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Everything But Gray Book Cover

Language: English
Softcover: 82 pages
Dimensions: 8.5″ x 11″

Everything but Gray: The Life of Audley Dean Nicols

Thomas Duke & Gayle Boss


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In 1912, Audley Dean Nicols was a successful magazine illustrator, a popular citizen of a Pittsburgh suburb. Then, he heard “a call in the desert.” Following that call changed the course of his life and the art of the Desert Southwest.

The brilliant light of the desert and its austere beauty were “a revelation to Pittsburgh eyes,” Nicols wrote. In meticulous, vivid canvases he became devoted to conveying that revelation. His paintings pioneered a distinctive style of photographic realism in desert landscape painting and sparked a new interest in Southwestern art.

Though widely appreciated in his lifetime, Nicols’ paintings faded from public view after his death. This book presents the largest assemblage of Nicols’ work so far gathered in one place, along with a documented biography. In it, a remarkable artist is brought back into the light.


In the Desert Southwest, Audley Dean Nicols met a startling, austere beauty unlike anything he had ever encountered. That beauty called to and clarified the artist. He became devoted to conveying, in canvas after canvas, the brilliant light and kaleidoscopic color, the distinctive details and vast, mountain-anchored distances that changed him.

Everything but Gray: The Life of Audley Dean Nicols
Audley Dean Nicols standing with canvases and cacti in Arizona
Nicols in southern Arizona, ca.1915-1920. Courtesy, Richard Plumly, Texas Fine Arts, Inc.

To achieve the color effects he was famous for, Nicols worked on three canvases simultaneously—painting a scene in early morning, at midday, and at evening—claiming the illumination he wanted for each lasted for no more than fifteen minutes.

Audley Dean Nicol’s car pulled from dessert sand by horse
Published in the Sewickley Herald, July 29, 1916. Courtesy, The Sewickley Valley Historical Society, Rob Strovers, photographer

On Nicols’ 1916 desert painting expedition into the Arizona desert south of Tucson, his car stalled and stuck in the hot sand. He wrote, “We waited half a day before a friendly rancher happened along and towed us out.”

painting of Gettysburg victory with soldiers on horseback
The original painting has been lost. This is a photograph of a photograph of a print of the original. Courtesy, The Sewickley Valley Historical Society.

The Civil War was still fresh in many minds in 1910. In Nicols’ hometown a veteran commissioned the artist to paint a Gettysburg scene vivid to him. The local newspaper reported, “The painting found favor among the patriot fever of the times.”

Texas Wildflower Competitive

In 1927, Nicols gained national attention with this painting. West Texas Wildflowers was his entry in the Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibition—a contest that called artists from around the country to come to the state to paint its native wildflowers. The cash prizes were the largest ever offered in a U.S. art competition. West Texas Wildflowers won an honorable mention and, with twenty-five other paintings, was exhibited in New York City and in Texas, statewide. It’s now in the collection of the San Antonio Art League and Museum.

Texas wildflower painting
Audley Dean Nicols, West Texas Wildflowers, 1927. [Oil on canvas, 22in. x 32in.] Courtesy, San Antonio Art League and Museum Collection, Joel Salcido, photographer.