Ken Stockton’s favorite painters tend toward impressionism.

But when the Northwest artist pulls out a canvas, you can be fairly sure he intends to fill it with details so lifelike and a foreground so intricate that you’ll almost think you could step right into his painting.

“To me, it doesn’t look right when you take out some stuff,” he said.

Chalk it up to intimacy with the desert. For 15 years, Stockton has worked at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where his duties have included designing animal enclosures that could pass for true wildlife settings.

Stockton enjoyed his work on the museum’s exhibits — most recently the one titled “Life on the Rocks” — but something inside him wanted a smaller art project that he could control from start to finish.

As a boy, the artist derived pleasure from painting landscapes. So in 1999, he decided to give that pastime another chance, this time drawing from a deep understanding of the landscape in Southern Arizona.

“One thing I love about deserts is that lots of times they make it easy to see the natural order of things,” he said. “The land isn’t so covered with vegetation, so you’re able to see for miles. You can really see a lot of the rock and how it’s fractured and weathered, and in the dry washes we have, you can see how important water has been in the formation of so many landforms.”

He started by painting flowers from his backyard.

“My son, Andrew, said, ‘That’s pretty good, Dad. Are you going to hang that on the fridge?’”

Next, Stockton took a plastic case of art supplies out to Honey Bee Canyon to try painting in the great outdoors. The experience numbed his rear, he said, and proved challenging as he tried to capture changing shadows on his large canvas.

“I was dragging the canvas through plants and getting sand and bugs stuck to it,” he said. “I had fun, but was not very effective.”

Stockton soon learned that on-the-scene paintings work best when small. Because he preferred art on a larger scale — more along the lines of animal enclosures — he figured out that his outdoor time would be best spent snapping photographs that he could refer to in his art studio.

Last year, the artist went on sabbatical from his job as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s director of design and planning to paint full time.

His work hangs in galleries throughout the Southwest, including Settlers West Galleries in Tucson, and one of his pieces is presently touring the country in “Paint the Parks,” an exhibit of art depicting national parks.

Stockton’s paintings range in price from $900 for a 9-by-12-inch canvas to $4,800 for a 30-by-40-inch canvas.

The artist finds pleasure in incorporating his understanding of the Sonoran Desert in his paintings, and he said he also uses his art as an excuse to develop a greater intimacy with his surroundings.

Once, Stockton was standing at a spot in Catalina State Park known as Green Rock when a dazzling sunset captured his attention.

“Suddenly the light on the cliffs was coming alive,” he said. “It was phenomenal. I thought, ‘I’ve got to capture this with my camera,’ and I was racing from spot to spot trying to get it all.”

He tore a calf muscle in the process, but he created artwork that mentally brings him back to that magical spot.

 “My paintings function as a portal into my own memory of a place I’ve been,” he said. “I hope they will function as that for other people, too.”

Stockton’s work can be viewed at

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