Daniel Smith: Taking Wildlife Realism To The Next Level by Todd Wilkinson
Painter Daniel Smith, who is equal parts hermit, aesthete, and explorer of the outback, has never thought of himself as being a visual provocateur.
Who could have thought that classical wildlife art would one day be considered simultaneously accessible and avant-garde? Who would have guessed that images of animals would loom large as perhaps the most potent icons of our time?
Animals are telltale totems, not only of the past, but of a yet uncertain future. The opening of the one-man exhibition, “Animal Magnetism: The Wildlife Art of Daniel Smith” at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in 2008 was validation of Smith’s growing stature in this unique and provocative artistic genre. “In my opinion, Dan Smith is truly one of America’s great wildlife painters,” says John Geraghty, board member of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles and a prominent art collector.
Over the last decade, Smith’s original pieces have been exhibited at, or become part of permanent collections at the Eiteljorg, the Autry, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, The Bennington Center for the Arts, The Wildlife Experience, The Leanin Tree Museum of Western Art and the Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History.
Today, Smith and his wife, Liz, the parents of three grown children, live at the end of a dirt road outside of Bozeman, Montana at the edge of a national forest.
Smith resides here, he says, to maintain a connection to the real wild West. For the artist, it is, by design, never far away, as evidenced by the photographs he has taken of mountain lions, moose, black bears, elk, and mule deer that roam just beyond the vaulted window of his studio. “One of the most rewarding and inspiring elements of my job is the fieldwork,” Smith says. “It is the genesis of all of my paintings.”
Were one to walk out the back door and head south, a line of rugged shark-toothed peaks running the length of the Gallatin Range are the only thing separating him from Yellowstone National Park. Between his studio vantage and America’s first national park are no major highways, no permanent development, no glow of light pollution, no sounds of honking horns or rush-hour traffic.
Even as the West wrestles with issues of human population growth, Smith’s secluded sanctuary, with the expansion of grizzly bears and wolf packs in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, has actually become wilder. It is this feeling of the untamed that he draws upon every morning when he rises before dawn to catch a glimpse of the returning sun and heads into his airy creative space surrounded by artifact touchstones collected during his global travels.
“When viewing the art of Dan Smith I am impressed by the meticulous attention to detail, the purity of realism and conspicuous depth of knowledge in his subject matter,” Geraghty says. “Dan is unique in his approach to painting. He straddles that line of photorealism with a masterfully painterly style. He has an ability to capture the personality of his subjects at that magic moment in time. All aspects of his painting are precise and he continues to challenge himself. He has a wonderful foundation in drawing ability, understands composition and has mastered control of light, shadow and color values. I’ve observed his continued progress over the last several years.”
A native of the Minnesota prairie, where epic retreating glaciers left behind thousands of sparkling lakes and waterways, Smith, who prefers painting in acrylic, was raised in a culture where daily interaction with nature is part of his DNA. It is a state where the jeweled presence of water leaves a permanent impression on the psyche—a constant incurable longing to submerse oneself in the elements.
His esteemed portfolio has trajected its own wide arc, encompassing enough miles of travel and reflection, to wrap around the world many times. His unquenchable thirst to research the setting for every landscape painting has taken him to the wildest corners of both the northern and southern hemispheres. He has spent weeks observing bears, wolves and moose beneath the big shouldered slopes of Mt. McKinley in Alaska; he has tromped through the southern African bush to study Cape Buffalo, lion, and rhinoceros; he was gone afield to help welcome the return of lobos to Yellowstone with fresh paintings commemorating the event; and he has sat beneath the prairie sky, transfixed by the whirring roar of thousands of migratory waterfowl wings passing overhead.
Yet it is almost as if Dan Smith, the painter, has lived two separate lives: There is Smith, the internationally known “Duck Stamp Artist” who once won the most prestigious sporting art competition in the U.S. and who became one of the most collected wildlife artists by the masses who bought prints with his images on them. And then there is Smith, the studio painter, who methodically produces a relatively small number of originals each year for private collectors—works that the public seldom sees, except when they appear in museum exhibitions.
While Smith delights most in discussing his latest artistic challenges in his pursuit of what he considers the one true elusive masterpiece, it would be a profound oversight to not elaborate on the impact he made to popularizing wildlife art through the federal Duck Stamp program that has served as a cornerstone of American efforts to protect habitat for millions of game birds and countless other species. In 1987, Smith’s portrayal of snow geese was selected from a thousand entries to adorn the official waterfowl stamp that comes with the purchase of a federal license, the proceeds of which for nearly 80 years have helped safeguard millions of acres of wetlands from Canada to Mexico. What must be noted is that on top of the millions of Duck Stamps sold, thousands of lithographic reproductions, hand signed by Smith, were sold through several galleries and generated millions of dollars more for conservation, expanding locally-based partnerships with Ducks Unlimited and the Delta Waterfowl Foundation.
“When I look back at that era, I am amazed at the level of importance the federal stamp had. For many, many people, duck stamp prints were the first investment millions of people made in putting decorative art on their walls and it set them off down the path of having greater appreciation for art in general,” Dan says. “I was in the right place at the right time. What satisfies me most is helping people realize the value that nature has no matter where they call home.”
Smith’s status as a rising star prompted the venerable publishing house, Mill Pond Press, to bring him within their fold of master artists. His work has been among the most avidly collected. “I was very pleased to be part of the Mill Pond family of artists, I had a lot more creative freedom painting for the print market compared to designing duck stamps,” he says. “I am a big fan of Robert Bateman and enjoyed getting to know him on a personal level. His work has a strong influence and I admire all that he does as an environmentalist.
Indeed, wildlife art speaks to the important symbolism that animals have in the modern world. People living at the end of the 20th century and into the new millennium, embrace wildlife imagery as a touchstone linking them not only to the past, but reminding them of the sensual aesthetic that is vitally important in their daily lives.
Despite incredible demand, Smith refused to be pigeonholed as a Duck Stamp artist and broke away from his roots in Minnesota and headed West. To put it simply, Smith’s easel paintings today are informed by decades of going to the source for his material. And indeed, though he is known for his own distinctive approach to Realism, Smith shares company with a distinguished group of “wildlife artists” who started their professional careers in the trenches, refining their ability to draw and compose, as commercial illustrators on tight deadlines. Those brethren include the likes of Bob Kuhn, Bob Abbett, Ken Carlson, and even Winslow Homer and students of the great Howard Pyle, such as N.C. Wyeth during the Golden Age of Illustration.
“Even from his early years, you could tell that Dan Smith was going to be true to his subjects, painting the images with true creativity and conviction,” notes Allan Duerr, co-publisher of Art of the West Magazine which not long ago identified Smith as one of the young giants of wildlife art in America. “The brilliance of the specific subject jumps out at you, but at the same time blends well with his chosen background. He is a master painter and a real gentleman … can’t ask for more than that.”
“Nature is full of abstractions,” Smith says. “It can exist in the mat of centuries-old lichen on an ancient piece of rubble granite that once stood at the top of a mountain or in a vast landscape that seems to be constantly changing in light and shadow.”
For Smith, conveying mood is about speaking to the eternal mystery of light, and the atmospheric influence in perception of color. Wildlife does not exist as a prop on the stage of a scene; it is an extension of a great landscape painting and all of the elemental forces that the human mind’s eye knows as beauty.
“I respect Dan’s work,” says renowned Western and figurative painter Howard Terpning, who owns an original Smith interpretation of a polar bear. “I think that he carries his wildlife beyond conventional stereotypes. To me the things that I see are very personal and intimate portraits.” One enduring example is “In Your Face”, a full-framed portrait of a Cape Buffalo that Smith encountered during one of his many forays to half a dozen nations in sub-equatorial Africa.
Smith’s interpretations have been described by art historians as “photo-realism,” meant to suggest a literal translation of detail, color, and pose. Indeed, the technological advancement of photography during the 20th century has had undeniable influence. Artists, after all, are a reflection of their time and few artists, if they are astute, ignore tools that enable them to glean more information.
There isn’t an informed student of art alive today who is unfamiliar with the contributions of Eadweard Muybridge, the English-born pioneer of photography, whose presentation of sequential freeze-frame images of running animals, were an epiphany for painters struggling with trying to convey the physiology of motion. Building upon the insights that Muybridge and others delivered, Smith and his contemporaries have transformed wildlife scenes from being static and stoic into dramatic illusions of animation. Smith’s piece, High Country Rush, as just one example, summons adrenalin as a grizzly bear appears to charge out of the frame onto the viewer.
Or consider the painting, “Zero Tolerance” of an African elephant chasing a pair of lions. The work went on national tour with the Society of Animal Artists and today resides in the permanent collection of the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum.
Smith has assembled an exhaustive library of photographic reference but he will be the first to acknowledge the profound limitations of the camera. Slides and digital memory do not possess the scents of being outdoors, the visceral response of meteorological conditions, and the archetypal mystery that is encapsulated in certain kinds of fading or advancing sunlight.
It is along this boundary line where the role of artist as information gatherer ends and the assertion of personal statement begins. And it is here where Dan Smith has carved out his own terrain. Smith is grouped within a small fold of photorealists against which the works of other artists are measured. They are Bateman, Ray Harris Ching, and Carl Brenders.
Stuart Johnson, owner of Settler’s West Gallery in Tucson, has for many decades represented many of the premier naturalistic painters in the country. He has been exceedingly careful in selecting artists for his gallery and for some of his auctions, including the annual Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, that have attracted collectors from around the world. Dan Smith is among the small group of photorealists he represents. “There are quite a few artists who do photorealistic work.
To take the subject matter beyond the constraints of the photo is something few can do and Dan does it better than anyone else,” Johnson says. “His animals appear to be right there for the touching. His compositions are terrific and sense of design separate him from other artists working in the same genre.”
The Eiteljorg exhibition, Smith says, is incredibly gratifying given the museum’s prominence as an important center devoted to celebrating contemporary naturalistic art in all its forms.
Taking stock of the full diversity and beauty of nature has infused itself into the soul of this artist. Praised for being both meditative and absorbing, Smith’s canvasses have become mirrors for personal reflection.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Daniel’s originals are represented by Trailside Galleries in Jackson, WY and Scottsdale, AZ and Settler’s West Gallery in Tucson, AZ. His reproductions are published by The Greenwich Workshop in Seymour, CT.