John Garvin is the Co-studio Director at Bend Studio, writing, designing, and art directing video games. A long time Barks collector and scholar, he met Carl and Garé in the 1980s and learned new painting techniques from them. He has now been painting in the Barks manner for over 30 years. You can see more of his work HERE.

Also, see Garvin's article on Carl Barks HERE.




The Other “Good Artist” Garé Barks

Garé Barks, circa 1965.
Photo from Treasury of Living Art.

I met Garé in the spring of 1984 after she and Carl moved to Grants Pass, just twenty minutes north of where I lived. We had been corresponding for a couple of years, mostly about oil painting. In 1982 I had sent them a gift: an oil painting of Carl sitting at his easel in the Money Bin, painting a portrait of Scrooge.

The Good Artist by John Garvin. This painting was completed in 1982, before I met the Barkses, and was sent to them as a gift. Compared to the quality of the paintings I did after learning technique from Carl and Garé, one can see what a huge influence they had on my work. This painting was my “ticket” in to the Barks inner sanctum, proof that I was interested in the work that was currently most interesting to them: the oil paintings. This painting was auctioned off last year from the Barks estate.

Carl wrote me and asked to give them a call to set up a time to visit. When I called the first time it was Garé who answered the phone. I asked for Carl and she explained, very politely but matter-of-factly, that Carl’s hearing wouldn’t allow him to take phone calls easily. There is really only one word to describe her during that first nervous phone call: gracious. Her voice was deep and gravelly, and I could tell that she was a no-nonsense kind of person. By 1984 they had been dealing with - to use Carl’s expression - “pushy fans” for over 15 years. Carl explained several times - in various interviews - that he and Garé had moved to Oregon almost for the sole purpose of getting away from Southern California and the hordes of fans who would show up without invitation. Garé was not only Carl’s wife, partner, and companion - by 1984 she was his screener and protector as well. I was lucky. I got an invitation.

The reason they allowed me into the Barks inner sanctum, I think, is because I was interested in the Barkses as oil painters. Most, probably all, of the fans besieging them were huge fans of Carl’s comic book work… the duck stories done from 1942 to 1965. Most fans considered those comics Carl’s “calling” in life, what he was famous for, what he should spend the rest of his life discussing. But I wasn’t one of those fans. I came to Carl through his painting. From that first visit, when I learned that Garé was also a fine artist, my relationship with both of them was all about the painting. I think fans didn’t understand then - more probably do now that Donald Ault’s Carl Barks: Conversations has come out - is that Carl never considered his comic book work to be anything more than a job… and a tenuous one at that.
By the 1960s, it’s clear from his correspondence and interviews that Carl was done with comics, wanted to retire and paint. He wanted to do something new. He and Garé had been travelling and showing at art fairs and shows since the mid 60s. In fact, Carl and Gare had met at an art show. They had taken a class on oil painting together. Carl had dabbled in watercolors in his spare time since the 1950s, or even earlier. It must have been frustrating for Carl, who pined for retirement, to grind out retreads of his older stories under increased censorship, while his wife was able to work on original compositions and paintings. And what amazing paintings they were. Looking at Garé’s work from that period, and the explosion of creativity that Carl went through when he did retire (landscapes, church portraits, “little girl” paintings, cow girls, exotic Indian girls, historic Indian tableaus, nostalgic westerns), it’s not hard to see why Carl wanted to start painting. But desire to paint was only where similarities between Carl and Garé began.

Like Carl, Garé was an artist from a very young age. And like Carl, she was talented. After graduating from the Punahou Academy in Honolulu, she won four successive scholarships to the Vesper George School of Art in Boston, Massachusetts, where she majored in commercial art and stage design. She studied with Millard Sheets, Madge Tennant, David Vaugh and Ralph Love. (I’m no expert… info taken from her biographical blurb in Treasury of Living Art.) She and Carl had very similar styles in terms of approach to subject matter (a whimsical realism) and palette (a wide spectrum of colors used subtly). It’s hard to say who influenced who the most.

Garé’s biographical blurb in Treasury of Living Art, published in 1965 when Garé’s painting career was in full swing and Carl was just getting ready to retire from Western Publishing, has this to say: “With her husband she teamed in writing and drawing the world’s most widely read comic books - Walt Disney and M-G-M characters. The demands of this exacting art field in which artists must be able to draw anything within or without the bounds of reason has sharpened Garé’s flair for creative visualization. She paints intricately composed scenes featuring highly detailed flora and fauna from nature or from reference notes with equal facility” (page 40).
It’s easy to pick out details in her style that may have come from Carl’s influence: the way she simplifies shapes - leaves, grass, trees - into forms and masses of color that would not look out of place in stylized backgrounds painted for animated films. Animals, which she could draw and paint photo-realistically, would just as often be simplified into simple suggestions, almost caricatures. Color was also used the way it might be in an animated film: Bright vibrant hues, but grayed and muted to provide a great sense of depth. The effect is “realism” but not photo-realism… no real forest has the depth of color and vibrancy that Garé brought out in one of her paintings.

Sometimes Garé would use animals the same way Carl would, as characters to help communicate a gag (her Christmas compositions come to mind, where we see dozens of animals gathering towards the manger.) Composition was done as if she were drawing for comics, or storyboarding for film: camera angles and viewpoint were chosen for dramatic effect; elements arranged to tell a story in a single panel. And like Carl, Garé believed in filling every square inch of her compositions with something of interest, details that would focus the eye, but also reward exploration. Carl once said that he wanted to give the buyer his money’s worth; Garé’s work shows the same commitment to creating something of intrinsic value.

Across the Eel by Garé Barks, circa 1965. Photo from Treasury of Living Art.)

Across the Eel published in that same book, Treasury of Living Art, is a good example of all these characteristics; the giant redwoods dominate the composition, stretching from their massive roots upwards, until they vanish past the top of the canvas. We can imagine the trees stretching upwards and upwards – too massive and towering to be confined within the frame of a simple painting. The immense age of the trees is conveyed by the worn and gnarled wood, pitted and carved by fire, carefully textured with sheens of green moss. The fallen tree in the foreground suggests the eventual fate of these ancient trees, many thousands of years in the future. Juxtaposed against the still and rooted giants, is the small grouping of deer, seemingly caught on camera. While one deer is oblivious and continues to graze, the two closest to us have stopped, heads upright and staring, as if sensing the danger of our approach. The deer are prepared to bolt at the slightest movement.
This is the story that Garé tells in this single panel: in this Redwood forest the ancient trees ignore our presence; their grand and still forms provide the frame, not just of this canvas, but of the lives of every thing that lives beneath them. The deer, proxies for ourselves, are active, dancing amongst the shadows of the giant trees, living out their lives, grazing, bounding, acting with indifference or alarm, soon to die within a few short years, while these same sequoias will be here, a thousand years from now, to watch the antics of our distant descendants.

Well, I’ve probably gone off and read too much into a simple painting of some deer grazing in a redwood forest. But, that such things can be read into her painting provides evidence that Garé, like Carl, could use the “story” approach to composition. To tell a story in a single panel, like a “gag,” you must have disparate elements that communicate one thing if seen alone, but when put together, communicate something more - elements that work separately, but also together. The story doesn’t have to be profound, “gags” rarely are. But in the best paintings, in “art,” you can find something profound if you look for it. In this case, there are two “story” elements in Garé’s painting - the vast and still forest of ancient trees, and the startled deer. A painting of either element alone would not tell a story. Together, they tell a simple story of movement and stillness, indifference and timidity, life both measured in eons and in terrified heartbeats.

The arrangement of elements within the composition also work to tell this story. The first thing you see are the bold vertical lines of the sequoias, their masses of shape and color dominate the painting. You look at them much as you would if you were standing in the forest: starting at the roots - that you probably just tripped over - and then following the lines of gnarled bark upwards until you have to crane your neck to glimpse the tree tops, hundreds of feet above. You can’t miss the trees. But look at how Garé uses other elements to draw your eye to the deer: first the fallen tree in the foreground, with its sharp diagonal lines that point right at the deer. Shadow lines and bright swathes of sunlight in the mid ground, also horizontal, cut across towards the deer as well. Dead branches, just behind the massive tree on the left, sweep downwards towards the deer. Wisps of branches at the top of the painting, all sweep downwards diagonally, angling towards the deer. If the forest itself and the towering sequoias ignore the deer, Garé presses everything else in the scene to call them out.

Color and light also help tell the story. The massive trees seem encased in shadow, their branches, high above us, blocking out the sun. One can almost hear the muted whispers that seem a requirement when standing in a dark forest. This play of light and shadow not only communicates the sense of stillness in the forest, but provides the focal point of the painting: the brightly lit tree under which the deer stand, and by extension, the deer themselves. The amazing sense of depth is accomplished by the way Garé grays her colors as objects recede into the background, until the forest becomes an impenetrable wall of fog that creates a backdrop to the high-contrast forms of the towering trees in the foreground.

Again, this all seems like a lot to say about such a simple thing as a landscape painting of some redwood trees and deer. But it’s the kind of explication that is possible because Garé made it possible. The kind of explication that is possible also in Carl’s best paintings. The ability to find complex themes within a simple composition is the definition of art. “Art” is what made Carl’s stories so memorable. It’s what made Carl’s best paintings so memorable (though there has not been much in the way of published scholarship on Carl’s paintings), and it’s one of the things that Carl’s and Garé's paintings have in common: intended as mere commercial illustration, their best work is “art.”

Carl and Garé had more than just composition, style, and palette and “art” in common. By the time I started to learn from them in 1984, they shared technique as well. Like Carl, Garé would do small preliminary paintings in order to work out composition and color issues before committing her ideas to larger canvases. This small 6 in. x 8 in. composition shows her working out many of the same ideas we see in Across the Eel:

Preliminary painting by Garé Barks. The collection of John Garvin.

Both Carl and Garé would use small compositions like these to work out not just composition, but lighting, color, texture. Looking at paintings coming out of the estate auctions, it is sometimes difficult to tell if the attributions are correct: I have small preliminary paintings attributed to Carl that could just as easily have been Garé, and vice versa. That is how similar their styles could be.

Another thing Carl’s and Garé’s painting had in common had nothing to do with technique, but was more about administration: Numbering ID systems, identification, and titles. There are examples of both artist’s work which have no ID numbers. This painting for example, has no number ID, or title.

“Untitled” by Garé Barks. 12 in. x 24 in. The collection of John Garvin.

Backside of “untitled” by Garé Barks.

It’s impossible to date this composition because Garé didn’t date paintings on the front as part of her signature, and it does not have a title or identification number on the back. Like Carl’s paintings, it does have a stamp on the back… a stamp almost identical to Carl’s that reads “Reproduction of this subject in whole or in part is prohibited without the express permission of the artist Garé Barks.” The commercial intent of the painting is evident by a publisher’s stamp on the back: “© Donald Art Co., Inc. N. Y.” and by a note in Garé’s hand that reads “On this one, too, the whole painting could be toned over to ‘Robert Wood’s’ Golds.” But we know that by the early 60s, Garé was using an ID system (the same one that Carl would eventually use): Near Zion Park for example, is numbered #61-01.

Here’s another example of Garé’s numbering system, also taken from my collection. This finished painting with subject matter also taken from the Eel, is titled High Noon on the Eel.

High Noon on the Eel by Garé Barks. 12 in. x 16 in. The collection of John Garvin.

Backside of High Noon on the Eel by Garé Barks.

The numbering system is the same as Carl’s: #71-26 indicates that this was the 26th painting that Garé completed in 1971.

So we see a lot of similarities in all aspects of Carl's and Garé’s painting – technique, storytelling, record keeping. Did she learn them from him, or the other way around? It’s hard to say. After 1971, when Carl’s work moved almost exclusively towards cartoon subject matter, the differences in subject matter obscures just how similar their technique was. Compare this 1971 painting by Carl (#01-71), completed six years after Garé’s Across the Eel, and just before Carl started working on the famous Disney paintings, and you can see how similar his work was to Garé’s - composition, technique, storytelling, color, subject matter, technical handling of the deer and trees. Even the use of the title to help evoke more story.

Low Sierra Sun by Carl Barks. #01-71.

Carl made no apologies for learning from the work of others. In several interviews he mentions learning by copying the work of watercolorist Ted Kautsky. And the Barks estate auctions reveal dozens and dozens of “how to” books on almost every conceivable subject matter - color, lighting, technique, oils, watercolors, drawing, and so on. From the time he was a boy, Carl taught himself technique by copying the work of others. By the time Carl started painting seriously, from 1965 on, he had a lifetime of experience to draw on; he had a library filled with instruction books. He had a morgue filled with reference material. In the end, he would take what he learned, and make it his own. I can’t help but think, though, that when it came to painting in oils, Carl was married to his greatest source of instruction and inspiration. There can be no doubt that Garé learned a great deal from Carl on the art of storytelling. And I think there can be no question that the “good artist” learned a great deal from Garé in return.

But the biggest thing the Barks’s paintings had in common, I think, is that they were a commercial enterprise. All the stuff I wrote about Across the Eel is true, but it has nothing to do with why the painting was made. Or even Garé‘s intentions. Like Carl, Garé did not create because she had some inner “message” that had to get out, some complex idea she was trying to communicate. She was not trying to be a Picasso. Like Carl, Garé had an almost “anti-intellectual” streak - but with much good humor.
When I first met them I was still going to college - studying Shakespeare and English literature at Southern Oregon State College. Whenever I would bring up some depressing book or other that I was reading, bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t study comics to get my degree, Garé would tease me relentlessly: “Why do you fill your head with all that nonsense?” She was a voracious reader herself, but she read Harlequin romance novels… the kinds of books that came out a dozen a week and were numbered. In fact Harlequin romance novels were how I learned the Barkses had moved to Grants Pass:
I was friends with the owner of the small bookstore where Carl and Garé would come in to buy her romance novels, and the bookstore owner called me one day to say “guess who just stopped by?” Garé read so many books, so quickly, she had to take long lists of numbers with her to help keep track of which books she had already read. “Literature” these books weren’t. Again like Carl, she read purely for entertainment… escapism. She wanted to enjoy herself and hated authors who tried to argue a point of view, or push a cause. I think they felt the same way about their art. They wanted to paint subjects that people would enjoy, not subjects that would make their heads hurt. Garé thought of herself as an artist, not an “artist.”

She wanted to sell paintings that people would buy and hang in their homes. Later in her career, she was trying to sell paintings that would sell calendars and greeting cards. To sell these, she had to choose subject matter that would sell, and paint in a technique that would sell - and that meant nature and “realism.” I had a long talk with Garé and Carl in 1990 or so, after I had begun my “animizim” style of painting (see more HERE.)

Garé’s opinion was the same as Carl’s: the paintings were good on a technical level - I had been learning from them for five years by that point - but they didn’t like the subject matter. Like Carl, she thought it was too “out there” to sell. She told me my technique was now good enough to be commercial, but I had to switch to subject matter that was more commercial: nature. By that time, Garé had been selling work to Leanin’ Tree and other publishers for years. She was so adamant that I give up painting funny animals and switch to landscapes and wildlife paintings, that she wrote down the name of her contact at Leanin’ Tree for me.

Garé jotted down her Leanin’ Tree contact information for me.

I never did contact Leanin’ Tree. I understood what Garé was trying to say, but I don’t think Carl and Garé ever understood what I was trying to do with my own art. My goal wasn’t to become a full time illustrator – by then I already had a career in video games. Instead, I wanted to use Carl’s style of painting - best described as “realistic cartoons in oil” to explore other ideas. I wanted to make people’s heads hurt. To me, it was ok if the art didn’t sell (in fact, I still own almost every painting I’ve ever done!) I was making a good living doing video games. I wanted to see if I could use the Barks technique to create “art.” In short, I wanted to intellectualize funny animal paintings. They didn’t get it. But that was ok. I wasn’t sure I got it either.

In some ways, I think it came down to common sense and practicality, another thing that Carl and Garé had in common. On one visit I had brought a stack of paintings to show them - this would have been in early 1985. I had done some copies of Carl’s Disney paintings on canvas board and had strapped them to the back of my motorcycle.
At the end of the visit they walked me out to their driveway and were aghast that I had ridden a motorcycle over to see them without wearing a helmet. Garé gave me a huge lecture on safety. I can’t remember what I said, but it was some kind of sarcastic remark about how if I got in a wreck I was going to be dead anyway. She got this horrified look on her face and told me a story about a friend of hers who had been injured in a bike crash. The crash had not killed him -- it had crippled him from the neck down. She said that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to someone. It was a sobering thought for a 25-year-old kid who basically thought that nothing could happen to him. Her stern admonition, which I remember to this day, probably saved me a lot of grief over the years.
The next time I came to visit them, I wore a helmet. Be practical: if you’re going to do something dangerous, take safety precautions. If you’re going to paint something, paint something that sells. Common sense.

Over the last few years I began to collect Garé’s work along with Carl’s. Not just because of her connection with Carl, although I’m sure that was part of it, but because I had seen Garé’s work, had spent hours in their studio, learned their technique and craft. To me it seemed that Carl and Garé learned from each other in almost every aspect of their art, from prepping Masonite, to mixing oils, to composition, storytelling, and palette, to numbering and titling their work, to their commercial aspirations. The more of Garé’s work that I saw, the more similarities I could see in her technique and Carl’s. More important, I began to really appreciate her work for its own sake. Given the commercial aspirations that drove her work, she managed to create some amazing paintings over the course of her career.
All of Garé’s paintings have her distinctive style, a stylized realism rendered with a vibrant use of color; dramatic settings evoked with light and shadow. Even her preliminary paintings have an explosion of detail and color that rival the finished paintings of other artists working in the genre. These are two great examples of Garé’s preliminary work. While small in size, you can see that she has worked out all the important detail she will need for the final painting (notes on the back say “Sketch for 20 in. x 30 in.”)

“Untitled” preliminary painting by Garé Barks. 8in. x 12in. The collection of John Garvin.

“Untitled” preliminary painting by Garé Barks. 8in. x 12in. The collection of John Garvin.

Some paintings defy description. I bought this colorful painting a few years ago:

“Untitled” by Garé Barks. The collection of John Garvin.

What was it for? A preliminary for a commissioned painting? A commercial assignment? Set design for a play? Impossible to know. One of the things that intrigued me about this piece is the similarities between it and Carl’s later work: the colorful approach to the subject matter, the cartoony handling of the figures, the action and sense of a captured moment in time. The work is not typical of Garé, but it is typical of a Barks - expect the unexpected.

Over all Garé left behind an amazing body of work. There’s no way to know exactly how many paintings she completed during her career. Hopefully the Barks estate has kept records of all the files that have been auctioned off over the past few years. We know that Carl kept detailed records of his work, so maybe Garé did as well. I know that somebody purchased a collection of slides from her records - though there’s no way to know if the slides were a complete record. Maybe scans will turn up online.

One can only hope that at some point in the future we’ll see an art book that collects all of Garé’s work. She deserves such a collection. So do we. Carl Barks’s painting career, which outlasted his comics career by more than a few years, would not have been the same without the influence of Garé Barks, the other “good artist.”


This contribution was written specially for this website. © John Garvin