Daniel & Adam Smith | All in the Family

By Mark Mussari

Last year, father-and-son wildlife painters Daniel and Adam Smith took their first trip together to Africa. It was Dan’s seventh trip to the continent in a career spanning 30 years. Throughout his adult life, he has felt the pull of Africa and its glorious display of wildlife in unsurpassed settings. He knew his son would feel the same way.

That the Smiths share an inherent artistic talent and a passion for wildlife comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen their exquisitely realistic paintings of animals in their natural habitats. Zebra, lions, bears, wolves, moose, and more—all spring to life on the Smiths’ arresting canvases. “It’s genetic,” confirms Dan. And although their work shows striking similarities, both father and son possess distinctive styles reflective of their own individual paths to life as an artist.

Dan Smith was born in Mankato, MN, to a father who was an inveterate outdoorsman as well as an art hobbyist. “He used to wood-burn tabletops with wildlife scenes,” he remembers. As a child Dan was always drawing. “And I also spent a lot of time outdoors. I used to ride horses along the riverbanks.

“In high school I had an art teacher who suggested that I go into crafts or teaching,” he notes. Instead, Smith chose to pursue a career in commercial art. “I went to Minnesota State University at Mankato for awhile and then to commercial art school,” he says. To this day he remains thankful for the discipline he acquired working in the illustration field and having to meet deadlines.

Perhaps even more important, working in the commercial art world opened his eyes to such renowned illustrators as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. “I’m also a huge fan of Norman Rockwell,” he admits. “Man, could that guy paint!” The first wildlife painter Smith became aware of was David Maas, a fellow Minnesotan known for his illustrations of game birds. “He was one of the first artists I spoke to when I decided to move away from commercial art,” says Smith.

These influences found further expression when Smith—who is predominantly a self-taught painter—began to produce illustrations for the Federal Duck Stamp Program. Produced every year since 1934 by myriad artists to generate revenue to protect wetlands and waterfowl habitats, these stamps have become popular collectors’ items. “I spent ten years as a duck-stamp mercenary,”
Smith comments wryly. “I created more than 30 different commemorative state stamps.” In 1987, he beat out thousands of competitors to create the image for the coveted federal duck stamp (which includes all types of waterfowl). His painting of wild snow geese appeared on millions of stamps, and the sale of thousands of hand-signed lithographic reproductions of the painting raised millions of dollars more for conservation. “I feel indebted to the natural world for helping me make a living,” says Smith.

He defines himself as a realist painter, and he quickly adds that he is “an anomaly” among western artists, whose work he finds more impressionistic. He takes photographs of his subjects in the wild and also visits game farms for further inspiration and a chance to see animals up close. An alluring interplay occurs on his canvases between highly detailed, anatomically perfect wildlife and muted backgrounds that, while geographically accurate, often impart a somewhat dreamy quality. “I tend to minimize detail in the background, which I do with light, shadow, and contrast,” he notes. “Still, I want it to look real.”

Today, Smith and his wife, Liz, who is also his business manager, live outside of Bozeman, MT, in the Gallatin Range. Their home abuts Yellowstone National Park, where elk, moose, bears, mountain lions, wolves, and bison roam. It’s an apt setting for a wildlife artist. “I live on the edge of the wilderness, near a park that has its own ecosystem,” he says.

Smith admits to being a bit of a workaholic; he is usually in the studio by 8 a.m. and often stays till 9 p.m. “It’s a passion. I don’t wait for inspiration,” he explains. His wildlife paintings are part of permanent collections in such prestigious venues as the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians & Western Art, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Still, his greatest source of pride may just be his son.

Despite growing up in a house filled with art and going on frequent wildlife outings, Adam Smith’s path to an art career was a bit more circuitous than that of his famous father. “I used to draw all the time as a kid,” recalls the younger Smith, “but it was mostly for fun.” He was more interested in cars and music and pursued both with equal enthusiasm. “My main interest was playing guitar, which I picked up when I was 8 years old,” he notes. “Everyone assumed I’d be a musician.” He became so proficient at the instrument that by the time he was 14 he was already playing with local bands.

At the age of 16 he tried his hand at producing a duck stamp for the Montana Junior Duck Stamp competition. “I did it just to see if I could paint,” he remembers. Apparently he could: His painting won first place. Although he took art classes in high school, Adam believed his future lay elsewhere, specifically in auto design. To that end he obtained a bachelor of science degree in automotive technology at the Wyoming Technical Institute. Though several major car companies courted the talented youth, he decided to remain in Montana, where he took a job as a tech-line mechanic.

When Adam turned 22, his artistic genes kicked in again—this time for good. “One day he said he wanted to try painting again,” says Dan, recalling that Adam borrowed one of his photographs of an African lion. “He showed me the painting he had done,” the elder Smith remembers, “and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it looks like I painted it!’” That lion painting—and one of an elephant that followed it—were quickly accepted by Decoys & Wildlife Gallery in Frenchtown, NJ. A second Smith had begun a career as a professional painter.

Today Adam laughs at that recollection. “Even I was surprised,” he admits. “I didn’t even know I could paint!” At first he juggled his automotive work with studio time—often spending eight hours a day at each pursuit—until demand for his paintings enabled him, like his father, to turn full time toward his natural talent.

Despite their shared affinity for wildlife painting, Adam distinguishes his work from his father’s partially through his approach. “My dad’s been doing it for 30 years,” he observes, “so his work is more refined. Mine starts out being more ‘sketchy.’” Adam’s canvases also reveal more close-up animal portraiture. “When I first started, I wanted to keep it simple,” he says, “so I didn’t include a lot of background.” To this day, he continues to keep his compositions uncluttered: A zebra, for example, stands alone on an expansive plain, or a lion is captured full-faced and close-up. “I like a strong focal point,” he adds. When Adam does render backgrounds, they reveal a similar attention to detail, composition, and lighting.

Like his father, the younger Smith works in acrylics. “I grew up around them,” he says. “Acrylics are great for details. And I like the fact that they dry so fast.” His subject matter is fairly evenly split between North American and African wildlife. “Africa has always been a dream of mine,” he confesses. “It’s amazing what’s out there, especially in the Serengeti. You can see a pride of lions and 50 different species of birds, all in the same place.” Yet, having grown up near Yellowstone, he still enjoys painting native North American fauna. “What I like better here is being on foot, chasing after elk and big horn or just watching a moose,” he explains. “In Africa, you have to stay in the vehicle.”

The only thing Adam talks about more fondly than his art or his passion for animals and the outdoors is his relationship with his father. “We’re friends. And we’re doing something we both love,” he says, adding that he feels proud to be able to carry on the Smith tradition in wildlife art. “Maybe my kids will, too,” he muses. With those genes, could there be any doubt?

Dossier: Daniel Smith
Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; www.danielsmithwildlife.com.

Prix de West, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK, through September 6.
Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, Reno, NV, July 24.
Quest for the West Art Show and Sale, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, IN, September 11-October 10.
Western Visions Miniatures & More Show and Sale, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY, September 11-17.
Jackson Hole Art Auction, Jackson Hole, WY, September 18.

Dossier: Adam Smith
Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; www.adamsmithwildlifeart.com.

Western Visions Miniatures & More Show and Sale, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY, September 11-17.

Featured in July 2010