By Georgia Swing with photo by Billy Hardiman
Acclaimed Tempe watercolor artist Raleigh Kinney says he couldn’t have made a living
through art for the last 34 years without his business partner and wife, Darlene Kinney.
And, as the couple looks ahead to their 50th wedding anniversary in September, they will
celebrate this Valentine’s Day together in typical fashion—working in their booth at the Third Annual Waterfront Art & Wine Festival in Scottsdale.
The secret to the longevity of their marriage?
“Just being in love,” Darlene Kinney said last week in the art studio custom-built onto their Mesa home, to which they moved after years in Tempe.
“I always tell him when I’m sitting and watching his demos, and he’s sitting here teaching, I’m so glad I get to go home with him.
“I think, ‘Ah-ha, he’s mine.’”
“I’ll tell you what, in this business you need a partner,” said Raleigh, 75. “And one of the things that Darlene has always been is a great backer and also the person who does the stuff behind the scenes.”
Darlene, 71, smiled widely when describing her role in their work: “I’m the creative financier. I know a million ways how to stretch one dollar bill.” She makes the mats for framing and handles correspondence and workshop registrations. “I say, ‘He just
paints; I do the rest.’
“For good or for worse, she is a real critic of my work,” Raleigh said. “She’s not afraid to say, ‘I don’t like that painting. There’s something about it that bothers me.’ “So I’ll go back and sometimes make adjustments in it and sometimes I’ll say, ‘You’re right, it’s got two focal points; it’s not working. I’ll have to make some major changes in it.’ Or I’ll just junk it and do another one.”
After 30 years in Tempe, the couple moved in 2009 to a home in Mesa with enough property to add a 30-by-35-foot studio where Raleigh paints and leads workshops for up to
10 people. But the story of Raleigh Kinney and Darlene Fox began 53 years ago
back in Deerwood, Minn., where they met on New Year’s Eve. The start of a partnership
“My girlfriend didn’t have a date and I didn’t either,” Darlene remembered, so they decided to take their chances on going stag to the White Pine dance hall. “It was almost midnight, and no one had come to even ask us to dance.” Then she saw a good-looking young college man nearby, and she admits she was surprised when he approached her. “We danced, and he took me home.”
“I thought she was great,” Raleigh said. “We had a lot of fun that night.”
“We just kind of clicked,” Darlene agreed. “The rest is history.”
Eighteen years later, Raleigh Kinney was an art teacher at St. Cloud (Minn.) Apollo High School when he proposed taking a year’s leave of absence and heading for Arizona with
Darlene and their two boys. He had been steadily developing a passion for watercolor painting and, at the suggestion of his mentor, Canadian artist Zoltan Szabo, he wanted to try working full-time as a painter.
“My girlfriends told me to just keep calm, it would pass over because it was his age,” Darlene said, prompting a laugh from her husband. “And it didn’t. But we had a family discussion with our boys. They were (in) fourth grade and seventh grade.”
With the family in agreement, they sold their Minnesota home. “Darlene’s folks were down in St. Cloud when we were loading the van, loading the U-Haul, and they did not help us,” Raleigh said. “They sat and watched us load the van, thinking, ‘This guy’s got to be an idiot.’ I’m sure as we drove away they thought: ‘What is he thinking?’”
“It was kind of scary,” Darlene recalled. But, she added, “I kind of liked getting out of the winters. We had been down here visiting good friends and I knew they were here. I guess I was nervous about it but I was looking forward to it.” After growing up in Tempe, their sons thanked them for making the move.
“They just said that it widened them,” Darlene said. “They said that they grew. They really enjoyed coming to Arizona and having a swimming pool. No snow.”
Gaining a foothold From teaching painting in a downtown Phoenix gallery for $5 a lesson to holding classes in his garage, Raleigh Kinney gradually developed a following. A chance meeting with the advertising director for the Diamond’s stores, now Dillards, led to a gig that he called “a great impetus as far as being recognized as a good painter.”
“He said, ‘Would you be interested in coming and demonstrating in the Diamond’s stores during the holidays? We’ll set you up at the top of the escalator. We’ll put a mirror up there. You can demonstrate and we’ll sell a display of your artwork. I did that for about three or four months. “That’s really how I got acquainted with a lot of the artists in the Valley and gained a lot of notoriety,” Raleigh said. “Any painter who happened to walk through the Diamond’s store at that time, I got a chance to meet him, so I became associated with a group of watercolor painters.”
As the 1980s went on, “things started taking off economically,” he said. “So we were lucky. We started doing some art festivals, and my name really got around.” At their peak, Raleigh and Darlene were showing and selling his art at 35 to 40 festivals a year.
He spent time each October for 16 years painting on Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, has taught workshops around the country, and has had his paintings published on calendars and in such magazines as Arizona Highways. His work is featured in three books about watercolor painting, one of them about the history of plein air painting – a French term for painting outdoors – on Catalina Island.
Sharing the passion
Plein air painting is Raleigh Kinney’s specialty.
“There’s not very many watercolor plein air painters because watercolor is harder to handle on location,” he said.
“Plein air is a great excitement-builder. You can go out and spend a day plein air painting and you come back to the studio with a head of steam,” Raleigh said. “You see the colors more vividly and you see subtlety in the shadows that you didn’t see from a photograph…and you remember that, and you bring that back to the studio, and you’re excited about painting again.”
Although it’s tough for novice painters to learn to use watercolors outdoors, he loves to take groups out into the desert.
“The joy of that is they get to see what real shadows look like on location and how it reflects the sky, or how it reflects a neighboring subject,” he said. “So, shadows aren’t just black, shadows aren’t just gray. They’re color. So you point that out, and it makes their picture better and more entertaining. “You bring a sketch back, and it may not be a perfect sketch, but it was done in the moment. And sometimes those pieces that were done in the moment are the most exciting pieces that you do.”
He describes his style as “somewhat impressionistic but realistic. I like a loose kind of
painting. I really like to see brush marks and how I work when I’m done, so the viewer can see how I’ve used my brush. I don’t want it to be photographic. But I like subject matter. I’m still what you’d call a subject-matter painter.”
His favorite subject these days is landscape, but it has changed over the years with his experiences. After a plein air event at a dude ranch, “I had a stretch there when I was doing a lot of horse paintings and riders and things like that.”
One of his favorite paintings is of his two young sons exploring an old truck. Called “Pilot to Copilot,” the work hangs in Raleigh and Darlene Kinney’s bedroom. His smaller paintings, framed, sell for $650 to $750. Medium-sized works sell in the range of $1,600 to $2,000. The largest painting in his studio, 30 inches by 40 inches, has a price tag of $4,800.
Though original paintings often have investment value, he advises people against buying art for economic reasons.
“But I tell people when they buy an original that they should not be buying it for investment. They should be buying it because they love it, and that way they’ll never be disappointed,” he said.
Being an artist affects the way he sees the world. “We’ll be driving and I’ll say to Darlene, ‘Wow, there’s a painting. That old fence post right therewith that old wheel leaning against it and with all the weeds growing up around it.’ She sees the whole thing, she sees the farm in the background and the field, and I see the fence post with an old wheel
leaning against it.”
He tries to teach that way of seeing a painting to his beginning students.
“When you go out on location, they’ll try to paint the whole world. You have to try to teach them to limit what they see and try to pick a focal point. Don’t say too many things in this painting. Say one thing.” He calls the pattern of his three-day workshops
The first day is spent in the home studio, where he demonstrates painting beneath a large mirror, discusses his philosophy of painting, and takes questions from participants. Weather permitting, the second day is spent outside, “on location.”
“It’s good experience for them to go out and do a sketch,” he said. “Primarily, when you go out on a location, what you’re looking for is value: lights against darks, where your focal point is. What are you going to do with the background?”
On the third day, workshop participants return to the studio to paint, often using their plein air sketch. Raleigh and Darlene consider themselves “semi-retired,” having scaled back the number of festivals, shows and workshops they take part in.
“You reach a time in your life when it’s like a tidal wave,” he said of his career. “That wave comes in and at its peak there’s wonderful things going on and a lot of demand, and that recedes. New people arrive and they fill a new position, and that’s kind of what happens.
“There’s still a lot of interest in my work and in my teaching. But you have to stay out there and you have to keep working. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.”
Through all the ups and downs, though, Darlene has been an important partner at his side.
“She goes with me to a lot of functions and she becomes a part of the people that we meet, and she gets to know them,” Raleigh said. “She comments later on those associations and makes suggestions. That particular thing helps an awful lot in a business
like we have.”
The Kinneys said they are not among the 1 to 2 percent of artists who become wealthy.
“When you do an art show, you don’t know if you’re going to make a dollar or if you’re going to make $2,000 or more,” Darlene said.
But they have enjoyed the independence and freedom of running their own business and following their dream. For her, Darlene said, the reward has come in “just being able to work together, you know, and have a good marriage.”
And, of course, to celebrate a Valentine’s Day with the same excitement they did 50 years ago.
For information about Raleigh Kinney’s Feb. 10-12 and March 11-13 workshops at his home studio, and the upcoming fine arts shows in Scottsdale and Carefree sponsored by Thunderbird Artists, call 480-350-9375, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit