By Lennie Bennett
Times Art Critic
DUNEDIN — Ernest C. Simmons (Ernie to his friends) is one of the most successful wildlife artists around. His biggest paintings, which can sell for up to $30,000, are detailed narratives of nature and its cycles. The stars of his works are usually birds, so beautifully rendered you feel you could reach out and pluck a feather.
Simmons joins 18 other artists — fellow nature pros along with well-known western artists and jewelers — for the 10th annual Wildlife and Western Visions Art Show on Saturday and Sunday. His major work will be there along with smaller, less expensive paintings and prints.
I visited him in his studio, a spacious, cedar-lined room that sports a trove of his art and equal evidence of his love of the outdoors: canoes hung from the ceiling, a collection of fishing rods and a mounted, exceptionally wide-mouthed bass he once caught.
Have you always been interested in depicting wildlife?
Yes. It probably started when my dad took me fishing. When you fish, most of what you do is look around. I was obsessed with birds.
And you were something of an art prodigy.
When I was very young, I would copy the Audubon prints from a book my grandparents had. In high school (Clearwater High), I was one of the test cases for the county's independent study program. My art teachers set up a room in back of the classroom for me so I could work on my own. I still had to do all the required work, too.
What did you do after high school?
I had a basketball scholarship but I wanted to be an artist. I started doing outdoor shows — Dunedin Art Harvest was my first — and traveled for years on the circuit, doing up to 22 shows every year.
Talk about your process.
I take my own photographs. Even though I know what the birds look like, your mind can only record so much so the photographs are like capture information. I want to be scientifically accurate but also to keep a creative spirit, to do my own interpretation. I paint on canvas glued to a wood board. I start with a sketch of the bird and paint a liquid mask over it. Then I scrumble in the background and start working forward. Then I peel off the mask and start layering in colors on the animals and the foreground.
How long does a big painting take?
It's hard to say because I work on smaller paintings at the same time. Several months. I try to do three major paintings a year.
Do you always sell them?
They sell the fastest.
What, for you, makes a good painting?
I really like paintings that tell a story. I made up an anagram for what I think is a perfect painting, DECAL: details; emotion, meaning a response from the viewer; composition; action; lighting; and a story.
I have never gotten them all in one painting.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.