Greg Wilson’s art reflects his love of nature’s creatures
By Rosemary Carstens
This story was featured in the March 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art March 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art March 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
THE EYE-CATCHING brightness of yellow-headed blackbirds in early morning fog. The thick auburn fur and pricked ears of a fox on the hunt. Mountain goats picking their sure-footed way across massive boulders above the tree line. Swans preening above watery reflections. These are a few of award-winning wildlife artist Greg Wilson’s favorite things. They capture his imagination and inspire his art.
There’s an almost sacred hush to the world when you spot an animal out in the wild. You freeze in your tracks, squint to sharpen your vision. All too soon, the creature senses your presence and bounds away. These fleeting moments are imprinted on Wilson’s mind and portrayed in art that draws viewers to stand transfixed before his paintings. His work evokes those moments of recognition between species that lovers of the outdoors and wildlife share.
Wilson was born and raised in Telluride, CO, when it was more wilderness than resort: the perfect setting for a boy who would become known for portraying animals in their natural environments. “It was like a different world,” he says. “The mountains were my playground, and I knew every inch of the area. The animals that inhabit them still fascinate me—from the yellow-bellied marmot to the big bull elk. I never tire of watching them.”
Wilson comes from a couple of generations of settlers in the old silver-mining town nestled in southern Colorado’s western San Juan mountains. His paternal grandmother was born there, as was his father, and his paternal grandfather came to Telluride from Georgia, worked in the mines, and ran a little moonshine. Greg’s knowledge and love of the outdoors came naturally as he roamed the region with his father and his uncle, hunting and fishing. “They had respect for the animals, and we were always outside hiking, walking around, observing nature, gathering food for the table.” By the age of 13, Greg and his friends were making regular backpacking trips to the high mountain lakes to fish, and wildlife sightings were plentiful.
Wilson says he always knew he wanted to be an artist, but the road to that goal was a long one. He attended the Colorado Institute of Art (now the Art Institute of Colorado) and Utah State University, then spent 13 years working as the lead six- color stripper for a print shop. It was time well spent and helped to develop his keen eye for color values, temperature, and resonance. But his dream reached further. More influential in achieving his goal and mastering his craft, he says, were his assistantships to wildlife artist Greg Beecham and landscape painter John Hughes. As time has passed, he feels that “sitting around a campfire with a group of artists talking about art is more inspiring than any formal training.” It was in just such a setting that accomplished wildlife artist Jim Morgan advised him to “get the drawing right, and you can fill it any way you want.” Wilson took that to heart, as reflected in the anatomical correctness that is a hallmark of his art and in his determination to make each painting better than the last. Other important influences have been Bob Kuhn, Ken Carlson, Carl Rungius, Tucker Smith, and Dave Wade.
His favorite subjects depend on the season, and each season he falls in love all over again with whatever is prime: “In July and August, it’s the buffalo; in September, moose and elk; in October and November it’s mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and mule deer. December, January, and February are great times for observing bobcat, fox, coyote, mountain lion, and snowshoe hare. Then, in March, April, and May, the grouse are rutting, other birds are coming back, and the ‘griz’ come out of their dens. In June, the baby animals are popping out, and before I know it, it’s time to start over again.” There is never a shortage of inspiration in the animal kingdom.
Today, Wilson and his family call Utah home, where they live a mile from the nearest paved road, on a steep hillside, and where he has lots of wildlife for neighbors. Most of his time is spent observing, photographing, sketching, and then painting the animals of the mountain West. A winter’s workday begins with driving his wife by snowmobile or Polaris Ranger to her car. “Then I paint or go find critters ’til the sun goes down,” he says. He often travels hundreds of miles to view different animals, whether a “mountain goat in Little Cottonwood Canyon, grizzly bears in Yellowstone, mountain lions in southern Utah, or bighorn sheep in Montana.”
TAKIN’ FIVE exemplifies Wilson’s craftsmanship as he travels from inspiration to finished painting. Deciding he wanted to paint this fox against a winter backdrop, the artist began with a series of outdoor sketches of foxes he encountered on his daily rambles. In his studio, he worked out his composition in a more detailed drawing on board, laying the foundation for the painting. Using a soft brush, he blocked in a thin underpainting and set the piece aside to dry. In the next phase, Wilson applied paint more thickly, focusing attention on controlling values and temperature. While each of these steps is critical, it is his last phase that takes his work beyond the ordinary. Wielding four different types of palette knives to achieve a variety of results, the artist applies texture, suggests movement, and manipulates edges to great effect. In TAKIN’ FIVE, one can feel the crisp iciness of the foreground snow, the density of the fox’s winter coat, and the sharp attentiveness of its gaze.
In any Greg Wilson painting there is a distinctive atmosphere, a setting in which he’s observed his subjects many times. Although he draws from extensive reference materials, it is his many years spent carefully studying animals in their natural habitats and his experiences in the field that inform all of his work. The story behind ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH demonstrates just how much a part of the scene he becomes as he explores new territory and seeks new ideas: One day, Wilson set off to find some mountain goats to sketch and photograph. He hiked and scrambled 10 miles up a rocky incline, following a game trail, and then climbed three miles farther up even steeper terrain as he spotted goats above him. Then he settled into his usual quiet observation routine, which can last for hours. At one point, as he gazed off into the distance, he was suddenly startled when a goat walked up behind him and licked the salt off the back of his neck. A close encounter of the amazing kind.
Pushing oil paint around is not Wilson’s only artistic talent. He is also a professional photographer. He has amassed an impressive collection of more than 100,000 photographs, many of which serve as references for his paintings and have been featured on the covers of various wildlife publications and in wildlife calendars. Wilson’s paintings can be found in collections across the United States and Canada, and he has been the recipient of numerous awards and recognition in prestigious shows such as the Arts for the Parks national competition. His work has been chosen for inclusion in the Bennington Center for the Arts’ Artists for the New Century and Art of the Animal Kingdom exhibitions.
Represented by several fine-art galleries across the country, Wilson’s art is receiving growing recognition among collectors. Greg Fulton, owner of Astoria Fine Art in Jackson, WY, believes that “Wilson’s experience as a wildlife photographer has given him a knowledge of anatomy and behavior that few painters possess. His wildlife paintings are not only artistic but are true to each animal and its surroundings. At Astoria we pride ourselves on having the most established wildlife artists as well as the brightest up-and-comers—Greg fits perfectly into our plan.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, famous for stressing the importance of the world’s natural resources and the other beings with which we share the planet, once said, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” Greg Wilson has the lifelong wisdom to see those miracles within the incredible diversity and beauty of the West’s wild creatures. “Every day is a high point,” he says. “I get to do what I love—how can it get any better?”
Featured in the March 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art March 2013 digital download
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Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY; Collectors Covey, Dallas, TX; Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; Montgomery Lee Fine Art, Park City, UT; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; www.gregwilsonartist.com.
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