Nicholas Coleman | Into His Own

By Gussie Fauntleroy

It’s a charming scene to envision: Nicholas Coleman, 3 years old, watches intently as his father, noted wildlife and western artist Michael Coleman, works on a painting. At one point the elder Coleman marks off a small area on the canvas. He tells his son this is a spot where the toddler can contribute to the painting, which Nicholas happily does.
Later, when his father is not in the studio, little Nicholas sneaks back in and paints a bit more—outside his designated spot—just to see if his father will notice. “He probably did notice, and he probably laughed,” Coleman recounts, smiling. He adds, in explanation, that his areas to paint were always “dark spots, under a rock, in the shadows. My father would paint over what I did, but the shadow would still be there, although there was nothing noticeable where someone would say, ‘Did a 3-year-old paint this?’ It was definitely fun, that’s for sure.”
The younger Coleman continued having a small hand in his father’s paintings—no pun intended—through elementary school. As a young teen he was given primed boards and photos for reference, and he began creating his own paintings. “We’d both be working in the studio, and I’d get done in a day and I’d say, ‘What’s taking you so long?’” he recalls.

The artist, now 30, laughs at the memory as he relaxes in the studio at his Provo, UT, home. Coleman lives with his wife, Meta, and their young son, Henrik Nicholas, in the foothills above the town where he grew up and where his father still resides and paints. Around him in the studio are more than a dozen oil paintings, some as large as 40 by 60 inches. Almost as many frames lean against the walls. “I need more space,” he points out, adding that he hopes to soon finish a basement that will contain his art library, storage space, and a second studio for his work in gouache.

Between Coleman’s earliest forays into painting and his successful career today, a constellation of art-related experiences—not the least of which was his father’s open-studio-door policy—came together to produce an impressive level of talent, as evidenced by his invitation to participate in the prestigious Masters of the American West Exhibition and Sale, which is held each year at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

The artist has attracted a broad base of collectors for his work, which includes wildlife and western themes, and, more specifically, scenes of American Indian encampments and the lives of 19th-century mountain men. With all of his subjects, Coleman strives for, and attains, a timeless sense of the daily rhythms and quiet interconnectedness of nature and man.

Coleman grew up with two brothers and a sister, but it was he who most shared his father’s passion for the outdoors, for hunting and fishing, and also for visiting art museums wherever the family traveled. “My Dad could do no wrong in my eyes. For whatever reason, I loved everything Dad showed me. I loved whatever we did together. Deer hunting at 4 a.m.? Okay! Let’s go!” he recalls, smiling. “So I can’t help but paint the way I do.”

Even as a child, Coleman shared his father’s fascination for reproducing the experience of early American trappers and mountain men. Together, father and son volunteered to trap and skin muskrats to rid a nearby golf course of the rodents. The artist also remembers his father teaching him to catch fish with his hands.

Following graduation from high school, Coleman spent two years in Brazil as part of a missionary project with the Mormon church. The experience opened his eyes to other cultures—he remains fluent in Portuguese—and taught him the importance of being of service to others.

When not teaching English, helping build houses, or sharing his church’s message, he spent his free time drawing, painting in watercolor and gouache, and taking hundreds of photographs. “I spent about a year in rural ranchland areas. Sometimes I’d be walking along and a dozen gauchos (cowboys) would come riding through the mist,” he relates. It was the stuff of paintings.

By then, at age 19, Coleman had known for several years that he wanted to pursue a career in art (as a preteen he briefly considered neurosurgery, until he learned how much schooling it required), and his time in Brazil intensified his deep conviction that art would be his life.

As soon as he returned to Provo, he set up an easel and began to paint. He painted during every spare minute while attending Brigham Young University and earning a degree in art. “I had a good work ethic before, but I had a really good work ethic after Brazil,” he says. “I knew how to focus all day, six days a week.”

Having his father nearby was also an enormous help. The two shared reference materials, including the elder Coleman’s collection of hundreds of thousands of photos; hundreds of books on art, wildlife, and the Old West; period clothing and accessories; and all manner of props—everything from stuffed animal heads to authentic birchbark canoes. Today, his own studio is filled with a similar collection, which grows continuously. “It helps with the research, to get everything right,” he notes.

During his early years of painting, Coleman also turned to his father for technical advice. Often he chose a subject and jumped in without knowing how to paint a certain aspect of the scene. His father would explain how he would do it, and the younger artist translated those pointers into a painting reflecting his own vision and style.

Still, not surprisingly, viewers often note likenesses between paintings by Coleman and those of his father, including similar imagery and color palette. “Some people say I’m a chip off the ol’ block. I’m definitely a Coleman,” he observes. “Over the past nine years I’ve wondered how I can separate myself as an artist. I think I’m still evolving.”

As an academically trained painter, Coleman finds that developing a distinctive artistic voice is not as simple as, say, shifting to a more impressionist style. While his work does contain areas of looser brushwork, it diverges from his father’s art in other ways as well.

Whereas both artists paint big game, Nicholas also focuses on small animals and their habitats—an intimate view of a bird’s nest, for example, or a mink on the prowl. He is intrigued and inspired by the animals that frequent his foothills property, including foxes, squirrels, deer, and a large covey of quail. As a way of passing on his love and understanding of nature to his toddler son and other youngsters, Coleman has written and illustrated a children’s book, called In the North Woods, which he hopes to have published soon.

But more than simply painting wildlife, Coleman endeavors to portray the complex, all-encompassing interplay between animals, their environment, and humans. To accomplish this, he periodically spends time in places barely touched by modern life, practicing age-old methods of obtaining and cooking meat or fish.

Often when he camps with friends, he takes along period clothing. His friends willingly accommodate him by changing into the outfits and posing by the campfire for photos that will become reference for paintings. With no telephone poles, baseball caps, or other current-day objects in sight, these images are infused with the timeless atmosphere of an age gone by.

“I’ve been to the places I paint. I’ve sat next to the fire and smelled the smoke,” the artist reflects. “I do some action paintings, but I like the quieter, more thought-provoking pieces. I try to create a sense of mood, the feeling of being there.”

PIEGAN CAMP AT DUSK, based on Coleman’s research on the Piegan tribe of the Northern Plains, is set along a river in Montana. “The first time I drove up there, I imagined a camp in that place, because that’s where I would have put a camp,” he explains. The painting strikingly depicts the stillness of evening as campfires are lit, water is drawn from the river, and families settle in for the night.

Coleman has visited such encampments in dreams. He also imagines an enjoyable afterlife in which a celestial guide places him gently and temporarily in the midst of everyday life in different times and places throughout history. As he envisions it, not only would he experience diverse eras and cultures, he would also witness the world’s great art—as it was being made.

In a more modest vision, Coleman pictures his own eventual place within the history of art. “I want to keep painting as long as I can,” he says. “And when I’m done, I want to look back and say, ‘Oh good. I ended up painting something even better than I started out to do.’”

Altermann Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Trailside Galleries, Jackson Hole, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Valley Fine Art, Aspen, CO; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ; Montana Trails Gallery, Bozeman, MT; Meredith Long & Company, Houston, TX; J.N. Bartfield, New York, NY;
Upcoming Shows
Scottsdale Art Auction, Scottsdale, AZ, April 4.
Wildlife & Western Visions Art Show, St. Petersburg, FL, April 25-26.

Featured in April 2009