The Art Of Cole Johnson

The Art Of Cole Johnson

Passion for nature and dogged perseverance prevail--lucky us

When I first met Cole Johnson, he was a skinny kid sitting amongst his prints at an outdoor show in Memphis, Tennessee. Wonderful black and white renderings of ducks and dogs surrounded the 27-year-old. Among other things that day, I was on the prowl for illustrators for the magazine I ran at the time. I was blown away, to say the least.

Johnson's work hung in the small booth and lay on the table in front of him; drawings so accurate, so true to detail and emotion they seemed a cross between a photograph and a vivid memory; yet the young artist was able to do it all with a pencil. Here were retrievers in repose and retrievers ready for work, with impossible sheen to their coats and every whorl of hair pointed in the right direction. Canvasbacks flew through a darkened sky, their white breasts illuminated by morning sunlight while mallards swam on water so silky you could float a decoy on it.

I didn't discover Cole Johnson, his art discovered me; but I'm pleased to say I knew him before the world discovered him. Johnson is a rare kind of artist for many reasons, but primarily as purveyor of the strong images that bind us to our sport, mastered in a rare medium that manifests itself through a love of animals and the outdoors. And, he is a hunter.


Johnson's foray into the outdoor world began as a boy, sitting off the hip of his father in the deer woods of rural New York. Like many fortunate youngsters too young to hunt, his thirst for hunting was fueled by watching. Viewing whitetail bucks in their natural habitat sparked the imagery the artist would later rely on.

Cole began his own deer-hunting career as an archer, prowling the same farm where he and his father had hunted. Allowing the boy to go afield alone with his bow, the elder Johnson's only stipulation was that the boy not climb a tree. "I had some pretty good opportunities that I screwed up on," Cole recalls. And the lessons of whitetails and their environs further steeped in the boy's memory banks, as did those of hunted grouse and woodcock from local coverts.

When Cole's family moved to Georgia for a year, the young man and his father camped and hunted together in the region, but it would be while hunting alone that the boy would shoot his first deer, a buck, taken with a shotgun from a creek-side stand Cole erected near the family's house. Georgia also provided Cole with his first dove hunt, his first fast wingshooting and the chance to meet other hunters and share their blind-side banter. By the following year the family would be back in New York.


"I'd always been interested in waterfowl," Johnson recalls. "My father used to hunt them, and he had a black Lab named Ben, a big ol' male, who died when I was four or five years old." By the time Cole was of age, his father had given up the duck and goose chase, but the kindness of a couple of family acquaintances brought Cole into the world of waterfowling.

Ringneck Study, 2003
Copyright Cole Johnson

Cole's parents raised horses. The blacksmith who regularly came to the farm to tend to the horses owned a good Labrador retriever that ran field trials. The Johnson's veterinarian owned a chocolate Lab, and by coincidence the vet and the blacksmith hunted waterfowl and took their dogs to field trials together. Cole started going along with the pair to field trials in the summer and on hunts in the fall and winter.

"They knew where to go," Cole recalls. "In early season we'd hunt the big swamps for puddle ducks, and in late season we would hunt the Finger Lakes, which stayed open and the hunting could be very good. The veterinarian also leased fields to hunt geese. He used to bury a dumpster in a field and we would arrive in the dark and start a generator and a pump going and pump the water out before climbing in."


As a very young boy, Cole began sketching the things he saw. His interest in nature and in hunting and fishing inspired him, and he says he grew up in the fashion of his father and grandfather, enjoying the experience, not trophies or numbers. "We were out on adventures, and that came through in my artwork," Cole says.

Johnson sold his first print at one of those field trials he attended with the blacksmith and the vet.

"The first print I ever had done was a drawing of the memory of my father's dog. My father had a friend in the printing business. We had prints made and started selling them to the dog people. They (the prints) were moving. People were telling me I was selling them way too cheap."

Those print sales came before Cole ever attended art school. His father had been college educated, but Cole didn't see himself as an academic. He mulled what career path he might take, but didn't know what he wanted to do besides art, so he entered school to study Commercial Art. Seeing it might be hard to make a living in Commercial Art, he began preparing for a teaching career, but eventually found his way into Fine Art.

Cole spent the next few years studying the Old Masters, and those artists who inspired him, people like Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer and contemporary European artist Raymond Harris Ching.

"I used the time in college at Buffalo (New York) to really get serious about my work," Cole states. During that period he duck hunted in the marshes near Buffalo, making new friends, including wildlife artist Ron Kleiber, an established artist who lived on the marsh. Eventually, Cole and Ron become hunting partners. "That relationship became my only outlet for waterfowling," Cole notes. "Anytime I wanted to go hunting, I'd hunt with Ron."

Of course, while Cole was busy studying art at college in the late '80s, the wildlife art boon was in full swing. He was studying the Masters while wildlife artists were making a fortune with duck, deer and pheasant prints.

"In school, I did a lot of painting [color work with acrylics, oils and other paint mediums],"Cole recalls. "The instructors weren't interested so much in representational art, rather, primarily cityscapes, nudes, political stuff. But that wasn't what I was interested in. When I graduated, I went right back into what I originally was most interested in--black and white studies of wildlife. I took everything I'd learned and applied it to that."


Cole wasn't making any money at his art in those post-college days. As a matter of fact, he was working construction to support himself. He sold some prints from time to time, and he credits his parents with standing by his dream, and occasionally offering financial help with the cost of pri

nt issues.

"I showed my stuff and got a lot of positive response, so I quit my job, but six months later I was broke and had to go back to work," Cole recalls. "Thank God I wasn't married and didn't have any children then."

Cole entered a cycle of working his day job, then quitting, for six months or a year, then going back to work again. Finally, he quit his job for keeps.

"A lot of people wanted to see me succeed, but most felt I would have to compete with the painters to succeed," Cole recalls. "I thought they were right, but I just didn't want to…I wanted to stay true to the medium I felt strongest in.

"If you're going to be passionate about something, if you're not going to do what you want to do, then why do it at all. If I was only doing this for the money, why do it at all? Why even be an artist? I mean there are a lot of ways to make money."

Eventually Cole did succeed. Today his major pieces sell from $5,000 to $10,000.


Cole's medium is graphite; the same stuff that comes in the lead of a pencil, yet the artist has found his own methods of applying and working with the graphite medium to achieve his ends.

Fight The Wind, 1998
Copyright Cole Johnson

A common pencil is a mixture of graphite and clay, with a hard gray look. Add more graphite to the mix, the pencil is darker and softer. Cole says pencils are available in a range of about 20, and he uses the whole range.

He also has become an expert at the use of powdered graphite. He buys solid sticks of graphite, and then grinds them into a fine powder. He applies the powder using a dry rubbing technique with tools he has designed himself. Cole then uses erasers to reveal the white of the page, then goes back into the piece with a pencil to tighten things up.

"These drawings are all about light, and about how light and shadow work together to create form," Cole offers. "I'm almost sculpting from a medium gray. I'm erasing to reveal while using pencil to bring in the dark. From a very early stage in my career I learned, don't be afraid to go dark. That's the strength.

"You still have to be a good artist to render the scene." For anyone who has seen Cole's work, that is a gross understatement.

"I think studying the anatomy is a huge part of becoming a talented artist. Since I was a young kid we've been butchering deer. When you're actually handling a body structure, you learn about this stuff. It's very important when drawing deer, and everything else. I learned that no matter what you do, somebody is always going to know that species better than you, so it had better be accurate."


"In my medium, I don't think their is anybody who has a bigger name than I do," Cole boldly, and likely accurately, states. Cole's medium is so unique, there are few well known artists to compare him to. He mentions Terry Miller, an artist using a similar medium, who frequently works with African themes, game animals, though Miller's not a hunter. "Terry was pretty influential in my career," Cole says. "His pieces are just outstanding. There is also a Western artist, called Shoefly, that's the only name I know him by. He's quite good."

Cole's been involved in some significant art shows of late, and gets invitations from across the country to participate in showings of his works along with some of the other great artists of our day. He's showed with and met artist Robert Bateman, among others. He recently signed a contract with Mill Pond Press to produce his work and at the young age of 35, the resident of rural New York appears to have a limitless future.

The artist in his studio

When he's not working in his studio, or traveling to shows, you might find him bowhunting or hunting waterfowl near home. He loves to set decoys on a local river in the late season when blacks, mallards and geese are drawn to the open water and his spread. And he treasures the late seasons and big water in his home state.

About his work, Cole fervently states, "I couldn't ask for a better thing to do. I work with the birds and animals that inspire me. My career has provided me with a lot of neat stuff--places I've visited, people I know."

It's also provided the sporting world, and lovers of wildlife in general, with some memorable and lasting imagery.

To learn more about the art of Cole Johnson, check

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