It didn't happen overnight, but wildlife artist Ernie Simmons has arrived at an enviable place in his career — others appreciate and buy his work.
The Dunedin painter, who has been selling his canvases since graduating from Clearwater High School 37 years ago, now earns a comfortable living from the sale of his Florida birds and landscapes, all rendered in acrylic on canvas.
Many young artists have asked Simmons the secret to his success.
The starting place is a passion, he says. "When I was young, I had the passion to do this for the rest of my life," he said.
That passion, though, is just the beginning.
"You don't build a career overnight," said the 54-year-old artist. "You must make the effort to really improve your skills."
Simmons took his last formal art classes while in high school. Later, he studied the subject matter and techniques of artists he admired, such as American artist Andrew Wyeth and Canadian nature artist Fenwick Landsdowne.
Then he went to work — and worked hard.
Simmons says attention to fine line detail is the strongest part of his work.
The tools of his trade bear witness to how that detail might work. On a table in his workshop, an extra-long shed located behind his Dunedin home, stand five jars packed with brushes, most of them no thicker than the shaft of a fine needle. Along with a stack of paper plates serving as palettes, dozens of other small fine brushes are lined up next to his most recent painting, an 8- by 15-inch depiction of a great blue heron poised at the water's edge against the evening sky.
The bird's wings have been created by thousands of fine brush strokes requiring hours of work.
"I'm so focused on what I'm doing that everything else disappears," Simmons said. "I think I've been painting for 15 minutes and four hours have gone by."
Focus, he said, is an artistic necessity.
"Artists need to find a niche they connect to and then eat it, drink it and absorb it," he said. "Then try to stay one step ahead of others in that area."
It has taken him years to master the details not only of Florida's most beautiful feathered creatures, but also their environment — the sea, the limbs of a tree, the Spanish moss draped over branches, or the lichen attached to decaying bark.
"I also had to learn to paint light and shadows to create a mood," he said.
That meant taking out the canoe to greet the rising and setting sun and capturing on camera how objects like a rippling sea change with the light.
It all counts, he says.
Simmons owns 10 boats, mostly canoes and some kayaks, and takes his own photos as the basis for his paintings. He prefers traveling alone with just his camera and attentive eye.
The fruits of his labor hang on the paneled walls of the studio. Most are giclee prints, replicas of the original paintings created with colored Inkjets applied to canvas by a special machine. In lifelike scenes, kite-tailed swallows soar, a heron stalks his prey and a bald eagle perches on a pine branch.
Most of the originals have been sold. The largest paintings, such as the original of the bald eagle, have gone for upward of $25,000.
The Dunedin artist displayed his paintings at St. Petersburg's Cool Art Show in July and hopes to enter a few more shows in the fall. In the meantime, he has a loyal clientele who keep up with his latest renderings of birds on the wing or at rest.
Those buyers, he said, are people who really appreciate wildlife and look forward to owning his newest work.
"They consider the purchase of one of my originals as they would consider the purchase of a new car," Simmons said.
Other supporters opt for affordable prints. A 36- by 54-inch print of the bald eagle, for example, sells for $1,800. Smaller decorative prints begin as low as $50.
Simmons feels fortunate with the way life has gone.
All he wants now is to get better at the art he already practices.
"There were many years when I struggled," he said, "but success to me is being able to live comfortably and do the things you want to do."