Ask Texas artist Lee Herring about any of his 21 paintings on display at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum and you’ll get a story or two or three to go with the story that’s in the painting.
It’s an aural reinforcement to what careful students of western art and history notice about his work: This painter does his research.
From the pistols or rifles a 19th century cowboy might carry to the symbols that Comanche warriors painted on their horses before battle, it’s the details that amplify the story before the viewer’s eyes.
Herring, 74, offered his paintings to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum for the exhibition, agreeing to donate 40 percent of sales to the museum’s Bicentennial Fund, which is underwriting activities to mark the 200th anniversary of the Texas Rangers in 2023.
Byron Johnson, executive director for the hall of fame and museum, said it’s a generous offer, highlighted by Herring’s fine hand for painting and eye for detail.
“What sets him apart is he just painstakingly researches things to get the accuracy down,” he said.
That’s no small consideration for a museum that spends a lot of time debunking historical inaccuracies about the Texas Rangers, he added.
Herring’s fondness for art grew from his Texas childhood — “when I was whipped for drawing on the walls,” he said — and merged with his love for the West and its history as he grew older. He started as an illustrator, then moved into fulltime work as an artist in 1975, teaching art for a time at Texas State Technical Institute in Waco. He presently splits his time between Waco and his Rockwall studio.
Part of his talent lies in an ability to take historic details and build scenes from his imagination about a time and places before photography became ubiquitous.
He photographs locales — central and west Texas are favorites as are the Rocky Mountains — and models, often historical reenactors, using those pictures to get the details right. Sometimes, he’s the one in a painting, armed and dressed for the proper period, as he is in “Below the Cap.”
While dismissive of work, both visual and cinematic, that pays little regard to realism and history, Herring is acutely aware of commercial necessity for a working artist. Standing before his “Texas Spring,” a study of three cowboys in a field of bluebonnets as a thundercloud gathers in the background, he recalls a buyer’s advice “ ‘If it’s got cowboys and bluebonnets and thunderstorms, it might sell,’ he told me.”
Painting prices range from $650 for a small sketch or painting to $10,000 for his canvases “Lighthouse,” a study of a Palo Duro Canyon landmark, and “Snowy Day,” the historic St. Olaf’s Kirke in Bosque County, which he trimed with snow to make distinctive.
His 1978 epic “Battle of Plum Creek,” both Johnson and Herring are quick to say, is not for sale.
“It’s one of the most reproduced modern paintings of Texas history,” said Johnson, clearly an admirer of the oversized painting, a study of a 1840 battle between Comanche warriors and Texas Rangers and Republic militia.
Other paintings in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame exhibit carry rich stories, such as “Britt Johnson’s Last Stand,” a black teamster pursuing the Comanches that killed his family stands alone against a raiding party, and “The Final Moment,” the law enforcement ambush that stopped 1930s outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker outside Gibsland, Louisiana.