In Brenda Rentfro‘s world, the eyes have it.

The Tucson native, this month’s artist in residence at Agua Caliente Park’s Ranch House Gallery, is pulled in by the eyes of the wildlife she paints. They are also the first piece that goes on the canvas.

“The eyes are the anchor,” says Rentfro as she sits in the gallery, surrounded by her work, her paints, and a pink “Hello Kitty” CD player ready to spin the George Winston or Alex Grant instrumentals she loves to work by.

“Even as a kid, I would do the eyes before doing the rest. If I save the eyes for last, I almost jinx myself.”

The eyes in her art are the first thing one is drawn to. There are the almost mink-colored eyes with deep black irises in a night heron chick. Or the come-hither look of a lynx looking over its shoulder. Or the piercing yellow eyes of an owl. The creatures she paints vary — there are bobcats, turkey vultures, owls, wolves — but they all share that same intense beauty in the eyes.

Most of her animal portraits are done from life — rehab animals, animals trained for film, and even animals she comes across in the wild.

There is the leggy tarantula with the long shadow that she found while at home in northwest Tucson. And the one she is working on now: a bobcat with pointy ears and eyes that stare off intently.

That bobcat roamed the deep grass in the yard of a place she was house sitting.

“My friend wanted me to be sure to cut the lawn, but I didn’t,” she recalls. “I let it grow and one day a bobcat came in the yard, hiding out in the grass waiting to catch the cottontails. I was able to watch him out of the sliding glass door for a long time. I was so excited.”

She sketches when she is in the company of the animals, and takes photos for reference. She says she knows what she wants the painting to look like the minute she sees a critter that speaks to her in an artistic way.

“I love to capture an image that looks like the animal, but is not a strict copy,” she says. “I want to be able to do justice to the animal.”

Her medium is wide — she uses acrylics, watercolors, pen and ink, and multimedia.

“I’m a media junkie,” she explains.

She’s not interested in giving her subjects human qualities, dressing them up in suits and ties, or putting cigars in their mouth for the sake of humor or shock or silliness.

“I don’t want to anthropomorphize,” Rentfro says. “It’s an animal.”

Rentfro grew up exploring the desert with her father and with a solid love and respect for wildlife.

She volunteered at a rehab center for 10 years before commitments to pursue her art became too demanding.

And that pursuit is an intense one. Rentfro, a young-looking 45, pulls out her phone and displays a quote by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, considered one of the world’s leading researchers on expertise.

“He says that to become an expert, you have to devote 10,000 hours of deliberate practice,” she says, and then points to her calculations under the quote: She has figured out that at 3½ hours a day, with weekends off, it would take her 10.86 years to be an expert at what she does. “You might have to check my math,” she suggests sheepishly.

While the University of Arizona art graduate is on her journey toward expertise, she has signs of commercial success: There are more than 70 pieces in this show, and she has sold 14 of them, plus received two commissions.

Her works are priced low — she charges about $1 a square inch — but she shrugs it off when others suggest she up them.

“I do try to be fair,” she says. “I want to make it worthwhile but not scalp people, and I love that it’s affordable.”

Besides, she adds, “A piece is not finished until it hangs on someone’s wall.”

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at or 573-4128.