Southern painter Jay Kemp’s naturalist style has earned critical acclaim and attention in the art world over the years.
Kemp started his career in the early 1990s in the northeast Georgia town of Gainesville, not far from where he grew up and attended school at North Georgia College & State University.
A dedicated outdoorsman, Kemp captures the fine detail of his subject and aims for a fluid, realistic style. Kemp’s recent masterpiece, “Riversong,” is a vibrant painting that was inspired by observing a preening egret in the sun after a rain shower.
After the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition announced Kemp as the featured painter of 2013, it chose to use “Riversong” as the expo’s official poster.
Q: What was it that initially attracted you to painting and visual art?
A: I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, and I became especially interested in painting my senior year of college.
Q: How or why were you drawn to painting wildlife? Was that something you enjoyed right away as a painter or did it gradually become a specialty?
A: I’ve always been interested in wildlife and nature, even as a small child. I’ve never really considered any other subject. On occasion, I have done a barn or farmhouse, but it’s usually a structure that is showing the effects of Mother Nature and has become a part of the natural landscape.
I did not become addicted to art until I started painting things that I was passionate about, like wildlife and nature. That happened when I was a senior in college.
Q: What are some of the outdoor activities you’ve enjoyed over the years that tie into your experience as a wildlife painter?
A: I’ve always enjoyed fishing, hunting and hiking. There’s nothing like being in the woods at dawn, watching the woods wake up or watching the sun go down.
I live on a 38,000-acre lake at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I can see about a mile across the water where I’ve seen lots of wildlife, including bald eagles, osprey, loons, herons and many duck species. We also have lots of whitetail deer, fox and other mammals.
My family and I enjoy boating and spend a good bit of time on the water. We have a dock and several boats right in our backyard.
Q: Where and with whom did you study and train as a young artist?
A: When I was in elementary school, an art teacher came to the school on Fridays. I always enjoyed her visits. She then became a full-time teacher at the high school I went to. Her name was Mrs. Delaperriere. She was a devoted art teacher that loved art and loved her students. She had a knack for keeping kids interested in art.
I played baseball in college for a couple years and did not take any art classes. I then transferred to North Georgia University on an art scholarship, and that’s where I began my career as a wildlife artist.
My professors, Winslow Crannell and Tommye Scanlin, where very instrumental in my career and are still dear friends to this day. Crannel told us students the first day of class that one out of a hundred of us might make a living as an artist, and I agreed with that. After we turned in our first project, he pulled me aside and said, “You can make a living with your art if you will listen to me.”
I didn’t really believe it, but I listened and I tried. He gave me the confidence and vision that I needed. I am not sure what would have happened with my career if I had not been influenced by him.
I can remember telling Tommye that I was scared that I would get to a certain level with my work and then plateau. She told me that as long as I had that fear and that attitude, that it would not happen to me. They were both full of great advice. They were more than teachers, they were friends. They were also very accomplished artists which helped them be great teachers.
Q: When and how did you start developing your own painting style?
A: I started out painting with watercolor, and then I added gouache. It became difficult and aggravating to work large and to capture the kind of images I wanted with that medium. It’s a very technical and fragile medium that’s good for certain styles of work. It also requires glass, which is a pain to deal with, especially on large paintings.
I now paint in acrylic, and it has changed my career. I can attack the painting and control it better since acrylic is waterproof and permanent. My style has not changed a whole lot, but my mentality has. My focus has been on composition and design, the intellectual part of my art.
Q: Critics and reviewers have commented on the precision and realistic detail in your work. Was that an approach or technique that you’ve fine-tuned along the way as an artist?
A: My work is detailed and realistic, and it always has been. I am a naturalist, and this is a normal style for anyone that is interested in the details in nature. I love paintings done with bold brush strokes or a looser style, but I have never been concerned with the surface of the paint.
As a matter of fact, I don’t think the detail I put in my paintings has much to do with the success or failure of the painting. It is just a personal preference. If I’m painting the natural world, I do want my paintings to feel alive, as if they could have happened.
Q: How does the landscape, scenery and wildlife of North Georgia influence your art?
A: The area that I am from affects my work tremendously. Many of my paintings are based on ideas or references that I have seen within a few miles of my home.
Q: Who are some of the other North American wildlife artists who’ve influenced and encouraged your work?
A: The artists that have influenced my work the most are Robert Bateman, Carl Brenders, John Seerey-Lester and Andrew Wyeth.
Q: When did you first get involved with the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition?
A: I visited the show when I was in college. I went to see the work of Carl Brenders. It was an inspirational trip, to say the least. I left Charleston wondering if I would ever be able to get in to the show. My first year doing the show was 1996, and it was a great experience. I went on to sign with a national publishing company.
Q: Is “Riversong” indicative of the other recent works in your repertoire in style and tone?
A: “Riversong” is a little different from some of my work. I tried to keep some of the detail soft and the colors soft and pastel to emphasize the misty effect and the mood of the painting .
Q: How important is the natural scenery surrounding the main subject in a wildlife painting? Do you enhance or adjust anything to specifically fit the focus of the work?
A: I’m constantly manipulating my paintings, by adding, subtracting and rearranging. I try to either have the animal or the landscape dominate, but not both. I feel that it’s confusing to have both of them equally dominant.
Occasionally, when I have the landscape dominate, the animal is still the focus. Whichever I decide to make dominant, I make the other complimentary of it. I use references from many different locations and adventures.
Many elements in my paintings come from my head or intuition. My goal is to make my paintings look as if they could have happened.
Q: After years of experience, what are the greatest challenges and frustrations that come up when you start working on a painting?
A: Your paper doesn’t have enough pages for me to answer this question appropriately. There are a multitude of issues with every painting. The No. 1 problem is coming up with a good idea and composition. There are a thousand ways to mess up a painting, and I feel like I’ve done them all. Each painting is a constant struggle and I keep working and reworking it until I finally have some peace with it.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being a painter?
A: The best thing about being an artist is that I am never bored. I enjoy the challenge, even though it’s frustrating. I also like the fact that my paintings are able to help raise money for the environment and nature. My work also helps educate people about what we have to protect.
Q: What is your personal favorite painting in your collection, and which work seems to be the most popular with your fans?
A: I’ve had several images that have sold out in the print market, so it is hard for me to know which is the most popular. I favor my later paintings. I feel that they’ve become a bit more sophisticated, regarding my ideas and composition and design.
Q: What can attendees expect to see from you at this year’s SEWE?
A: They can expect a wide variety of subjects, from elk in the Canadian Rockies to polar bears and to shore birds in Florida. I have several large paintings this year that I have done for the show, two paintings that are 48 inches and three that are 40 inches.
Q: What do you most look forward to doing in Charleston this year?
A: Seeing all of the wonderful artwork, visiting with my artist friends and collectors. And I always enjoy the city of Charleston. It is a beautiful city.