By Gretchen Reynolds
For wildlife painter Greg Beecham, observing ruffled grouse in Yellowstone National Park last year became an unexpectedly emblematic experience. It was rutting season, and one of the plump, brownish birds, a male, had chosen a quiet, brushy clearing for his hey-ladies-look-at-me dance. “There was a log nearby, and downed branches, and pine needles,” Beecham remembers. “I’m not much of a fan of the grouse as a rule. It’s not a beautiful or memorable animal. But this one was so charismatic. It had tons of personality. And it had chosen this perfect spot for its dance. It made a great composition.” Beecham photographed the bird in anticipation of painting the scene someday.
Composition, even more than charismatic fauna, is at the heart of Beecham’s work, although this may not be what casual observers first notice. From their position in front of one of his paintings, placed in a kind of artistic wildlife blind, they are drawn, above all, to the animals. Beecham, during his 20 years of painting, has become an incomparable draftsman of fur, skin, muscle, and movement. He can capture the tensile lift of a running wolf’s haunches or each bristled whisker on a roaring mountain lion. But the way Beecham sees his work, such craftsmanlike, photo-realistic detailing is the start of his talent, not the whole of it. “People ask me all the time, ‘What is your favorite animal?’” he recounts, “and that’s the wrong question.”
He has no favorite. He never sets out to paint, say, a wolf, per se. Faced with a blank canvas, he wants to create a composition of light, color purity, dynamic brush strokes, and formal beauty that has within it a wolf—or a crane, grizzly, coyote, wildflower, or, in very
rare instances, a man.
From his earliest recollection, Beecham, 50, was drawn to wildlife painting. It is, for him, a kind of heritage. His father, Tom Beecham, was a well-known illustrator in the 1950s and ’60s, his paintings and drawings appearing in outdoor and hunting magazines, the Remington Arms calendar, and other manly publications and advertisements. “Dad used to draw lots of saloon fights,” Beecham recalls. Dad also drew animals and hunting scenes. But he didn’t have the luxury of doing much fine-art work; nor could he live in the Rockies, where he’d grown up. In the 1950s, Tom Beecham had relocated his young family to upstate New York so he could work in Manhattan.
Greg grew up hunting squirrels and playing in the woods, and listening to his grandmother, who would visit from Colorado, sing cowboy songs. “I always knew I should be living in the mountains,” he remembers. He was less certain of his avocation. By the time he was in fifth grade, his father had taught him to draw, allowing him to awe his grade-school friends. Beecham showed enormous potential even then; he could, from the start, draw photographically. But it wasn’t enough; drawing alone couldn’t hold his interest, so he put away his pencils and, after high school, joined the Navy. It was there that the artistic urge was reawakened. “I was in the medical corps and thought a bit about going into medicine,” he recalls. But the urge to look at things and sketch them became overwhelming. He was drawing all the time. So after his stint in the service he enrolled briefly in art school, found it stifling, and, in 1978, now married, decided to apprentice with his father.
This turned out to be a felicitous choice. It became a symbiotic education. Tom Beecham taught his son everything he knew about drawing and composition—an enormous wealth of accumulated knowledge. The younger Beecham, in turn, ignited his father’s latent desire to paint. The two immersed themselves in issues of technique, color purity and schemes, and abstraction versus representation. They were aided in their work by Tom Beecham’s friendship with Bob Kuhn, a fellow outdoor-life illustrator and an accomplished wildlife painter.
“I was incredibly fortunate to be learning from these two giants in the field,” Beecham says. “It was interesting that they had very different styles and techniques. I was able to learn from each, without being tied to one particular approach. Together, they were a profound force.”
By the early 1980s Beecham was on his own, painting full time, devoting himself to an ongoing study of how to capture, as he says, “not so much the exact details of a natural scene as its essence.” By then he had moved with his wife, a business executive, and two children to Washington state, near the base of Mount Rainier. This was a more settled, urban area than he would have liked, but such are the vagaries of earning an income. (His wife had accepted a job with an aerospace corporation in the area.) To compensate, Beecham would disappear for days and sometimes weeks out into the wild—camping, hiking, hunting, and visiting nature preserves, photographing animals in their habitats, and more rarely, sketching them as well. “I love plein-air work,” he says. “But it has a limited value. Animals in the wild don’t hold still.” He emphasizes those last three words, then laughs. “They don’t make very good models. It’s like seeing a line of color flash across your vision. That’s difficult to capture.” So he photographs relentlessly.
Back home, he may download the photos to a computer, manipulate the background, lighten skies, deepen shadows, push colors, pull and lengthen muscles, all in the service of creating a composition that will have beauty, integrity, and interest. Then he will begin to paint.
Today, Beecham lives in the tiny, rural town of Dubois, WY, where he and his family moved in 1997. For years, they’d been searching for the ideal location. At an art exposition one day, Beecham asked a fellow painter, who happened to lived in artsy Casper, WY, where he’d live in the state if he could choose anywhere. “He said Dubois,” Beecham relates. Beecham visited it on a whim, loved it, bought land, and has lived there since, painting in an old log studio near the center of town.
It’s an ideal base, a daily inspiration. The Wind River Range, with some of the most rugged, wild country in the Lower 48 states, sits almost outside Beecham’s back door. “During hunting season, I’m out three, four times a week,” he says, riding his horse into a landscape almost untrammeled by man. Wolves and bears wander into his back yard.
As the inspirations multiply, Beecham says, so does his desire to better transfer them to canvas, within a framework of imagination and of formalized, fine-art composition. “I’m currently fascinated by white wolves,” he confides. “I went with an artist friend to a game preserve last year, and we saw these amazingly beautiful animals. It was really exciting. I was struck by all the possibilities of white on white.” His recent series of paintings showing pale, lupine bodies rushing through drifts of equally pale snow are, undoubtedly, some of his finest work. Suffused with a faint light that seems to come from the snow as well as the sky, they are, he says, “an attempt to work on issues of color purity and brush strokes. The wolves are beautiful in their own right, but I hope people will see beyond their particular glory to the painterliness of the artwork itself.”
Painterliness is, in fact, the sine qua non of all Beecham’s art. “I think of what I do as accessible abstraction,” he describes. “There’s a movement in high-art wildlife painting to become so painterly as to be almost too abstract. Some of that work is almost inaccessible to your average person. I think, in my work, you can see and feel the animals, experience their personalities, their presence. There’s verisimilitude, but that’s not all there is. I don’t try to make a photograph with paint. This is my vision of what I’ve seen, made even more formally perfect.”
The work certainly resonates. Beecham was named Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Artist of the Year for 2005. In 2004, at the Western Rendezvous of Art, one of the country’s premier showcases for western-themed paintings, he won both the People’s Choice Award and an Award of Merit for his painting ICE FLOE OVERLOOK.
“I’m still learning, still trying to improve,” he says. “I want to work on my paintings’ edges, on color and value schemes, and on greater simplicity in the composition. It’s good to know there’s still so much work to do.”
Luckily, he has an endless supply of inspiration. “Yellowstone is only 80 miles away. The Flaming Gorge is really close. I never run out of things I want to paint,” he says. A few months ago, he and some friends were on an expedition to photograph antelope and moose. “We got a little too close to one moose,” he confesses. The huge beast turned and prepared to charge. Beecham and his companions scattered. Satisfied, the moose, with immense, stately calm, moved away. “He had so much power and dignity and size,” Beecham says. “It was a little humbling. I suppose it should have been scary. But all I could think was, ‘I can’t wait to get back to the easel and try to paint that.’”
Beecham is represented by Di Tommaso Galleries, Jackson, WY, and The Sportsman’s Gallery & Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO.
Featured in February 2005