On The Wild Side
Original paintings, sculptures and other mediums. Cynthie creates and sells her own original artwork to collectors, displaying at national shows and in galleries. She also licenses many of her images for product placement.
I have been in business as a professional wildlife artist for over 35 years. I am largely self-taught, and I use my degree in zoology to help me in depicting my favorite subjects, which are animals from around the world. Every job I ever had as a young adult revolved around animals: zoos, pet stores, stables. I intended to be a biologist, but after I won a lucrative art contest in 1986, I decided to explore the possibilities of making a career selling my art. I have drawn animals since I was three years old, but I had to teach myself how to paint, a process that is still ongoing. Gradually, my work was noticed by collectors, and I won many art contests that revolve around conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. As I was on my own for most of my career, I had to wear many hats, including marketer, shipping agent, show manager, framer, and many others…naturally, all I wanted to do was sit and create art all day long. I used to joke that I wish I had a husband with a business degree; most successful wildlife artists in past decades have been men, who can really focus on their art while their wives assist with other matters. But I have been up to the challenge. I procured a licensing agent, and he has been busy for many years placing my images on every product you can imagine, and those royalties are beneficial when the sales of original artwork are inconsistent.
I worked mostly with acrylic paint on board, but eventually I branched out to oils on canvas as well. I also make glass mosaics, bronze sculpture, scratchboard, jewelry, fused glass, and mixed media sculpture; every day is exciting, working in so many mediums. I even dabble in taxidermy, which hones my knowledge of anatomy and animal structure and textures. My mother can relate many stories of me picking up roadkill or whatever I could find, studying the structure and trying to preserve parts of it. I enjoy bringing several styles of my art to the shows that I do, hoping I have something that suits the collectors who attend. I am known for my accurate portrayals of all manner of animals, the strong lighting I use in my paintings, and the action and drama I often depict in my work. This is all possible due to my lifelong study of my subjects.
Besides painting, scratchboard is a large part of my inventory. I use special tools to scratch the black layer of ink on the board to reveal the white underneath. Once that process is done, I color the scratches with watercolors. It is very striking, and highly detailed. Mosaics are a lot of fun, breaking glass and tiles into small pieces and gluing them down in a design, which I then grout and frame. My special 3-D sculptures take some time…I use foam, clay, plaster and epoxy to build the animal up from the board, and then I paint it to look as realistic as possible. The bronze sculptures involve the use of an oil-based clay model I make, which is molded and cast into bronze. Each medium has its challenges, and its rewards.
I grew up in Colorado, but now make my home in Hamilton, Montana, where I get to have moose, bears, deer, elk, and cougars running around my neighborhood. I love it! And it is very inspirational for my work.
There are so many challenges to being a sole proprietor in the art world. We don’t lack much in the way of inspiration and vision but finding the vehicle to share our work and make a profit from it is very difficult. Selling art is very fickle; you can have a stellar year, then sell practically nothing the next. In my chosen field of wildlife art, the options are quite narrow. I’ve been lucky to benefit from the many duck stamp and conservation art contests and awards I have won; my successes then attracted the attention of several national art publishers, and for three decades, my art has been published and sold nationwide to thousands. But the limited-edition print market has dried up, and is no longer profitable for me, so I’ve had to find other resources, like national juried exhibitions, membership in major art organizations, and refining my subject matter to appeal to certain regional markets. Switching some of my efforts to my bronze sculpture has had some success as well. Of course, the trouble with selling bronzes and big paintings is the shipping of the pieces and the labor in putting up a proper display at a show. Luckily, I am very tall (6’3”) and large (I’m working on that), but it helps me in putting up 7-foot panels and light bars at the shows. I stuff my Suburban with as much art as I can fit and tow a trailer with my panels and equipment…this is when a partner would be helpful. But somehow, I’ve managed to have success at certain shows for many years. Because my subject matter is very specific, my sales are best when I am displaying to a certain clientele, mostly outdoorsy types, hunters, nature enthusiasts and bird watchers. They soon learn that I am very familiar with my subjects, as they are, and that adds to my credibility.
My particular industry has suffered something of a setback in recent years. For example, the number of wildlife artists attending a large international show in Las Vegas has gone from 175 to 35 over the last twenty years, a stark indication of a shift in potential customers. It is my opinion that as my client base ages, there are not many new, young faces that are looking for wildlife art for their homes. My average client is well over 60 now, and I get more inquiries regarding re-homing or re-selling artwork than in acquiring it. The younger generation is not as interested in what I and others like me are producing, and that is perhaps an indication of the general shift in our society away from nature and the outdoors to technology and social media. No one knows for sure, but it is quite apparent to those of us in this field that the times are changing. I feel quite lucky to already have a presence in this unique industry.
My plans now are starting to diverge towards what I can do to give back. I am active in several conservation organizations, and my artwork has earned many thousands of dollars for the cause. I’m planning on pursuing more avenues to use my work to help worthy organizations and raise money for wildlife and natural spaces.
My advice…well, if I were to start a career now in this field, I imagine it might involve a lot more social media presence and marketing, something I have been woefully slow at incorporating into my own career. A budding wildlife artist needs to start small, with street fairs, local art contests, commissions, anything to open a door to opportunities. Build up a consistent inventory of pieces to represent you and make appointments before showing up to a gallery to discuss representation. Get high quality digital images of all your work; this will pay off many times for juried exhibits and future licensing. Bad photos of artwork are a prime reason for rejection from shows. There are workshops that are tailored to wildlife and representational artwork, and it is a good place to learn and ask questions. Go to shows that fit your style and observe how other artists present themselves and sell to clients. Get lots of opinions and critiques from those who know their subject; there are many Facebook groups that can help with that. And of course, you will need a website; there is a company, Faso, that specializes in art websites and is very easy to navigate—even I managed to do it.
Be sure to take every opportunity to gather the reference you will need to accurately portray your subject. Get a proper camera and visit places where you can get images of your passion, whether it is animals, flowers, boats, landscapes or people. I am constantly shocked by how poorly some artists depict animals, no matter the medium; there is so much reference out there, no one should have trouble checking their work for accuracy, and there are several good books on animal anatomy. I have been gathering reference of animals and the habitats they live in since I was seven years old. You can’t copy images online or in books; you must create your own compositions or use your own photo reference when you create art to sell. I have been to Africa 20 times in pursuit of inspiration, as well as most other parts of the world that host wild creatures; it’s a wonderful privilege to pursue and observe what you are passionate about, create artwork that honors that passion, and find others that appreciate it enough to purchase your vision!