The next time you’re on the ferry over to Quadra Island, take a look around at the people working on the ship.
Because you may not guess that one of them might be a world-class wildlife artist.
His name is Kevin Johnson, and although he’s tried all different forms of art over the years – from abstract acrylic painting to airbrushing to sculpting and everything in between – he’s always been drawn back (pun intended) to his pencil.
“I drew whenever I had time when I was growing up, but I guess it was about 10 years ago that I really decided to try and hone my craft and see what I could do and how far I could push this.”
It’s safe to say he’s pushed it pretty far.
Johnson’s piece, Untold Stories – Arctic Wolf, was selected as one of the works that will be reproduced this year by Ducks Unlimited to support their conservation efforts. The organization makes prints, postcards and calendars to raise funds for the protection of wetlands, create educational programs and support scientific research.
Being selected as a Ducks Unlimited artist is seen by many as the pinnacle of accomplishment for a wildlife artist, and this is the third piece Johnson has been approved for over the years.
It wasn’t always wildlife that came out on the page when he sat down with his pencil. Although, like his pencils, the wild kept calling him back, too.
“I did cartooning and comic books to everything else, just to try things out,” Johnson says, “but as I’ve gotten older, well, I guess I’ve always been an outdoorsy person and wildlife has always pulled me back to it. Like lots of artists, Robert Bateman was kind of always my idol and as a kid I always drew from his calendars.”
In fact, that’s how Johnson originally found out about Ducks Unlimited, too. By drawing from their calendars.
“I guess it’s kind of come full circle now and I get to be one of the artists that’s in them,” he says.
How does one become a Ducks Unlimited artist, you ask?
“Well, I had the same question,” Johnson says with a chuckle. “It’s a submitting process, generally speaking. It’s juried and, basically, you just submit some pieces and the panel sits once a year and select a few artists.”
Well that sounds easy.
But considering Ducks Unlimited receives hundreds of submissions each year and have to narrow it down to just a handful, it’s really not. This year they selected 11 works.
“It’s very cool to think there are maybe kids that will draw my work, just like I did when I was a kid,” Johnson says.
“And the fact that it’s just a drawing – as opposed to a painting – makes it even cooler, I think. I always tell people, there’s nothing magical about it – it’s not intimidating like a painting can be sometimes. It’s just a pencil and an eraser, and I think that might appeal to them.”
Sure, it’s just putting the tip of a pencil on the surface of a piece of paper and moving it around. But it takes a huge amount of practice and a huge amount of time to produce something at the level of Untold Stories – Arctic Wolf.
The piece only six inches high by 16 inches wide and Johnson says it took about 80 hours.
That’s a long time sitting in a chair drawing individual hairs on a wolf. Especially when you have a full-time job on a ferry.
But that’s what it takes to be at that level.
“A lot of people abandon their work before it’s finished,” Johnson says. “They have a drawing and they say, ‘look at it, it’s nice,’ and, yeah, it’s nice, but if you want to take it to the next level, you need to sit there longer.”
Now that he’s an “alumni artist” with Ducks Unlimited, they pay him an honorarium when his work is selected, which is nice. First-time artists get notoriety and get their work in front of a whole lot of people they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access, but they don’t get paid directly.
Johnson is probably going to use his Ducks Unlimited honorarium from this piece to buy a new chair.
“After all, as he says, “it’s almost time to be replaced. I spend a lot of time in it.”