Is it Really Jimmy-Part II

(All images courtesy of unless otherwise noted.)

Jimmy never painted plein air. When going on trips into the desert he always created field sketches.

By the time he stopped painting in the late 1950s he had accumulated five decades worth of sketches –all unsigned.

How many is that?

James Swinnerton Navajo Country Field Sketch 12x16

I don’t know the exact number but I wouldn’t be surprised if the total exceeded 500.  When his fifth (and final) wife Gretchen finally convinced Jimmy to sign the entire lot it took nearly two days.  More on that later…

As I wrote in Desert Horizons, the sketches always measured 12” x 16” on canvas board.  They were typically “very primitive and unfinished. Rather than provide a detailed representation, their purpose was more to capture the important features of the final painting, primarily color, composition and the outline of the landscape.”

James Swinnerton Grays of Desert in a Dry Wash field sketch 12x16

Jimmy himself once noted “The field sketches often turn out more interesting than the finished painting because they accentuate the most important points. And they’re a good idea for the time when your legs begin to give out on you –you just make a selection and take up where you left off 30 years ago.” (Harold G. Davidson Jimmy Swinnerton-The Artist and his Work.)

If recent auction records are any indication his field sketches are rapidly gaining in popularity. While still not realizing anywhere near as much as his oil paintings, hammer prices have exceeded several thousand dollars on numerous occasions. Until a few years ago they rarely went for more than $500.

James Swinnerton Kanab in the Mormon Country Field Sketch 12x16

Now, let’s get back to the previously mentioned two day signing ceremony.  Again, from Desert Horizons:

Ginger Renner, owner of the Desert Southwest Gallery, recalls that for years Gretchen had tried unsuccessfully to convince her husband to sign his sketches. Finally he relented.  Renner says sometime in the late 1960s she and the Swinnertons set up an assembly line whereby Gretchen handed the sketches to “Swinny”, who then signed them with a ball point pen and handed them to Renner for stacking and archiving.”

James Swinnerton Monument Valley field sketch 12x16

Ginger personally told me every single piece was signed with a ball point pen. She added that years after the signing and stacking episode she would occasionally come across one with the signature signed in oil.  “But when you see those,” she cautioned, “you know it was done by someone besides Swinny.”

James Swinnerton Coming Sunset Deserts Edge field sketch 12x16

Now a little about one of Jimmy’s best friends in his later life.

Ginger Renner was an icon in Western art circles. She was considered the world’s leading expert on the works of Charles M. Russell as well an “author, lecturer, collector and historian.”  She was also the founder and owner of two of the most important galleries in Southwestern and Western art history, The Desert Southwest Gallery in Palm Desert and the Trailside Gallery in Jackson Hole.

Click  here for a great article about Ginger by Ann Japenga

I consider myself fortunate to have made Ginger’s acquaintance a few years before her death in 2011.  I was also lucky enough to be a guest at her Paradise Valley home on several occasions. Perched on a cul de sac on the north side of Camelback Mountain, the inside walls were adorned with original paintings by many legendary artists including Charlie Russell, Olaf Wieghorst, and of course, Jimmy.  (There were even a couple of his field sketches.)

PH Swinnerton Ginger Renner Feb 1966
Ginger Renner and Jimmy at a book signing for Hosteen Crotchetty.  The Desert Southwest Gallery-Palm Desert, California. Circa 1964. Image courtesy of Blue Coyote Gallery

In 2009 I attended a gathering of Western art enthusiasts in Paradise Valley.  Later in the evening after the crowd thinned out I found myself seated alone with Ginger. I asked her a few questions then quietly listened to her reminisce about her friend Swinny.  I was always amused at how she never failed to remind me, always with a sense of pride, that she was the only one who could call him Swinny. Everyone else called him Jimmy.

When she had finished she looked me straight in the eye and stated emphatically, “Honey, when I’m gone you be sure to tell everyone that I had a damned good life.”

I had no doubt she meant it.

James Swinnerton Black Mesa Field Sketch 12x16

She also invited me to come over to her house “any time and browse through the archives.”

Needless to say I was ecstatic about the invite. For weeks afterwards I bragged about it to anyone and everyone I encountered in the business.

So I don’t have a good explanation on why I didn’t accept her kind offer immediately. I had plenty of free time then. I should have shown up on her doorstep the very next day.

But I didn’t and, as you’ve probably guessed, she passed away before I got around to it.

Yet one more great opportunity missed .





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