor for seminars and demonstrations, for children in Wimberley’s “Arts from the Heart” program to seasoned veteran painters. As an artist who benefited from the unquestioning support of parents and early instructors, Keith bemoans the loss of art exposure and instruction to children.

“Ask any 5-year-old or 6-year-old why we need art. Oh my goodness, they are so talented at that age. They want to do it and they want to try everything and they are so creative! Then some grown-up will say, ‘What’s that? I can’t tell what it is. What side is up?’ Art is for everybody. Every kid is an artist!”

Keith maintains that 5-year-old-with-a-new-set-of-paints verve and zeal in the studio, ever the wandering and wondering artist

“An artist is never satisfied. I’m never satisfied. It’s like a curse,” he laughs. “You’re never done. I’ll probably go to my deathbed going, ‘Ooh, ooh, I want to do that one, why didn’t I do that one? Wait a minute, wait a minute I want to do another one…”