Wildlife artist Greg Beecham finds a story in every scene
By Mark Mussari
There’s something in the eyes. Something emanates from Greg Beecham’s wildlife canvases and the animals that inhabit them. Immediately one can see that Beecham knows animals as few others do. He knows their expressions, their movements, and their habits—and the gifted Wyoming painter depicts those traits with a careful, technically proficient hand.
Beecham’s work portrays animals at one with their natural surroundings. A wolf prowls hesitantly on the water’s edge. A pair of swans preens in a snowy refuge. A herd of mule deer pauses soundlessly on a rocky mountain path. Each scene draws the viewer into a world that most people rarely, if ever, get to see.
“My love for animals comes from my dad,” says Beecham, who grew up in Campbell Hills, NY. “He was a hunter and an ardent fly fisher.” As a child, Beecham used to hunt in the woods with his father. “I filled the freezer with a lot of gray squirrels and rabbits back then,” he recalls.
A professional illustrator and fine-art painter, his father nurtured another talent in his son. “As a child I could draw photographically, and my parents acknowledged my art talent early on,” remembers Beecham. “When I was in the fifth grade, my father sat me down and started to teach me to draw.” While they were hunting, the elder Beecham would not only point out the wildlife but would also sharpen his son’s artistic eye. “Out in the woods, he would talk about shapes, anatomy, and movement,” Beecham explains. “I was getting an art education as well as acquiring a love for wildlife.”
Still, he confesses that his father was a bit of a taskmaster: “If I showed him something I’d drawn, he’d always comment on the anatomy. He would never say, ‘You’re so talented’ or ‘You’re going places.’” Shortly before Beecham was about to graduate from high school, his parents informed him that they were divorcing. “It was a difficult time,” he says. “I immediately signed up and joined the navy.”
Following a three-and-a-half-year stint in the service, Beecham moved to Ashland, OR, to take classes at Southern Oregon University, where he met his wife, Lu. After she graduated in 1978, Beecham made a career decision: He would become a wildlife painter. “I went back to New York state to study with my dad,” he says. “That was a difficult time. He critiqued everything I did—he never let anything go.” Today, Beecham credits that demanding experience as the source his highly realistic animal paintings. These are not the overly romanticized portraits of iconic animals often found in wildlife art, nor do Beecham’s animals feel superimposed on their surroundings. Instead, they are completely natural and at home in their environments.
After studying that summer with his father, Beecham created illustrations for Bantam Books. “I did that for about 14 years,” he recalls. “I illustrated about 150 books by veterans who told their personal stories from World War II.” He admits that those years provided plenty of useful experience to apply to his current work. “First, I learned how important strong composition is—it takes a good overall design for the viewer to be able to read the painting,” he explains. “I also learned that I really hated illustration and working for someone else!” After years of illustration work, Beecham knew for certain that his future lay in wildlife painting.
“I think wildlife art is unique in a way,” Beecham says, attempting to define his ongoing attraction to the world of animals. “An artist has to have a passion for his subject matter to spend a lot of time with critters,” he adds. “Animals tell you more each time you’re around them.” Beecham also feels that working with human figures “can be restrictive,” especially when using a model. “In nature, you’re constantly encountering new gestures,” he points out, “new ways of thinking about how to paint a painting.”
Beecham first captures those gestures with photographs. “Most wildlife artists use photographs,” he says, “but you still have to know animals well enough to take a photo and make art out of it.” He says he never stops looking for those moments that will inspire the next canvas, although he knows that animals have no inclination to “pose” for artists. So, you have to be ready. “I was on my way to Salt Lake City recently and spotted some Shiras moose near the airport in Jackson Hole,” he recalls. He immediately stopped the car, grabbed his camera, and started toward them, shooting.
These photo excursions—whether spontaneous or planned—serve as references once Beecham returns to the studio. His canvases are often a composite of images from multiple photos, arranged to build a strong narrative. Every picture tells a story.
For example, an excursion to Dead Horse, AK—near the Arctic Ocean—led to the painting WORKING THE LEAVIN’S. “I was driving the hard road, the trucker’s haul road,” he says, “when I saw a fox working on the carcass of a musk ox that arctic wolves had probably killed a few days before.” The artist recalls that he had to move carefully to take photos. “He was difficult to approach. He’d look at me and then go back to eating, then look at me again, and then go back eating.” Cautiously, Beecham inched closer to the animal, shooting the entire time. In the studio, Beecham pulled different elements from the numerous photos, building his own version of the scene—a fox startled to alertness in the middle of enjoying his newfound meal.
This canvas also reveals Beecham’s fondness for color. Chromatically, a wonderful counterpoint occurs between the warm oranges of the fox’s glowing coat and the icy blues defining the snowy landscape. “Harmony and continuity,” he comments. “My niche is to zero in on a focal point and nail the detail as much as I need to, and then move on to bigger shapes.”
Recently Beecham has been experimenting with adding other media to his canvases, applying materials such as burlap and twigs to emphasize texture. The painting ARCTIC ROYALTY, depicting three white wolves bounding through deep snow, offers an example of his new technique. The lower third of this work is overlaid with weeds and jute that are glued to the canvas. “I brought the shapes up into the scene and the scene down into the shapes,” indicates the artist. “I painted some weeds in the upper part of the piece to depict vegetation, which I think helped both with unity and added a more dimensional quality.” The canvas is full of subtle and elegant colors. “I used a very limited palette,” he adds. “The whole painting—except for the muzzles and eyes of the critters, where I needed a warm dark brown—was painted in a triad of thalo blue, alizarin crimson, and cadmium yellow pale.”
Beecham and his wife reside about five miles outside of Dubois, WY. “For a wildlife artist, there’s no better place on earth,” he contends. Lu works as the business manager for a local school district. Every weekday they drive into town at 7 a.m. “I have a little log house there where I maintain a studio,” he says. “Early in my marriage, I made a commitment to keep normal hours. So, I work five days a week, knocking off around 4:30 in the afternoon.”
For the past four years Beecham has also been teaching at the Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona, where he stresses the importance of abstract shapes to his students. “If you understand art,” he contends, “you have to think in abstract shapes. It’s a function of taking those shapes and saying more with them—yet still creating art that is accessible and something people can understand.”
Beecham’s wildlife paintings have garnered a number of prestigious awards. In 2010, he won both the Major General and Mrs. Donald D. Pittman Wildlife Art Award and the Nona Jean Hulsey Rumsey Buyers’ Choice Award at the Prix de West exhibition in Oklahoma City. In 2009, he received the People’s Choice Award at the Western Visions show at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, WY, and in 2011 his painting OSPREY SQUARED won an Award of Merit and the Montana Historical Society Legacy Award at the Western Rendezvous of Art, held annually in Helena, MT. The painting was also added to the Society’s permanent collection.
Ultimately, Beecham sees his art in a spiritual light. “My love for art has to do with my love for the Lord,” he avows. “I’m a Christian—and I feel I am an image- bearer. An artist is also a creator. I want to honor God with what I do.” In painting such indelible wildlife images, he has created some truly divine art.
Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY.
Featured in March 2012.