Authors, Artists and Makers Volume 14: Nicholas Coleman
Updated: Mar 21
I first ran across Nicholas Coleman when his commissioned work appeared on the limited-edition cover of Modern Huntsmen's Volume Six: Resilience. I was instantly drawn into the scene - a lone hunter, fireside, by a quiet lake in his humble camp. It had that feeling of "I've been there" or maybe more accurately "I want to be there." It had depth. A story. It rung true, with a nostalgic flavor of days past that left me with the notion I was born a century or two too late, and ignited the barely-below-the-surface longing to be back outdoors. (Limited edition prints of the Modern Huntsman cover art can be purchased here.)
After I saw that cover, I began to explore Nicholas' website – to get a look at some of his other work – and began following him on instagram. What I discovered is that not only is Nicholas an incredibly talented artists (from a family of talented artists), he's a gifted outdoorsman, passionate hunter, angler, and trapper, devoted family man, lover of history, voracious reader, and downright interesting character.
Based out of Provo, Utah, Nicholas' primary subject matter is the American West, with a focus on landscapes, natural history, wildlife, Native American culture, and exploration. Scenes from places he knows well, and lifestyles he has both researched and lived.
His passion for the place, the lifestyle, and art radiates through everything he does. I really enjoyed talking more with him and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.
Nicholas, thank you for doing this interview with me. I’d like to start with a little bit of background, because it seems to me that the people, places, and experiences that have been a part of your life as a young person have shaped who you are both as an adult and as an artist.
Q: You grew up in Provo, Utah, in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. In addition to being a Boy Scout, it sounds like you spent a lot of time out exploring, hunting, fishing, and trapping – can you give us a brief glimpse of your childhood and maybe also hit on the “place” you grew up in?
A: I grew up in Provo, Utah, near the Provo River. Our neighbor had a river coming into a neat little pond and going out, and right next door was a golf course. My dad and I ended up being the muskrat trappers for the golf course. Before the city piped over all the wonderful little streams in our area, my father and I had a small trap line in the winter. We would walk the rivers, he would point out to me raccoon, mink, and muskrat tracks. I was in heaven. He would regale me with stories from his youth, growing up in Provo Utah as well. His real trap line helped him earn money for his first Roger Maris baseball mitt and his first 12 gauge single shot shotgun! All of this was magic to me – watching the sun come up, our breath catching the light, then sadly off to school.
Q: One thing that seemed very constant in everything I have read about you is the influence of your father, the renowned artist, Michael Coleman. Can you talk a little about his influence on you both as an outdoorsman (and history lover) as well as an artist?
A: I know my dad took all his kids – my brothers and sister – out with him fishing and hunting. I think for me I just loved it all about 100 times more than anyone. I begged to go on hunting and fishing trips. We’ve spent countless hours in the mountains. Wading rivers, watching wildlife, and talking about painting.
One of the first stories he tells me about his artistic career was when he found a little bird that had died. He held it in his hands and marveled. He wondered how he could remember all the details and it had started to weigh on him and he didn’t know why. His mother told him he should draw it! He did. I think as a small boy his mother was the one responsible for helping him turn to art as a way of preserving his serious interest in the natural world.
As my father shared his enthusiasm for the outdoors, wildlife, and how the light would wash upon the landscape It flicked a switch in my mind because I realized that he drew and painted what he loved. That seemed the natural course for me too, and I couldn’t stop!
Q: Speaking of your father, it sounds like your family has several artists among its ranks including your dad, your brother Morgan, your niece Sara, and maybe even your son who you have described as a budding sculptor. There’s obviously something in your DNA driving you to art. What’s it like working alongside family in this business?
A: My older brother is a great artist. In his youth he had very busy fingers. He also has an amazing talent in computers, which turned into a publishing business for a number of years. He would print my dad’s images – he still does a few here and there. He finally sold his business and began painting again. After a few years a unique opportunity arose and now he makes chocolate of all things. His daughter is quite talented and has a degree in art history, I believe. I think painting will always be a part of her life.
Both my son and daughter are very interested in the arts. My son is hardly ever without clay in his hands and is always sculpting. He has his own studio in the basement; its hard to contain him as there are bits of clay all throughout the house! My daughter's interest in drawing is pretty amazing as well. I can’t take any credit other than making sure she has paper and something to draw with. She has put in the time and loves to draw wherever she is. We were just at the Gene Autry Museum this last weekend for the Masters of the American West Show in LA and despite the crowds was intensely focused on her drawing. I think she had a better reception at the show that I did!
Q: Next I’d like to talk a little about your style. In a recent interview you were quoted as saying “I think my style just happens to be what I gravitate towards. It continues to evolve.” You’ve also said that you are more of a realist but not a “hyper realist – tight where you need to be tight and looser where you need to be looser.” Can you explain that a little, and talk about how you see your style?
A: Well, I think my “style,” would be considered realistic, I am a romanticist as well. I tend to paint what I would love to see in the world. Beautiful sunrises, sunsets, rainy days. If everything I did was projected and traced I personally think any kind of magic that happens when you paint is lost. There is spontaneity that is lost when all your answers are solved with a photograph. I do use photos for references but generally for color schemes, or a gentle reminder of the feel I am trying to capture in a painting.
Q: In another interview I saw that you mentioned being influenced by the old masters and I can definitely see that. You also mention artists such as Carl Ruingius, Frank Tenny Johnson, William R. Leigh, Thomas Moran, and Harold von Schmidt. To my untrained eye, I also see influences of CM Russel in the western scenes and artists like Luke Frazier, Ogden Pleissner, Brett James Smith, John Swan, and even a bit of Winslow Homer in some of the pieces around camp or involving water. Can you talk a little about some of your artistic influences?
A: Reaching back into history, artists like Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and Winslow Homer were recording a moment of what is now early American/Western art, whether they knew that or not. I think any working artist today would be amiss without looking back.
The other artist you mention have a love and appreciation for the days spent in the field and in the rivers–like Luke Frazier and Brett James Smith. You can see they love their subject and you really have to in this day and age of instant gratification. I see so much "fast art" and I think for anyone thinking about buying and or collecting art it would be hard to know where to start. To stand out you literally have to stand out. I hate using the word literally too...
Q: You’ve said that one of the greatest compliments people can give you about your work is when they say: “it feels like I’ve been here before.” I certainly get that familiar feeling, or in some cases, more of a “I want to be here” feeling when I see your paintings. Sometimes when I’m in the backcountry, I find myself wondering what it must have been like 200-300 years ago. Like when Colter stumbled into what we now know as Yellowstone. You have said about your work that you are “trying to preserve a certain way of life” – almost taking us as viewers back in time. Is that accurate?
A: My goal as I look at my own art is to try and preserve what is timeless. Granted the golden days of the endless herds of Bison are over, the map filled in. There is a pioneer, a frontier spirit, that goes beyond just the painting. I think as humans we long for unspoiled nature and wilderness.
Almost an oxymoron but I think the ideal is something to strive for. Walking rivers at dusk, listening to the birds sing, coyotes calling. I want to believe it still exists. I want to prove it exists in my own paintings. I've seen and heard some amazing things, how can I not share!?
Q: You talk a lot about “place” – in some of your previous interviews you list a few of my favorites among yours; places like California (Yosemite), Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and even the Adirondacks. Can you explain why place is so important to you as a person and as an artist and what draws you to these in particular?
A: Of all the places I have visited – and there are so many amazing places – the one that probably is the most special to me is Provo Utah.
I now live in the foothills under what is called Squaw Peak. Provo, was named after the French Fur Trapper Etienne Provost, who came through our Valley in 1820. Captured by the Shoshone Indians up in what is now Provo Canyon, about 10 minutes from my house. He was able to escape but only after two of the six people in his party did not make it out alive. As the story goes he never returned.
The sunsets I got to see growing up. Rabbit hunting out in the sagebrush across Utah Lake. Fly fishing for trout up Provo Canyon. I've had an endless curiosity that started here. Whenever I leave my home for a trip. I'm always thrilled to return to Utah.
Q: For me, while I can appreciate great technique, I’m still really drawn in by subject matter – Western landscapes, hunting and trapping camps, rivers and lakes and canoes and fishing. Some of my favorites of yours include “Crackling Fire”, “In Good Company”, “On Long Lake”, “The Huntsman”, and “Misty Morning”. Can you talk about the role of subject matter in your paintings?
A: For sure! When it comes to choosing my subject matter. I personally am drawn to certain places, and times of day.
I’ve stood in some amazing places, and often when you get out of your comfort zone and go someplace new or even just get out to someplace familiar, the likelihood of stumbling into something special drastically increases. Like surprising a coyote, or coming across a black bear on the trail, or finding the aftermath of a black bear that found your camp while you were gone!
I've mentioned that I am a romantic and when I don’t actually see the thing I end up painting, my imagination does the rest. I've use different family members and friends as models, sometimes they are a bit reluctant, but I can be a persuasive guy!
I love a good dog in a painting and I know how good the warmth of a fire can feel on your hands and face after a long day shivering in the cold while out in the mountains. I quite love books as well, and I read all the time. Certain stories and even photos can spark the imagination and what I think I might have planned for the week can change in a heartbeat to start a new painting.
Q: Another idea of yours from a previous interview that really struck me is the concept of the struggle between the tamed and untamed wild. Can you talk about that tension and how it shows up in your work?
A: There is a Swedish artist, Bruno Liljefors, and he often paints wildlife in the struggle for life. It's that life on the edge that really is fascinating. One creature seeking to stay alive versus another creature trying to do the same only one peg down on the food chain. The dance of Mother Nature and the will to live is amazing and cruel at times. To me it is those brief moments where one can question “did the hare escape the fox?” In those moments we bring ourselves into the work of art and get to participate first hand as the artist hasn’t painted all the answers. I love that kind of work and I strive to create that kind of art.
Q: I’d like to talk a little bit about your process. In one podcast interview I listened to you said: “I’m not a hippy kind of painter,” which I found hilarious. You then when on to explain that you don’t simply wait for inspiration to hit you, and approach your art with a passion, but also like a job, putting in long days, six days a week. So, how do you find inspiration when you are feeling ‘dry” for a lack of a better term?
A: I think the only thing that can kill your joy when it comes to creating art, at least for me, is knowing that all the thought and effort I put into my work isn't seen like that out in the world. I have a vision that I pursue with my work and often I might go visit a gallery and see my vision dashed, which can be soul killing.
My father, at 76 and ever the optimist, is always a great example to me:“If you make each painting the best painting you can make and the quality is there, it's that quality that will always rise…” He is the best example to me of where hard work meets opportunity. He is the hardest working guy I know! That grounds me and I get back to work.
Q: I’ve heard others say that yout art has a strong element of storytelling to it – complete with scene, structure, characters, event, and plot. Do you think of it in that sense? Are you trying to convey a story in which your painting is just one moment within it?
A: I think in my own work, all those elements which I have been graciously said to possess, just come naturally as I am painting. I love my subjects and love to portray them the best that I can. In the end I think I don’t try to answer every question in my work. That's where the viewer can bring his or her own experiences into the painting. It's that participantion that turns into the story.
Q: Before we wrap up the questions about your work, I must hit on your studio for a second. When I see your studio (and your dad’s) my jaw drops. It looks like a display in the natural history museum. You say that you’re a bit of a pack rat when it comes to collecting things and your space very much reminds me off my family’s small off-grid hunting camp, loaded with art, photos, bones, taxidermy, collectables, books, knives, antiquities, rocks, artifacts, etc. Is collecting another connection to a lifestyle or place that is increasingly lost or what do you think causes you to collect the items you do?
A: I think I have been dragging things home since I was a little kid. In my dad’s experience I know he dragged things home, dead and alive… Growing up in a household where having snakes, lizards, hamsters, chipmunks, owls, kestrels and, in my dad’s case a badger, everything else is pretty tame.
Our love of history started the collecting of Native American artifacts and beadwork, to knives, rifles and fishing rods and reels. I will admit I have started editing myself and not quite everything gets to come home to the studio with me. I would love to get into duck decoy collecting but I know that’s another crazy world that I might just get lost in.
Many of the items definitely find their way into my paintings. I tend to surround myself with items that inspire and have a great spirit about them. I think it's that good spirit that gets infused into my work that makes it what it is. If I were just to google images of things to paint my work would be devoid of joy and that spirit I have been talking about.
Q: Okay, I’d like to talk about your life outside of work. One of the things that comes up often in interviews is your passion for hunting. Can you talk about that a little? What are some of your favorite places and game to pursue?
A: I think the Mule Deer will always be on my list. I have quite a few that wander into my back yard and I never am tempted by those. With hunting phtotos being shared online it gives me hope that the monsters are still out there. Being patient is key and just taking the time to get out and sit. If you're trying to rush a hunting trip just do it from your car…ha! But really the last few I have gone out and come back empty handed. The trade off is I come home to the studio refreshed will all kinds of ideas!
Q: What about fishing? It sounds like you enjoy fly fishing. Can you talk a little bit about that passion as well? What is your favorite species to target? Favorite places to fish?
A: I used to fish the Provo but everyone and their third cousin fishes there now plus a few more. The last few years I have taken up Steelhead fishing with a Spey Rod. Holy Cow, talk about fun! Dec Hogan who literally has written, in my opinion, the best book on the subject taught me how to do it! I definitely still need some work but pulling in Steelhead head up in Idaho in the fall is magical experience.
Dec does workshops in Idaho, Washington, and I think in California. I highly recommend taking a workshop from him. Totally worth it and there are no trophy fees involved, you know what I mean if you have hunted Alaska, Canada, and especially Africa lately! Yikes!
Q: You said in a previous interview when talking about your work “put your time in and the universe will reward you.” I feel like that applies so strongly to hunting and angling as well, would you agree?
A: Oh, I totally agree. My dad is a prime example. I've seen the universe reward him a number of times. Just a few years ago he was invited onto a CWMU for a deer hunt. Not 20 minutes into the hunt, just as the sun had come up, he was able to shoot a pretty big old deer! The very nice friend who invited him couldn't believe it and had said he had been watching that deer for a couple of years and had been trying to find him.
I think that the times you come up empty, pay off eventually. My dad’s attitude toward hunting too, I think allows him to be free of stress. I've taken him on trips to Stockholm to see an art exhibit; he had fun but he was stressed out to no end as he was not getting any work done. I might have to preface that he is a work-a-holic. If we are ever hunting or fishing it's like he's a new man, and time doesn’t exist and he can just be one with nature. Sounds silly but its so true!
Q: It sounds like you also enjoy camping and often with the whole family. Can you talk about how you are trying to build a love and appreciation for the outdoors into your kids?
A: I really do think being in nature is so so important. When our kids showed up we have stressed and made sure we spend time together in the outdoors. One thing we do in the winter is ski. I lived in the mountains as a kid and my favorite resort is Sundance. It's a miniature paradise in the shadow of Timpanogus.
My son also loves history and lately WWII history and he and his friends dress up and play airsoft. They will build a campfire and sleep out in a canvas tent, arise early and play a round of airsoft before they all go home for the morning. It's fun as father to see this.
Q: You’ve also mentioned that some of the most miserable trips, even some hunting outings that don’t necessarily result in game being taken, can be some of the most memorable (like the one in Alaska with your dad). I’ve found that to be true as well. Why do you think that is?
A: There is something about misery and maybe escaping to tell the tale that is most memorable. I took a trip to Iceland just after I gradualed college with friend to ice climb. It was very memorable as our plans did not go quite as planned but the time spent and returning home to tell the tale puts a smile on my face!
Q: This idea reminds me a bit of the book I read a year or two back titled, The Comfort Crisis, by Michael Easter. The premise is basically this – our lives have become too comfortable, too safe, too sedentary, and too sanitary and it’s basically killing us. When I think about those early explorers and trappers compared to where we are today, I almost feel like we are devolving as a species. What do you think?
A: It also reminds me Michael Hopf's “Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, and weak men create hard times…”
I definitely think about the state of humanity. I think we live in a unique time in history. I think we live with some the of the best and brightest and I think we also live with some of the worst people ever. I don’t fear any of this as I choose to be prepared. I was an eagle scout after all and I still think that means something.
The way I live with my wife and my family, we choose to be aware of all our surroundings and not live reactionary. Like those books we would read as kids, the “Choose your own Adventure,” books.
The example that those early mountain and pioneers left for us, If we choose to follow it, it is there. Teddy Roosevelt also prompted us to live a strenuous life – I'm a huge proponent of living your best life.
Q: Circling back to your work a little, but also relating to your attachment to the wild and the outdoors, one of the things it is said about your paintings is they “help people create an emotional connection between people and the land.” I think that is so vitally important. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to get people to care about a place, a species, or an environmental challenge unless they experience it and build that emotional connection – whether in person or through art. Can you talk about how your work can play a role in that?
A: Sometimes I think building the connection has been an afterthought. Being a real force for good for the enviornment is crucial this day and age. There are those virtue signaling and those who live their lives everyday actually doing something about it.
I have found purpose more than just my love of painting and in loving wildlife. Over the years I have been able to find foundations like Vital Ground, which helps find and build habitats for the grizzly bear, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation. One of the best foundations has been the American Indian Services, which helps provide scholarship and education to Native American children in the US. There is a link on my website that explains what an amazing thing they are doing.
Q: It sounds like you are a voracious reader and history buff and I’ve been really excited to talk to you about books because I think we are drawn to many of the same kinds. Some of my favorites from this genre include The Frontiersmen, Colter’s Run, Tough Trip Through Paradise, Jim Bridger, Boone, Undaunted Courage, The Revenant, Blood and Thunder, Dreams of Eldorado, The Course of Empire, Sources of the River, Blood and Treasure, Travels in Greater Yellowstone, The Last Stand, Crimes Against Nature, The Lance and the Shield, Crazy Horse and Custer, Empire of the Summer Moon, Ridgeline, Roosevelt in the Wilderness, and River of Doubt. What are some of your favorites and why?
A: I really enjoyed “River of Doubt,” the story of Teddy and Kermit in Brazil navigating the River and their story of going to the brink and back again.
I just finished a little book by Steinbeck, “The Pearl.”
I also finished again C.S. Lewis’s “The Screw Tape Letters,” I think that one is most fresh in my mind. Where Wormwood is giving advice to the younger demon about how subtley to bring men down by the simplest of means – it makes you think for sure!
Q. Related but a little different, who are some of your favorite artists. I’m always curious to know who inspires those that inspire me. So, who are some of your favorite artists (painters, musicians, writers, etc.) and why? Who inspires you?
A: The list is quite long. On instagram when I do post about an artist I like, I will often state, “one of my favorites,” and if you go down my posts you’d think "does he have an actual favorite?" It's quite hard to narrow one down on any given day! I'll give you a list of some core favorites… Bruno Liljefors, Carl Rungius, Wilhelm Kuhnert, Richard Friese, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer, Philip R. Goodwin just to name a few… ha!
Q: What’s next…art wise, hunting wise, fishing wise, travel wise, life wise–anything exciting on the horizon?
A: At the moment I just wrapped up a painting for the Masters of the American West show at the Autry Museum In LA. Then in a month is the Night of Artist Show in Texas. Oh yeah, there is the CM RUSSELL show coming up in March.
I am painting a few paintings for my galleries. In the fall there is a show at the Wildlife Museum in Jackson Hole Wyoming. I hope to visit Amsterdam to see the Vermeer exhibition as well. I'd love to visit the Adirondacks in the fall as well, I think I hear Brandreth Lake calling my name!
I will update my websites events in case I forget anything here, which I definetely will!
A: My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org. I love to answer any questions and I happily take on new commissions all the time!