The Colgate Scene
May 2001
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Nothing she'd rather do
Linda Besse '81 left her real estate career to create wildlife art full time
by Rebecca Costello

Solitude (17.75" x 24"), moose.
Photo by James Olson
Wildlife artist Linda Besse '81 is blessed with a sense of adventure and a passion for exploring new opportunities. Whether viewing pelicans after a rainstorm at Yellow-stone, teetering on a narrow ledge atop the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, or taking her first canoe trip in hippo-infested waters in Zimbabwe, Besse revels in the experiences that inspire her paintings.

     Her geology major at Colgate encouraged this spirit. Before participating in summer field study, Besse had never been in a tent, used a compass or cooked outside. "Being thrown in that situation and being told `this is what you need to do' helped me feel comfortable that yes, I can do it."

     Two years ago, Besse threw herself into a new circumstance, by quitting her real estate brokerage job to become an artist full time.

Evolution of an artist
After graduating from Colgate, Besse earned a masters in geology at Eastern Washington University. Unfortunately, times were tough for hard rock geologists. After shooting up to $800 an ounce, gold had dropped back down, and the job market crashed.

     "I flew up to Alaska, where my husband Jim was working in geology," Besse remembers. "We sat on the side of a mountain and talked about what I could do. If we both did geology, we figured we'd be so far apart we'd never see each other." She chose real estate, and it became a 16-year career for her.


"Little" Big Cats I - Tiger (5" x 8")
     On vacation in Hawaii about 12 years ago, Linda and Jim were walking through a small town when she was inspired to take up a new hobby.

     "There was a guy outside painting, and for some reason he caught my eye," Besse reminisces. She went home, bought supplies and set out to teach herself oil painting. "In high school biology they'd ask you to draw the fetal pig or the starfish. I'd go into elaborate little drawings, and every part was in different colors," but that was the closest Besse had ever gotten to exploring her artistic side. "I used my own photos for reference and started doing some drawings. It evolved, very slowly." She also read a lot and had several friends in the wildlife art arena who served as mentors.

     "At first, I was doing two or three paintings a year and I didn't see much real development. But I would go to wildlife shows and see what other people were doing and think, I could take that and use my own technique and work around it. Then I started to do 15 to 20 paintings a year, and that made a huge difference."

     In the process, Besse developed her own oil painting technique. "I draw on untempered gessoed hardboard, seal it with a turpentine wash, and then I paint directly on the board, fairly thinly, and let some of the background wash show through. I paint wet-on-wet, so edges are blended, to capture the immediacy of the image."

     By 1998, a tension had developed between her work and the desire to pursue her craft. "Trying to put 60 hours a week into real estate and 40 hours into art didn't work for very long. I loved real estate and was really good at it," Besse remarks, "but I knew I'd never retire from it. I had to decide, what's my real passion? Right before I turned 40, I decided the art was what I wanted to do full time. I started hitting the shows, and it skyrocketed. It's been exciting."

     Besse's wildlife paintings have been juried into prestigious North American shows, including The Calgary Stampede, The Spokane Western Art Show, Pacific Rim Art Expo in Seattle; the Safari Club International in Las Vegas; ARTessential - The Ultimate Art Show in Calgary, Alberta; Michigan Wildlife Art Festival in Southfield; Northeast Fine Art and Nature Expo in Providence; and the Florida Wildlife Art Exposition in Lakeland. She's also been shown in galleries around the country on Martha's Vineyard and in Washington, Oregon, California and Florida.

     Besse notes that at the Safari Club show in January she added a new country to her collector base when a man from Spain picked up five of her paintings. She has also produced a few commissioned works. In sizes ranging from three by five inches to 24 by 36 inches, she creates up to 40 paintings a year, selling original works in oil as well as limited edition giclee prints and giclee canvas prints.

     To move her workshop out of the basement, her husband (who also eventually changed careers, to general contracting) built a studio they designed together, behind their home over a three-car garage on their eight-acre property in Mead, Washington.

     "I have lots of north light and bench seats that overlook a ravine where I can watch white-tails walk up," she marvels.

High Country (8" x 20"), Rocky Mountain bighorns, set on the road between Red Lodge and Cooke City, Montana

Among Giants (16" x 24"), an exploration of water textures and a white ibis' perspective beneath towering Caribbean flamingos
Oh, the animals
"I've always been fascinated by animals, ever since I was a little kid, so that was an easy direction for me to head," says Besse of wildlife as her main subject of choice. When asked what her favorite animal is to paint, she replies, "When I see an animal in a particular setting, that's the most beautiful animal I've ever seen. I guess whatever animal I'm painting at the time is my favorite."

     Besse has painted mammals from elk to Colobus monkeys, birds from swans to scarlet ibis, and themed groupings like "Africa's Ugly Five" featuring the warthog, maribou stork, Nile crocodile, Cape vulture and spotted hyena, and "Africa's Big Five," the leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant, rhinocerous and lion. She will also create custom paintings, working with a customer's photos and memory to create a composite of the image -- "the way you remember it."

     To gather reference material, Besse makes regular trips. She has visited 24 countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Guatemala and Belize, as well as several U.S. sites.

     "It's hard to draw an anatomically correct animal out of your head," she explains. "If you can have some reference of when he stretches his leg this way, this is how the muscles look pulled, that really helps." She uses field sketches, small field paintings and usually six to 10 photos, to compose a painting. Her painting of a group of giraffes required 30 images because of its complexity. "It's taking bits and pieces of each to get just the right background, just the right accent."

     Becoming her own skilled photographer was a must for Besse, and investing in an excellent field camera and the right lenses has paid off. "The zoom lens was particularly important in Africa, especially to get action shots. For example, when you're in a canoe, you don't want to have to put the paddle down, change your lenses and worry about them getting wet. I have a 35 to 350 lens, so I can just go zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom."

     Besse has many an exciting story to tell about her encounters with all kinds of animals, including hippos and fierce predators like alligators and the big cats.

     "One night in Africa we went out to a waterhole. It was getting darker and darker. We were in an open vehicle and we heard lions from different directions. Two males were calling back and forth on either side of us, but we didn't know how close they were. When the lions stopped, we thought, is that good or bad? They might be sneaking up and could easily leap into the vehicle. We didn't have anyone with us who had a gun, so we were sitting there thinking, are we going to be dessert?"

     In May, Besse will take a circle tour of Iceland, with her husband and her parents, renting a car and staying on working farms. She's looking forward to capturing references of a new group of creatures -- whales, Arctic Fox, ptarmigans, and auks -- and "it's a perfect time to see the puffins," she anticipates.

     An ideal migration stop with open water because of its volcanic activity and geysers, Iceland has some of the best bird life in Europe. As well, the landscape's iceberg-laden lagoons will provide Besse an opportunity to expand her water repertoire. "I adore painting water. I'm able to actually paint some from memory -- I grew up on the East Coast, so I've seen water in lots of different settings. But I'm always intrigued by any type of new water. And painting the huge fjord cliffs would bring me full circle, back to my geology," she quips.


Graceful Arc (3" x 5"), great white egret
The business side
Besse has transferred important business skills she developed as a real estate broker to running her studio.

     "A lot of artists are horrible at marketing themselves, but I like the detail." She spends about 15 hours a week on administrative aspects, including doing her own public relations. A regular full-color newsletter goes to a mailing list of about 800 customers, galleries and editors. A friend serves as webmaster for BesseArt.com, which Besse designed to market her work and share her experiences through photographs and vignettes.

     Follow-up after shows is vital. "Most of the editors of the wildlife magazines like InformArt and Wildlife Art have booths at the shows. You end up talking to them, and if they see your work, they might ask you to submit something. If they do, I get it in the mail the next day. You need to keep in front of them, making sure that each one is getting a newsletter, so they know what you're up to. Then opportunities come to you."

     InformArt ran two of Besse's paintings in an article on wading birds in its Fall 2000 issue, and she was profiled in Sporting Classics in 1999 and 2000 in pieces about portrayals of Africa's wildlife.

     She got a big splash of "Spotters," her giraffe painting, in the Spokesman-Review's preview of the Spokane Western Art Show in February. That article, and that painting, reveal another joy for Besse -- music (she sang in the Colgate Chorus and now is a soloist at church and a member of the Spokane Symphony Chorale). While looking at Besse's trip photos, a symphony member had remarked that the giraffes' heads reminded her of musical notes.

     "That gave me an idea, and in a 1940 Episcopal hymnbook I found `He Leadeth Me,'" Besse told the Spokesman-Review. "I set the height of the giraffe heads to that music."

     "I try and do something new with each painting." says Linda Besse. "When a painting is done and I was able to paint what I saw in my head, or even that it's better than what I saw in my head, then that's satisfying. It's also satifsying when I can actually translate some of my ideas or experiences so that someone else can appreciate them, too, and they say, `Oh, I've been there' or `That's the way I remember it' or `That really grabs me.'

     "Can't think of anything I'd rather do."

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