Wild Spirit

Artists work to capture the soul of animals in paint.

By Richard Anderson

A lot of people can sketch the form of an animal—its body, its legs, the features characteristic of a given species’ face—at least well enough to differentiate a pine marten from a buffalo.

Much more difficult, however, is capturing the wild spirit of an animal.

That is what distinguishes draftsman from artist. And it is what tells the tale of Anglo-Americans’ changing attitude about the wild: from a resource to be exploited to an icon to be revered.

Adam Harris, curator at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, uses two paintings to represent the dramatic transition.

The first is by George Catlin. The image from the 1830s, depicting a Plains Indian on horseback striking a blow on a fleeing bison, is ethnographic. It captures a moment in life of pre-industrial man making use of the resources around him.

The second image is Three Matriarchs, by Jackson Hole painter Kathryn Mapes Turner. Nearly two hundred years after Catlin she catches three cow elk crossing a river at dawn. The creatures are barely visible, silhouettes against the silvery reflection of day’s first light on water, but their forms nevertheless communicate alertness, stealth, power. Their beauty and majesty, through the veil of shadow, is the subject, their value as life understood.

Early explorer artists, Harris said, were documentarians, even sort of quartermasters, inventorying the resources of the frontier.

“The next wave of artists had a more romantic sensibility,” Harris said, “especially after the first wave of settlers had moved across the landscape and many animals had been slaughtered to near extinction. There’s a real mournful attitude about the squandering of these creatures.”

The 1950s and ’60s saw art related to conservation—such as duck stamps, with money raised going to preserving habitat—that gave rise to the modern view of valuing animals “because it’s an important thing to do,” Harris said. “That’s when you begin to see art that talks about it as an integral part of the landscape and the ecosystem.”

The art becomes about the animal itself and its own intrinsic value and how it embodies wildness.

So how do artists capture that wild spirit in paint? Different artists take different approaches.

Turner grew up around wild and domesticated animals on her family’s Triangle X Ranch. Her father, John Turner, had a habit of bringing home wounded raptors to rehabilitate and re-release. And she did 4-H for years and years. Her experience with a wide variety of creatures is firsthand and up-close.

Turner calls herself a meticulous draftsman who spent years studying anatomy and musculature. She still does, painting from life, photos, and video. Once she slowed down a YouTube video of a bird in flight.

“I never knew … when a bird is flapping its wings, its head doesn’t really move,” she said. “The head is very still and peaceful.”

“The other thing when depicting wildlife is to get a sense of their soul,” Turner said, “and that lays in the eyes. That’s always where I start. If I can’t get that right I might as well not even go with the rest of it.”

Jackson painter Amy Ringholz has a knack for nailing the eyes of her wild subjects, Turner said. Her colorful palette gives her bears and owls and wolves an abstract, untamed look, but their eyes are always deep and penetrating.

Turner also praised September Vhay’s ability to capture these windows into an animal’s soul.

Vhay’s skills also come from a lifetime around animals, especially horses. She mentioned a large charcoal drawing of one she had recently drawn from life.

“A couple of times it moved its head in a certain way,” she said, “and it was so much the essence of what horses do—a head tilt, something that’s so horse-like.”

For her it is “ingrained” in her nature, she barely has to think about it. Which is why her “Red Horse” series is so successful: In just a few quick but perfect lines, placed by a hand that has drawn the shapes a thousand times or more, she captures the form, the mass, the muscle and character of a horse.

“If they are animals I know … it’s even richer,” she said, “I paint the horse I ride, so there’s a personal connection.”

Idaho painter Mary Roberson takes a different approach, tapping into her own wildness.

“It’s actually kind of letting go of any control,” she said. “When I approach painting, I have to let go of control.”

Part of her process of capturing wildness is creating abstract backgrounds, out of which her animal subjects emerge.

“I think creativity is magic, and I think it’s something that shows up when it’s least expected,” she said. “I’ll go to my drafting table at night and sketch out what I think I want to do the next day, and then go to studio and get a canvas out and it’s never anything like what I sketched.
Maybe it’s something I do to pretend I run it, but no one runs creativity.
What I look forward to is that element of surprise, the unexpected.”

Which, come to think of it, is practically the definition of “wild.”