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Blaine Billman: Connecting the dots

DALLAS -- When artist and Dallas resident Blaine Billman picked up his pen last winter to start on his latest drawing, he did so with a little doubt.

Blaine Billman in his home studio, which also serves as a laundry room, in Dallas on Friday. Billman has received Best in Show awards at national wildlife art shows and had his work exhibited in the United States Embassy in Kinshasa, Republic of the Congo, and at the Smithsonian Institution.

Photo by Pete Strong

Blaine Billman in his home studio, which also serves as a laundry room, in Dallas on Friday. Billman has received Best in Show awards at national wildlife art shows and had his work exhibited in the United States Embassy in Kinshasa, Republic of the Congo, and at the Smithsonian Institution.

August 06, 2013

DALLAS -- When artist and Dallas resident Blaine Billman picked up his pen last winter to start on his latest drawing, he did so with a little doubt.

Billman had spent the last several years fixing up the home he shares with his wife, Sue, to the point that the once time-worn place on Mistletoe Road was looking like the quaint cottage they envisioned when they bought it.

The project is by no means finished, as Billman would readily admit, but he finally had time to focus again on his artwork.

Billman uses tiny -- really tiny -- dots to create his Northwest Coast Native American totemic drawings, so each piece takes time, concentration and a well-formed idea.

"Last winter was the first chance I had to draw again in six, seven years or something like that," he said. "I've got to admit it was a little nerve-racking at first, going `Man, can I still do this? I'm a little older, kind of beat up ...' And most of it is an idea thing. If the idea isn't good, it doesn't matter how good of a technician you are."

Billman, who formerly specialized in wildlife art, decided to use a powerful experience he had in his first encounter with humpback whales off the coast of Massachusetts as the basis for his drawing, "Tail of the Deep." The piece depicts the tail of a humpback rising out of the water as the whale begins to dive.

Technical pens with varying sizes of tips are Billman

Photo by Pete Strong

Technical pens with varying sizes of tips are Billman's tool of choice, as quill pens have become hard to find.

"I just remember that sense of awe the first time I was up close and personal with a humpback whale," Billman said. "It's so cool, so I thought. 'How could I do that?'"

The drawing begins with a basic outline sketch and then the application of hundreds of thousands of dots to add detail and dimension to what turned out to be a stunning comeback effort. "Tail of the Deep" took Billman 246 hours to create, much of that due to his affinity for using dots, a technique called pointillism.

Like much of his totemic art -- which uses symbols and shapes significant to Northwest Coast Native American tribes to tell stories -- "Tail of the Deep" incorporates very little color, just a few touches of red acrylic.

Billman demonstrates his favored technique, picking up a technical pen and placing a minuscule, almost unnoticeable dot on the white border of a drawing. You have to lean in to see it.

"Essentially, that is it," Billman said. "I use a magnifier light that helps a lot."

Looking through the magnifier light, you are able to see how the individual dots work together to create light and shadow on the drawings, allowing Billman to shape realistic representations of snow in a winter wildlife scene or, in the case of his latest drawing, water cascading off a whale's tail.

Billman listens to music and books on CD while working on his drawings. With some pieces taking more than 1,000 hours to complete, Billman at his most prolific pace completed only a handful of drawings per year. To make up for his time and to keep the cost of his artwork reasonable, Billman issues limited edition prints of each drawing.

Billman uses a magnifier light to illuminate works in progress because of the minute dots he uses to create them. "Tail of the Deep" (above) took 246 hours to complete.

Photo by Pete Strong

Billman uses a magnifier light to illuminate works in progress because of the minute dots he uses to create them. "Tail of the Deep" (above) took 246 hours to complete.

"Tail of the Deep" hasn't been printed yet, but is already on display on Billman's website.

"I really like how it turned out," Billman said, perhaps with a little relief to be "back in the saddle" behind those words.

Much like each drawing Billman undertakes, he said it took him time to find his technique and strike a balance between his art and other essential aspects of life.

Billman's artistic career began in the 1980s, when he used pointillism to depict animals in their habitat. Billman spent hours and hours in the field taking photos of wildlife, getting as close as safely possible to his subjects.

"I kind of looked at it as nature or God just giving me a little gift of an extra insight into something," he said. "Maybe it's an otter sticking its face up right in front of me, out of the water, or having a bull elk chase me up a tree several times. It just about makes you wet yourself, but it's pretty exciting stuff."

Billman speaks with almost spiritual reverence of his nature experiences, and even though he is no longer strictly a wildlife artist, those rare instances of connection still contribute to his work.

"I don't draw anything I haven't seen and experienced," he said. "It definitely lends a credence ... to have some sort of a relationship. The closer the better."

Until the mid-1990s, Billman traveled the show circuit, winning awards and acclaim, but eventually realized something was missing.

"Tail of the Deep" was the first totemic drawing Billman had worked on in several years while renovating while renovating a home.

Photo by Pete Strong

"Tail of the Deep" was the first totemic drawing Billman had worked on in several years while renovating while renovating a home.

"It was such a grind and really I was just a slave to that," he said. "It was no different than being a commercial artist."

Billman found his retreat when he bought a house in Idaho and cut back the number of shows he attended. He turned his focus to other artistic interests and found great fascination and respect for the art of Native American tribes from Alaska, Northwest Canada and Washington state, including the Haida and Tlingit tribes. He has incorporated those symbols into his artwork since.

Billman said it was also during that time he discovered there is more to life than just a career.

After 20 years as a working artist, Billman married his wife and soon followed his stepchildren out to Oregon about 10 years ago.

Billman has found space in his work-in-progress home for a small studio -- also a laundry room -- toward the back of the house.

Once the rainy, dark Oregon winter returns, Billman plans to begin work on ideas for a few more pieces to follow "Tail of the Deep."

Billman no longer goes to art shows, allowing a firm in Juneau, Alaska, to do most of his marketing -- with the exception of hanging a few pieces in The Bread Board in Falls City. That freedom allows him to have time for both art and life.

"We are on this planet for a whole lot more than for a profession and career," Billman said. "Even though I'm not out doing all the shows and stuff, I have no complaints. I'm still able to do it. Hopefully, I will be able to do it in years to come.

"I might have to switch to bigger dots," he added with a laugh.

For more information or to order artwork by Blaine Billman, go to: northwest-art.com.