An experienced woodsman turned his love affair with nature into a career as a wildlife artist.
Hunting has always been in Cole Johnson’s blood. As a boy, the artist grew up roaming the forests of upstate New York. His father taught him to stalk whitetail deer with a bow, and Johnson would regularly tag along with family acquaintances and their retrievers as they hunted for waterfowl.
As Johnson developed his skills as a woodsman, he began sketching the animals that surrounded him. One of the budding teenage artist’s first drawings was of his father’s late dog, a Labrador named Ben. Over the years, he’s become renowned for his detailed graphite and pencil drawings of alert hunting dogs, sinuous trout, soaring birds, and big game traversing the forest. Johnson’s images do more than exhibit a mastery of light, shadow, and technique. They illustrate his close ties to the natural world.
Johnson earned his bachelor’s of fine art at the State University of New York at Buffalo. There, he was exposed to the works of artists who inspired him: classic portraitists like John Singer Sargent, American landscape painter Winslow Homer, and contemporary New Zealand bird painter Raymond Harris-Ching. Johnson, who photographs his animals in the wild before drawing them, also learned valuable lessons from Ansel Adams’ monochrome photographic masterpieces.
“[My classmates and I] were in the studio doing our own developing in the darkroom, and [Adams’ work] taught me not about developing film, per se, but how to develop an image based on your whites and blacks, darks and lights,” Johnson reflects. “That’s really what I work with today, and I’ve made it my whole career.”
When he wasn’t in the studio, Johnson would spend his spare hours hunting waterfowl in the marshes of Buffalo. His passion for the outdoors paid off. Today, Johnson is a successful artist whose works are sought after by animal lovers and hunting enthusiasts, showcased at national wildlife art festivals, and featured in the pages of sporting and fishing magazines.
While he lives and recreationally hunts and fishes in the Catskill Mountains region, Johnson also travels the country in pursuit of wildlife to photograph and draw. He shoots color digital images of the animals, paying particular attention to chiaroscuro, or the contrast between light and dark. For trout and other aquatic creatures, Johnson relies on a waterproof GoPro camera.
“I’m personally not the type of artist to gather my reference materials in a park or zoo,” Johnson says. “When I begin a piece, I want to be inspired by [nature]. Wherever that particular bird or animal exists, I want to have the experience of its own natural environment.”
Once Johnson is ready to sketch, he covers a piece of paper with a layer of powdered graphite. As he sketches the animal, he uses an eraser to remove the powder and add light and depth to the piece. Finally, he uses darker pencils and blending techniques to create a three-dimensional form.
Although Johnson enjoys depicting iconic Western animals like elk and bison, some of his favorite subjects are the ones closer to home in the wilds of upstate New York.
“I like being outside, whether it’s fly-fishing on a river or hunting ducks or pheasants with my dog,” Johnson says. “It’s just a matter of being out there and of having that love affair with nature. Being involved in that is really important to what I do for a living. That’s what really drives the art.”
Cole Johnson is represented by Astoria Fine Art in Jackson, Wyoming.
From the May/June 2016 issue.