The Art Life: “The Primacy of Subject”, A Guest Essay By Andrew Denman

andrew rooster
“The Scrapper” 18 x 18″ Acrylic on Cradled Board, just off the easel and ready for “A Different Animal,” premiering at Astoria Fine Art in Jackson, WY, July 21st.
 Today I’m turning the blog over to my friend and colleague Andrew Denman, who works at the cutting edge of contemporary animal art. This essay “The Primacy of Subject” appeared in his March 2017 newsletter. It is “reprinted” here in its entirety with his permission. All rights are reserved to Andrew Denman. Thank you, Andrew, for allowing me to share this thought-provoking essay. You can see more of his work and sign up for his newsletter here.

In an interview with Wildlife Art Magazine many years ago, artist Ray Harris Ching noted that a poorly drawn bald eagle will sell better than a beautifully rendered snake. That statement is a very good example of a phenomenon with which I have long been keenly fascinated; I call it “The Primacy of Subject.”  Representational art, art which portrays a recognizable subject matter (not to be confused with “realism,” which is only one type of representational art), is easier for most people to connect with than the purely abstract because, quite plainly, there is something in that artwork that the viewer can instantly recognize and relate to.  Certainly, when we view abstract art, we can connect immediately with the color palette, the expressiveness of the brushwork, or shapes and quality of line, but none of these things impact us as quickly, decisively, or viscerally, as a thingwe can readily identify as belonging concretely to our own world and our own experience.  Of course, how the viewer relates to the image depends largely on what the subject matter is, and therein lies the rub.

For those of us who paint wildlife, what animals one chooses to paint can dramatically impact one’s sales, as Ching’s comment suggests.  We artists all like to think our decisions are never influenced by anything so crass as making a living, but in a world governed by practical realities, it’s a hard reality to ignore.   My own interest in wildlife art began in my early teenage years as a vehicle for exploring exotic and lesser known creatures I read about in magazines and ogled in nature documentaries.  That interest that has never left me, but as I progressed into the professional art world it was no longer appropriate to count National Wildlifeand Ranger Rick magazines as my source material, and I found myself focusing more on local flora and fauna that I could observe, sketch, and photograph myself.   My first several solo shows back in my Pacific Wildlife Galleries days (the gallery where my career began) included many unusual subjects along with the more familiar ones, and a surprising number of those pieces did sell.  My feeling then, as now, was that an artist’s enthusiasm for his subject shines through in the work, and that ring of truth attracts admirers (and buyers).  As Hemmingway once wrote, “The truth has a certain ring to it,” and that truth, in the case of painting, must always come from an honest and enthusiastic commitment to the work, and not the kind of “punch-card” drudgery that comes from painting a wolf because “wolves sell.”  I recall one time when my a very reliable collector purchased a painting of a Victoria-Crowned Pigeon, a very weird and flamboyant bird I had encountered in a friend’s aviary.  The collector confided in me that she and her husband had, upon looking at the catalogue for the show, ruled that piece out from their list of potential purchases because it was such an odd bird.  Upon seeing the show in person, however, they were shocked to be taken by that piece more than any other, and they bought it on the spot.  I had won them over, not by catering to their interest in exotic pigeons (there was none), but by impressing them with my obvious infatuation with an exotic pigeon.  Whatever it was about that painting that made it uniquely mine, it was strong enough to override The Primacy of Subject.  My friend Tony Hochstetler, who creates incredible bronze sculptures of insects, reptiles, and other less commonly explored animals, says that his favorite compliment to hear is “I hate that animal, but I love how you’ve portrayed it,” and I understand why.  What better endorsement can an artist receive than to know that it is his vision that is being purchased, not his choice of subject matter?

Within my own collection, there are some unusual pieces that I bought for no other reason than that I love the way the painting or sculpture was made, excluding all else.  Still, as I survey what my partner Guy calls our “big collection of little art” it occurs to me that the vast majority of pieces feature subject matter that speak particularly to our own loves and interests.  I had long admired the equine sculpture of Stephanie Revennaugh, but not being especially interested in horses, I never bought one of her pieces until she did an exquisite little sculpture of a whippet, the same breed as one of our beloved dogs, Enzi.  Guy and I love the landscape paintings of David Grossmann, but never made a purchase until he hung a series of small paintings of the Sonoran Desert, a place to which we feel a great spiritual connection.  For years I wanted to own a painting by my friend Barbara Banthien, but it was her portrayal of a Vulturine Guinea Fowl, one of my very favorite birds, that cinched the deal.  Of course, none of these pieces would have made it into our very discerning collection simply because of the subject matter; they are also exceptional works of art on multiple levels.  Still, it amazes me, being as aware as I am of The Primacy of Subject, and being as aware as I am that it is not always a force for good art-buying, that my own collection so obviously exhibits this bias.  However anecdotal, it is proof positive to me that The Primacy of Subject is something innate and inescapable.

What concerns me is that less discriminating collectors make choices all the time based almost exclusively on the Primacy of Subject.   I never want to be an elitist, but I have watched the art market closely enough and for long enough to know whereof I speak.  Certainly many a thoughtful and educated collector has bought a piece of art that I wouldn’t simply because it is to their tastes and not mine.  I’m not talking about differences in preference.  I’m talking instead about the deep and visceral power that subject matter exerts over the viewer, oftentimes to the exclusion of all else.  Every time I visit Jackson Hole, Wyoming, home to the National Museum of Wildlife Art (which houses four of my artworks) and something of a mecca for wildlife artists and wildlife art galleries, I am assaulted by an endless parade of gobsmackingly awful portrayals of elk, moose, bears, and bison.  There are, to be fair, some amazing artworks featuring sensitive and original interpretations of these subjects (mine among them, I like to think) but the sheer numbers of mediocre to outright terrible forays into banality, and the accompanying “sold” stickers, drive home just how much more difference it makes what you draw, paint, or sculpt than how you draw, paint, or sculpt it.  Elk, moose, bears, and bison are popular subjects, and there is no doubt in my mind that a good portion of the artwork featuring these subjects is not the result of great artistic inspiration, but rather what Robert Bateman has called (and admonished against) “painting to the market.”

Anyone who has painted wildlife for as long as I have knows that there are certain subjects that are statistically more relatable across the board.  Wolves are certainly one of them.  But there is also a distinct regional element to The Primacy of Subject.  While bears, bison, and elk, are popular subjects across the whole of wildlife art, they are especially popular in Western markets like Jackson Hole where these animals are common visitors, and thus foremost in the personal experience of art buyers who either live in that area or visit there frequently.  Friend and fellow artist Stephen Jesic lives in Australia, so naturally his work focuses on the colorful parrots and songbirds that are familiar backyard visitors in those parts, as well as charismatic endemics like Koalas, which are iconic emblems of his country.   This hardly means that Australian animals won’t sell outside Australia, or that Western Wildlife won’t sell when exhibited in an East Coast gallery, but it is important to recognize that, for instance, an African Elephant is more likely to sell to someone who has traveled to Africa and loves elephants, which means that an African Elephant exhibited in Jackson Hole, WY, is probably statistically less likely to sell than the moose hanging next to it, regardless of which one is a better painting.

When I was painting for Contemporary Wildlife: Modern Masters at Astoria Fine Art a couple of years back, I made a very calculated decision.  I had some concepts and approaches in mind that I knew would make this body of work my most modern and cutting edge to date, and I was adamant that I not blunt or soften that modernity in any way.  The question was whether or not these stylistic choices might make the work harder to sell.  Rather than letting those concerns soften my resolve, I simply decided to focus on the most familiar, popular, and recognizable subjects for which I had good reference material available, namely owl, elk, chickens, bison, cougars, and so on.  I only selected animals I was genuinely excited about painting, but there were certainly some more questionable choices that I could have pursued but instead edited out to focus on what I deemed to be more likely saleable.  Fortunately it paid off; not only was I enormously pleased with that body of work on an artistic level, but I sold every piece.  It would seem that either viewers bought these very modern pieces because the subjects won them over, or they bought them because they loved how I chose to portray the subjects, regardless of what they were.  I’ll never know which.  What I do know is that by acknowledging The Primacy of Subject, I at least felt like I was sidestepping a visible and easily avoidable pitfall.

It is both the curse and blessing of the artist that he has more artworks in his head than he will ever be able to bring into being during his lifetime.   We cannot afford to waste our time with paintings we don’t truly want to paint.  Nor can we starve if the work we produce does not connect with collectors.  Nor can we ever truly predict what will sell regardless of what we paint or how; that is certainly something my more than sixteen years of experience as a full-time painter has driven home. I would never recommend to any artist that he or she not take on a project simply because she is afraid that the painting might not sell.  In fact, it is those occasions when I feel truly nervous about a painting that I force myself to take a gulp and dive in, because that is how an artist grows.  Moreover, it is far better to put in the necessary effort to find the market for what you love to do than to shoe-horn yourself into a market that is a poor fit.  Still, if I have ten potential paintings in mind for a show, and five of them are subjects I think are more likely to relate to my audience, guess which paintings I’m going to prioritize?  The Primacy of Subject is something that all of us artists and art collectors would do well to acknowledge.  Inspiration, whether to create a painting or to own one, is largely subconscious, deeply visceral, and always a pure reflection of one’s innermost desires and deeply imprinted memories.  The feeling I get when the phrase “I have to paint that” comes into my head is almost identical to the feeling I get when “I have to buy that” asserts itself instead.  We want what we want, both as creators and consumers. Certainly, as an art maker, I am indulging in my preferences every time I create a painting.  The professional artist, however, as ultimately driven as he may be by the subconscious, hones his craft by becoming, through practice and hard work, as consciously aware as possible of the decisions he is making and why.  With so many pitfalls before us, we art buyers can surely train ourselves to be just as aware.  I often ask myself the question “Is this a good idea for a painting?  Am I painting this eagle because it’s a good idea or because I like eagles?”  We can all ask ourselves the same questions about why we buy what we buy, and in so doing make certain that when we buy a painting of an elk, it’s a damn good one.

-Andrew Denman, March 2017
“Andrew Denman is a California –based, internationally recognized, award-winning contemporary wildlife artist.  Denman primarily paints wildlife and animal subjects in a unique, hallmark style combining realism, stylization, and abstraction.  His dynamic and original acrylic paintings and drawings can be found in museum collections on two continents and in numerous private collections in the USA and abroad.  His clear voice, unique vision, and commitment to constant artistic experimentation have positioned him on the forefront of an artistic vanguard of the best contemporary wildlife and animal
painters working today.”

Art And Memories From The Susan K. Black Foundation Workshop In Dubois, Wyoming, Sept. 2016

Mt. Moran; pen and ink, grey felt tip brush on paper

I got back home at midnight last Saturday from two days in Grand Tetons National Park and five days at the 15th Annual Susan K. Black Foundation workshop. Both were a resounding success. You can read about my time in the park here. This post is about the workshop, which I’ve attended four times in the past and plan to go to next year.

All the previous instructors had been invited and almost all of them where there, including nationally known artists like James Gurney, John and Suzie Seerey-Lester, Greg Beecham, Mort Solberg, David Rankin, Jeanne Mackenzie, Andrew Denman, Guy Combes, Ann Trusty Hulsey and John Hulsey, all of whom I know personally or have studied with or both.

One of the main events is the Quick Draw, a traditional name but almost every artist at this workshop did paintings. Here’s some photos of the event in action. It’s followed by sketches and watercolors that I did in the Grand Tetons and EA Ranch.

James Gurney, known best for his “Dinotopia” books, painted a portrait of this pronghorn antelope in casein, gouache and colored pencil
David Rankin, who I worked with most during the week (more on that in a future post) painted an osprey
Guy Combes did a lovely painting of a cheetah
Andrew Denman created a graphite on paper drawing of a barn owl
Although he’s better known for his sculpture, John Phelps painted a portrait the old-fashioned way…from a study drawing
John Seerey-Lester chose to paint a moose, one of the very popular animals to see in the Grand Tetons
John Hulsey who, with his wife Ann Trusty Hulsey, publish the online art website and newsletter The Artist’s Road, went for a late light landscape in watercolor
Greg Beecham chose to paint a polar bear, bringing in the whites over a toned canvas

The weather was partly cloudy while I drove around Grand Tetons NP, which meant interesting light that could change very quickly. The aspens and cottonwoods were turning to their fall colors, too. All in all a perfect time to be there.

Both of the first ones were painted over the course of a couple of hours along the Moose Wilson Road.

Aspens- watercolor on Saunders Waterford paper 8×8″
Aspens with storm clouds- watercolor on Saunders Waterford paper 8×8″
Clouds and light
Scenery at EA Ranch, near Dubois- watercolor on Arches cold press paper 8″x4″
Pen and ink sketches- Sakura Micron .01 pen in a Beta Series Stillman and Birn sketchbook
Pen and ink sketches- same media as above
Contour sketches at SKB- same media as above
Contour sketches, SKB and the Denver airport- same media as above


Fun Times At The Susan K. Black Foundation Workshop! A Personal Album

The annual exercise in cat-herding....the official SKB group photo
The annual exercise in cat-herding….the official SKB group photo. I’m somewhere towards the back on the right. (Photo by Anthony Cannata)

The main reason for my road trip to Wyoming at the beginning of last month was to attend the Susan K. Black Foundation Workshop for the first time in too many years. My travels to Mongolia have often gone into September and the workshop is always the second week so that it will be right after the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival. But this year I was home by the end of July.

In every good way, nothing had really changed and the welcome I got was touchingly warm. What sets this workshop apart is that there are always a number of instructors and one can bounce around between them as one wishes. You can learn from painters in oil, acrylic and watercolor. Plus, this year, sculptors. Even better, anyone who has been an instructor is permanently invited to come back every year and many do, so it’s equal parts workshop, a reunion of artist friends and colleagues and a gathering of the animal art and landscape clans. All in an informal environment with great food and terrific scenery at the Headwaters Arts and Conference Center in Dubois, Wyoming, which is about 90 minutes from Jackson.

There’s always a Special Guest Instructor and this year it was none other than James Gurney of Dinotopia fame. He also presides over one of the most popular art blogs in the internet, Gurney Journey, and has written what has become a standard book on the subject “Color and Light”. His endlessly inventive ways to work on location have been a real inspiration for me personally. So I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to watch him in action.

The  first day
The first day James explained his basic location painting set-up.
We got to see it in action right at the conference center.
We got to see it in action right at the conference center.
He was painting a scene from the kitchen as the staff prepared our meals.
He was painting a scene from the kitchen as the staff prepared our meals.
Saddle study by James Gurney
Saddle study by James Gurney

There were plenty of opportunities to work on location, including a couple of local ranches.

I found a nice spot down by the creek at CM Ranch.
I found a nice spot down by the creek at CM Ranch. (Photo by Anthony Cannata. Thanks!)
Picnic lunch at the Finley ranch.
Picnic lunch at the Finley ranch.
Lee Kromschroeder getting ready to paint.
Lee Kromschroeder getting ready to paint.
Some of the great scenery...
Some of the great scenery with the cottonwoods coming into their fall colors…
James Gurney and his wife, Jeanette, painting on location
James Gurney and his wife, Jeanette, painting on location at the Finley ranch.
In-progress photo
In-progress casein painting of old traps hanging on the wall of the log cabin.
Bob Bahr and Heiner Hertling getting serious.
Bob Bahr and Heiner Hertling getting serious with the scenery.
Our host, John Finley. His ranch has been in his family for over 100 years.
Our host, John Finley. His ranch has been in his family for over 100 years.

One of the best parts of the workshop is the good times with artist friends and colleagues, often in the evening at the local saloon, the Rustic Pine Tavern.

Guy Combes discovered a flyer for the workshop in a local newsletter so of course there had to be a photo. And since we're all animal artists I had to take one of him and his partner Andrew Denman posed under this imposing moose head.
Guy Combes discovered a flyer for the workshop in a local newsletter so of course there had to be a photo. And since we’re all animal artists I had to take one of him and his partner Andrew Denman under this imposing moose head.

Besides working out on location, attendees could also do studio painting.

I spent a day in Greg Beecham's class, getting great tips and advice on wildlife painting.
I spent a day in Greg Beecham’s class, getting useful tips and advice on wildlife painting. I’m in the back on the right. (Photo by, I think, Anthony Cannata)

One of the highlights of the week is the “Quick Draw”, which is actually a “Pretty Quick Paint”. It’s a great chance to watch a lot of very accomplished artists in action at once, creating auction and raffle-worthy work in front of a large crowd, including fellow artists.

John Seerey-Lester bows before Mort Solberg
John Seerey-Lester bows before Mort Solberg, just to make Mort crack up while he’s trying to paint. It worked.
Andrew Denman working on a graphite drawing of an egret.
Andrew Denman working on a graphite drawing of an egret.
David Rankin getting ready to paint.
David Rankin getting ready to paint.
Matthew Hillier hard at work. This was his first Quick Draw.
Matthew Hillier hard at work. This was his first Quick Draw.
But he obviously wasn't fazed.
But he obviously wasn’t fazed.
Christine Knapp worked on a fairly large sculpture.
Christine Knapp worked on a fairly large sculpture.
John Phelps created a small wolf.
John Phelps created a small wolf.
Lee Cable painted a portrait of a horse.
Lee Cable painted a portrait of a horse.
Guy Combes did a lion.
Guy Combes did a lion.
Greg Beecham harassed David Rankinl
Greg Beecham harassed David Rankin.

The final evening was an entertainment-packed extravaganza, starting with two suspiciously familiar faces who introduced themselves as Sir Charles Willoughby, who somehow had to keep order (good luck with that), and Chip Chippington (all the sleazy game show hosts you’ve ever seen rolled into one hilarious package).

Sir Charles Willoughby
Sir Charles Willoughby (aka Guy Combes)
Chip Chippington and his lovely assistant, Suzie Sparkle.
Chip Chippington (aka Andrew Denman) and his lovely assistant, Suzie Sparkle.

The fun started with a quiz to identify which instructor various species of dinosaurs were named after…

instrucasaurasesAnd I’m sorry to say that by this time I was laughing too much to get any pics of the rest of the show.

The night was capped by open mic performances, including one by the awesome kitchen staff.

A certain instructor came in for some ribbing.
A certain instructor (who painted the horse’s portrait for the Quick Draw) came in for some ribbing.
As did a certain well-known tv artist who painted "happy trees".
As did a certain well-known tv artist who painted “happy trees”.

There was a point during the early part of the evening when a slide show was shown of various attendees and instructors sporting a really impressive variety of hats. Getting into the spirit after the lights came up, James Gurney popped one of his Dept. of Art traffic cones (used to create space around where he is working on location in urban areas) on his head…

gurney coneAnd a good time was had by all….

gurney 4



Fieldwork And Fun On The East Coast

I’m back from my latest trip, which was a great combination of work and play.

It started with being one of the jurors for the Society of Animal Artists‘ prestigious national juried show “Art and the Animal” which, along with the board meeting the next day, was held at the legendary Salmagundi Art Club, located on 5th Avenue in New York. And ended with a walk through the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in central New Jersey

In between, there was a great road trip with fellow Society members and friends, Guy Combes and Andrew Denman. We had a jam-packed five days that included a visit to the Delaware Natural History Museum, Longwood Gardens, Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, the Brandywine River Museum and the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.

Here’s an album of the highlights:

First was Longwood Gardens, at one time a Du Pont family property.

Longwood Gardens spring border with foxglove
A favorite; Longwood Gardens varigated pineapple
A wall of orchids at Longwood Gardens

Then it was off to the Delaware coast where a comfortable condo had been put at our disposal. I had read “Misty of Chincoteague” as a child and was excited to finally visit both it and Assateague National Seashore, where we turned out to be in the right place at the right time to record this stunning encounter between two young stallions. It went on for at least a half hour and these are just a few of the hundreds of photos I shot, but it shows the pattern of interaction that emerged and was repeated at least a half dozen times.

First we saw this chestnut horse grazing off in the distance
Then this paint horse came strolling down the middle of the road right past us
He walked out to the edge of the water
And waded across to the spit
He winnied loudly a few times and then waited
The chestnut we'd seen earlier came at a fast trot
The two stopped and seemingly sized each other up
The meeting
The nose touch
A quick turn and a kick by one of them
Then they would rear up and "grapple"
Maneuvering for advantage
Both would go down on their knees head to head
And then it would start again
And it all happened in this tremendous setting of water and tideland

What an eyeful that was! We drove on, stopping to hike a number of trails, seeing a variety of birds and more horses.

From Assateague, we took a “detour” to Salisbury, Maryland to visit the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, which houses an incredible collection of hand-carved birds. Then it was back out to the coast to Chincoteague Island.

I was dubious at first, since the entry point to the island is a town that, although having lovely old buildings, was definitely a tourist destination. But I need not have worried. Once east of town and into the refuge, we were in a wonderland of scenery and wildlife.

The scenery was stunning
One of the highlights- multiple sightings of glossy ibis
And of course there were the famous Chincoteague ponies
Out on the beach were large numbers of very entertaining Franklin's gulls
And perched on the causeway railing in great light was this, I believe, Forster's tern

The next day, after a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Andrew had to catch a plane home, but Guy and I soldiered on, paying a visit to the Brandywine River Museum, home to an astonishing collection of original illustration by N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and many other legendary illustrators, along with galleries featuring both Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. Very inspiring, to say the least.

The final wildlife stop on the trip was the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in central New Jersey. Surrounded by rural residential development, it is essentially a bowl between the hills that collects water, forming rich swamp and wetland habitats. The main access is a boardwalk trail that winds through the swamp out to a large bird blind. But we were barely one hundred feet down the trail when the wildlife show began.

The Great Swamp
One of the first sightings, a green frog
Then we spotted two northern black racers mating right below where we were standing
It was a bit of a challenge, but I did get a few shots of this chipmunk
For the finale, I got a good look at a snapping turtle

I spent the last night of the trip at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum cottage where Guy is the artist in residence, along with a groundhog and eastern cottontail rabbits. The groundhog managed to stay out of camera range, but I did get some good photos of the bunnies.

Eastern cottontail rabbit

Some Thoughts On Applying For Membership In The Society Of Animal Artists

SAA members and guests at the opening weekend of the 49th Art and the Animal; Rolling Hills Wildlife Experience

This post was originally written for the Society’s Facebook public page and blog, but I wanted to share it here since I think what I have to say relates not just to what my thoughts are about applying to join the SAA, but also lays out in general some of my beliefs about what makes good animal art. It’s illustrated with images of various members of the Society, who I am proud to call my colleagues and friends.

The deadline for the next round of consideration is coming up in mid-April. I thought that, having participated in three membership juries now as a member of the Executive Board of the Society, I would offer some observations and tips  that might be helpful to those of you who aspire to membership in the SAA.
A couple of notes before we start- First, I’m a painter and that’s what I know best. What I’m going to say applies to most other media, but creating a successful painting will be my main focus. Second, this article represents my personal views and is not an official statement by the SAA, any of its officers or the other board members. If you have any comments or questions, please direct them to me.
Now, to begin: I recommend that you do this exercise. Go to the Society’s website, visit the virtual museum and the individual websites of any member’s work that catches your eye. Then get out at least eight or ten of your own pieces. Line them up. Look at them objectively. This is not easy. We tend to be either too hard or too easy on ourselves. Do your best to be honest since that is when opportunities for growth happen.

The late Simon Combes giving a demonstration; Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy, 2004

Representational painting in general, and animal art in particular, have well-established criteria for what constitutes a “good” painting. These principles have evolved over a number of centuries. They are not “subjective”.

You are not in competition for a limited number of spots as would be true with a juried show. We usually have between two and three dozen applications to consider. We can accept all of them. Or none of them. Each applicant’s work is judged on its own merits.

Greg Beecham at the Quick Draw; Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005 (Suzie Seerey-Lester to left)

Pick one piece that you honestly believe is at or is close to the level of the work of the artists who are already members.

You now need four more at or near that level, because one of the things that will sink an application fast is one or two good pieces followed by the jury seeing the next three or four go off the cliff. You will be judged by your weakest pieces. Consistency is very important.

Kent Ullberg gets inspired at the SAA 50th Anniversary event; San Diego Safari Park, 2010

Consistent in what? Glad you asked…

1. DRAWING: Animals have a physiological and behavioral reality that a competent animal artist has to understand and demonstrate to the jury. In other words, you need to be able to draw them with accuracy and understanding if you are a traditional representational artist and clear understanding if you are going to handle them in a more personally expressive way. You are hoping to join the ranks of animal artists who have been doing this, in some cases, for decades. They know if the drawing is correct or not. Which way a leg can bend, how a wing moves in flight or what the pattern of spots are on a leopard are not really subject to debate, however open they are to informed interpretation.

Karryl sculpts on location at the 50th Anniversary event; Rolling Hills Wildlife Experience, 2010

2. CRAFT: We want to see a solid understanding of your chosen media, whatever it is. If you decide to submit work in more than one media, then all of them need to be at an equal level of competence. Don’t submit a little of this and a little of that, hoping that something will stick, like spaghetti on a wall.

David Rankin on location, ready for anything at Torrey Lake: Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005

3. DESIGN AND COMPOSITION: Do you have a solid grasp of design and composition? Have you made a conscious decision about every element of your piece? For instance, are the subjects in the majority of your submissions plopped automatically into the middle of the canvas or thoughtfully placed to carry out your central idea?

Andrew Denman gets worked over by an affectionate bobcat; he, Guy Combes and I visited the Sierra Endangered Big Cat Haven last year

4. PERSONAL VISION: Are you creating art based on a personal vision or simply copying photographs? (It is well-known that photographic images flatten and distort three-dimensional subjects like animals, so the artist must learn how to compensate for that if their goal is a realistic representation.) What do YOU have to say about lions and elk, butterflies and buzzards? Let your opinion, point of view and passion come through. HAVE an opinion, point of view and passion about your subjects.

John Seerey-Lester paints a mountain lion; Susan K. Black Foundation art conference, 2005

5. KNOWLEDGE: Do you understand basic animal anatomy? Do you understand the habitat of the species you are representing? Have you learned about their behavior as an inspiration for your work? Or is everyone just standing around? If you put an animal in a realistic setting,  you are now a landscape painter too. Are both your animals and any habitat shown depicted at the same level? Or does one lag behind the other?

Yours truly hard at work in the Gobi, Mongolia 2010

Animals are specialized subject matter that require study and the accumulation of knowledge over time to represent successfully. There are no shortcuts.

We are looking for artists who have mastered their art and craft at a consistent level and who present us with a body of five works which all reflect that level.


Guest Post: Artist Andrew Denman On “The Delicate Art of Commissions”

This article was in Andrew’s latest newsletter. I don’t have a lot of experience with commissions, having only done a few dogs and one horse portrait over the years. When I read this article, I saw that it had a lot of good information that would be of interest not only to the artists among you, but anyone who has thought about commissioning a piece of art but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I think that if everybody follows their respective “tips”, the odds are that it will be a happy experience all around.

By way of introduction: Andrew has gained national attention through his involvement with the Society of Animal Artists, feature coverage in such publications as Southwest Art, American Artist, Wildlife Art, and The Artist’s Magazine, among others. and has held three highly successful one-man shows at Pacific Wildlife Art Galleries. He has also participated in exhibits at the Bedford and Hearst Galleries, and the Oakland Museum. His work has toured nationally with Birds in Art and the Society of Animal Artists, which has honored Andrew’s work with Awards of Excellence for two consecutive years. Andrew’s work can be found in the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wisconsin, and numerous private collections across the country. He is currently represented by the venerable Trailside Galleries in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. You can see more of his work here.

"A Very Wyer Winter" acrylic on board, 24 x 21" 2009

So, without further ado, here’s Andrew Denman on “The Delicate Art of Commissions:

As long as there have been artists committed to earning a living with their work, there have been collectors and patrons eager to commission art that speaks directly to their own tastes and preferences.  Many artists have a love- hate relationship with commissions; they certainly offer the comfort and convenience of a “sure sale,” but may artists feel an uncomfortable sense of restriction, of guidelines outside one’s own whims and fancies bogging down the creative process.  It’s unfortunate, because commissions (like the one above) can be among the most rewarding and profitable experiences an artist can have.  The following are tips for both artists and patrons on how to successfully pursue a commission.


1.  Only take commissions that interest you.  The primary fear of many artists who refuse commissions altogether is that taking a commission necessarily means painting whatever a client demands and “selling out.”  This is hardly an issue if you only take the jobs that speak to you as an artist.  Moreover, remember that just because it didn’t start out as “your idea” doesn’t mean a commission can’t become a painting that fully represents you as an artist.  Remember the Sistine Chapel was a commission too!

2.  Spend time with the client, carefully assessing likes, dislikes and project requirements.  Presumably, if a collector has sought you out, he has seen and enjoyed previous work.  Take note of the client’s favorite pieces, and be sure you understand specifically what he likes about them.  Be certain to learn the deal breakers.  If you know the two or three things you have to avoid or must include (say the client wants a painting of a barn swallow, hates the color blue, especially loves your attention to fine detail, and wants to make sure the painting will look good in a driftwood frame) then you can exercise your creativity in all other areas.

3.  Be certain to have the commissioner approve of a sketch or study before you begin work on the final piece.  If some small element needs adjusting, this is the time to do it.  I only ask for a deposit after this stage so the client doesn’t feel any obligation until he knows exactly what he’s getting.  If the client is dissatisfied, I still have a nice study ready to use for other purposes.

4.  Do take a deposit before you begin painting.  One of the benefits of commissions is that you have some money coming in while you are working, not just after completion.  Be prepared, however, to return the deposit if the client is dissatisfied.  It may never happen to you (and it probably won’t) but a happy client might still buy from you in the future.  A disappointed client stuck with a painting he doesn’t like certainly won’t and will never send any referrals your way.

5.  Agree on a deadline.  Many artists hate working under pressure and many of us have show schedules to consider and galleries to supply, so commission deadlines of a year or more are not uncommon.  The key is to let your collector know exactly what to expect.  If a hard deadline is one of the project requirements (such as for a birthday or anniversary gift) be honest about your ability to meet the deadline. It’s better to turn down a job than to take on more work than you can handle and sacrifice the quality of your art.

6.  If you are still uncomfortable with commissions, consider a “First Right of Refusal” arrangement.  Unlike commissions, first rights of refusal involve no deposits and no deadlines.  A client who is interested in a painting of a bison, for instance, will simply have “first dibs” on your next bison painting, which you may finish next week or two years down the road.  The client feels no obligation and you have total creative control,  but you’ve given a collector special treatment that is unlikely to be forgotten, whether he buys the specific piece you offer him or not.  Keep a running list of such requests and follow through.

"The Hawthorne Pair" acrylic on board, 12 x 9 1/2" 2009


1.  Be selective about the artists you approach with your ideas.  Entering into a commission is entering into a relationship with an artist that could last months or years.  Make sure that you and the artist can communicate effectively and amicably from the start.  Any artist should be flattered that you thought of him to create that special piece, but make sure your project speaks to the artist’s interests and personality before making your approach.

2.  When you tell the artist your idea, don’t rattle off a laundry list of requirements.  Be very clear about what’s really important to you and leave the nitty gritty details to the artist’s imagination.  Start by sharing with the artist your favorite pieces and clearly describe what speaks to your sensibilities.  It’s challenging enough for an artist to take the image in his own head and translate it to the canvas; it’s nearly impossible for him to take the image in your head and bring it to life.  Commissioning a fine art piece isn’t about finding someone to paint that idea you’ve always had in your head; it’s about providing the seed of inspiration that inspires an artist to create something that belongs to him as much as it does to you.

3.  Honesty combined with tact goes a long way.  Ask to see a study up front and be frank about your impressions.  Artists can be touchy about criticism, but this is your ball game, so don’t apologize for your input.  Simply avoid vague criticisms, broad generalities, and major changes from the idea you originally discussed.  As long as you clearly state any concerns and offer your suggestions in a respectful manner, remembering to defer to the artist’s professional judgements (except where deal breakers are concerned), no reasonable artist should take offense.  If your suggestions are met with annoyance or hostility, this is the time to part ways.  Either the artist is unreasonable or the two of you simply aren’t communicating effectively, in which case neither of you are likely to be pleased with the final result.

A Final Note:

Collectors, when all is said and done, make sure the artist knows how pleased you are with the final piece.  Creating a work of art requires hard work and a very special talent, which is why you’re contracting it out in the first place, and a piece of original art that truly meets or surpasses your expectations is to be cherished, as is the artist who created it.

Artists, remember that a collector who admires your work, seeks you out, and wants to be a part of your creative process is a great gift, not to mention an invaluable testament to your abilities as an artist.  When you find a commissioner who is a pleasure to work with, be sure to express your appreciation too, and take care to nurture the relationship in the years ahead.


Susan here:

I’ve seen a lot of  Andrew’s work. He does what is needed to say what he wants to say and doesn’t give a fig about stylistic consistency. But this last piece is really, well, different than anything else I’ve seen him do. Maybe I’ll have him back to tell us the story of this commission.

"The Cosmological Bird" acrylic on board, 34 1/2 x 24" 2008

It’s Show Time!

Here I am at the Residence Inn in Pleasant Hill, which is about a half-hour east of San Francisco. Tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday I’ll be about ten minutes south in Walnut Creek doing their spring art festival. We used to live here in the late 1980’s and come back for occasional visits, so I more or less know the area, which is handy.

The Residence Inn is nice because it is in a quiet area and the room has a full-kitchen. So, I hit the Whole Foods store this afternoon. I won’t have to eat out unless I want to, which will save money.

I have no idea what to expect with the economy heading into the tank. Gas down here for the premium grade I need for the Eurovan is running around $4.10/gal. Home foreclosures are off the charts. A well-known wildlife artist once described himself in a workshop I took with him as “a luxury goods manufacturer”, which is probably about right. Serious buyers of art tend to have fairly recession proof incomes, but there is so much uncertainty in the world right now. Food riots, for heaven’s sake. So, we’ll see how it goes.

On the (much) brighter side, I got a “VIP” personal tour of Andrew Denman’s one-man show at Pacific Wildlife Galleries this morning from the artist himself. It’s fascinating to stand in front of one of his originals and hear him talk about how he did the work. Very inspirational. Made me want to run home and get in front of the easel, but since I get home on Monday and leave for Montana and Colorado on Thursday for a week, it will be close to the middle of May before that happens.

But, this weekend, I’ll get to meet lots of nice people and talk about one of the things I love most, painting!