Luke Frazier | Wrestling With the Grizzlies

River Thunder, oil, 24 x 30. painting, southwest art.
River Thunder, oil, 24 x 30.

By Kristin Bucher

Luke Frazier [b1970] is a busy man this fall. First there’s his one-man show of more than 20 new oils at Pitzer’s of Carmel, CA, August 29-31. His work can also be seen at the C.M. Russell Museum Benefit in Great Falls, MT (see page 76). All four wildlife paintings he submitted to the Arts for the Parks competition in Jackson, WY, have been selected for the Top 200, and his work is also on view at Legacy Galleries (see page 74). And, of course, there’s the lure of the World Fly Fishing Championship, also taking place in Jackson the perfect chance for Frazier to indulge one of his favorite pastimes. We tracked the artist down at his home in Logan, UT, earlier this summer to talk about his other consuming passion: wildlife painting.

SWA: How did you choose North American wildlife as your main subject matter?
Frazier: I think you have to stay true to yourself by painting what you love, and I’ve always loved animals and nature. I grew up camping, fishing, hiking, and hunting with my family—that’s how I developed my passion for wildlife. Later I realized that it wasn’t so much the hunting I loved—it was being outdoors, smelling the marsh, walking through the pine trees. That’s what keeps me going, the memory of how it feels to be out there in nature.

SWA: Does that explain why you include so much of the animal’s surroundings in your paintings?
Frazier: Absolutely. I used to put the animal front and center in every painting, but lately I’ve been striving to paint wildlife as part of the landscape. I do a lot of on-location sketches and small studies to help me better understand the design of the landscape. Mother Nature is the best designer, the best choreographer. My job is to choreograph each painting, to use the elements of the landscape to lead the viewer through it. Carl Rungius was a master at this: He carefully positioned every branch, every log, to bring the viewer into the painting.

Teach a Man to Fish, oil, 15 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Teach a Man to Fish, oil, 15 x 30.

SWA: Is the landscape more challenging to paint than the animal itself?
Frazier: It’s difficult to edit Mother Nature. There’s so much detail in things like sagebrush and evergreens and snowdrifts that it’s overwhelming. When you begin a painting you have to blur your eyes and paint only the shapes, leaving the details for later.

SWA: Many wildlife artists favor tight realism, but your style is surprisingly loose. Are you purposely trying to set yourself apart from other artists in the field?
Frazier: I admire that kind of realism, but to me a painting full of meticulously rendered details is dead. It leaves nothing to the viewer’s imagination. I want every brush stroke I lay down to make a statement, to contribute to the overall mood of a painting. I’m always striving to say more with less, to paint simply, without anything superfluous. In my opinion that’s the mark of a master.

Constant Traveler, oil, 24 x 36.
Constant Traveler, oil, 24 x 36.

SWA: Simplicity must be one of the qualities you admire in the works of wildlife painter Bob Kuhn.
Frazier: Definitely. I used to be concerned that I would be known as a second-rate Bob Kuhn [swa may 94] because I’ve learned so much from him. But how else do you learn than by studying with other artists who are masters at what they do? One of the most important things Bob taught me was to work to understand animals and their anatomy through direct observation. He said to sketch them “like you’ll never see them again.” Spending time around animals is one of the cornerstones of my painting.

SWA: Where do you observe animals?
Frazier: I used to work at the zoo here in Logan, but it took too much time away from my painting. Now one of the most valuable things I do is spend time at Doug Seuss’s home near Heber City, UT, where he raises and trains bears, wolves, and other animals that are frequently used in movies. Right now he has Bart, an 1,800-pound grizzly; twin cubs named Bubba and Tank, who are about a year and a half old and each weigh 350 pounds; and about 12 wolves. Doug charges photographers thousands of dollars a day to take pictures of the animals. When I first met him I was a graduate student illustrating a Reader’s Digest story that included a grizzly attack. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I offered to trade him a painting in exchange for time to sketch the bears. Doug was hesitant at first because he didn’t know me from Adam, but when I showed him some paintings he agreed to the deal. He’s purchased eight of my paintings since then and become a great friend as well as a collector. One of the highlights of my life is wrestling with the grizzlies at Doug’s place.

Luke Frazier southwest art.
Luke Frazier

SWA: Why are bears a favorite subject?
Frazier: They’re playful giants  sometimes they seem almost childlike and their behavior can be unpredictable and very comical. They’re also tremendously powerful; it’s amazing how solid they are underneath those furry coats. It is a joy to watch them, and there are so many ways to portray them that they fascinate me.

SWA: You favor scenes in which bears and other animals are alone rather than in groups. Why?
Frazier: Lately I’ve been interested in what I call a “nomadic” theme, like the solitary bear in Constant Traveler. But mostly the choice of single vs. group just depends on the animal’s habits. Bears are more solitary, so it’s natural to paint them by themselves. Same goes for mule deer and moose. On the other hand, you often see wolves together in packs. Elk are easier to group, like a male with a harem of cows. Bighorn sheep are often in groups, too.

SWA: You’re obviously interested in many kinds of wildlife. Are there any animals you’re not eager to paint?
Frazier: The only animal I wouldn’t want to paint is one that’s not at its prime. I always want to paint animals when they’re at their best. It’s very important to me to show their regality, to convey my respect for how commanding, powerful, and elegant they are. So I want to paint elk and moose, for example, in the middle of their rut, to sort of show them off. But I wouldn’t paint a caribou in the spring when it’s dingy, shedding and growing new antlers.

SWA: What can collectors expect to see at your upcoming shows this fall?
Frazier: I think people will notice how much I’ve learned over the past two years. I’ve become more accurate, but at the same time I’m conveying more emotion, more mood, in each painting. I think I’m understanding the process of painting better each year.

Photos courtesy the artist; Legacy Gallery, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York, NY; Pitzer’s of Carmel, CA; Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT; and DeMott Gallery, Vail, CO.

Featured in September 1997