A Conversation with

Bailey Burton


In an exclusive discussion with Cassens Fine Art, Bailey Burton shares her artistic journey, emphasizing a commitment to wildlife conservation. Striving for realism in her work, Bailey sees her art as a platform to give back and contribute to a larger purpose. Her goal is to leave a lasting legacy that transcends traditional aesthetics, promoting a meaningful impact on the world of art and conservation.


Her exhibit, “In Living Color” will be on display at Cassens Fine Art from April 1st to April 30th, 2024 with an artist reception on April 5th from 5-7 pm.



What inspired the creation of this show? Were there specific themes or concepts that motivated your work?


I wouldn't say there are any specific themes, per se. I consider myself a wildlife artist, and that's the overarching theme in all my work. However, with this particular body of work, I decided to step out of my comfort zone a bit. Until now, I've been known for using black backgrounds with the main subject being the wildlife animal in my paintings. This is the first time I've injected more color into my work, exploring different backgrounds.


It's surprising to me, but it has added a deeper level of realism. I'm really excited about sharing this collection because I've never been this passionate or more immersed in a body of work before. Working on so many paintings simultaneously is also a new experience for me, and it's challenging, but I'm digging deep into this collection.


I've never felt more connected to my art, and part of that might be the time crunch I'm under. I've been spending most of my time in the studio, working tirelessly on these paintings.


It's truly exciting to hear that this collection holds a special place in your heart. This seems like a significant step forward for you.

Yeah, it does feel like a step forward, especially considering this is kind of my third year into this journey. The past couple of years have been a lot about practice, building up to this moment. It's satisfying to see that in year three, my techniques are finely tuned, and I'm finding the courage to push further into new territories. There's often this mindset among artists that once they find a style, they have to stick with it, but I love the evolution. I can't imagine going back. It's an exciting turning point for sure.


It's an honor to be discussing this pivotal moment in your artistic journey. This show is like an introduction to this new level of artistry.


I'm curious to see how the audience responds, especially since people have come to recognize my work with the black backgrounds in Michelle's gallery. But, I'm optimistic about it. It'll be interesting to see how it's received, considering the familiarity with my previous style. But I feel good about it because I genuinely love the pieces. So, hopefully, the response will be positive.


Could you walk me through the creative process behind each of your featured artworks?


Absolutely. I focus on charisma when deciding the pose for each piece. Is the animal inherently charismatic? That's a key factor. Being a big birder and studying fish and wildlife in college, with a focus on fisheries, the subject of my art naturally aligns with my passion. Birds, in particular, fascinate me and are enjoyable to paint.


In terms of process, I heavily rely on reference photos. While my goal is to eventually take my own, the demanding nature of the work requires me to prioritize my time. Fortunately, I've built strong relationships with amazing wildlife photographers for this collection. Realism artists sometimes face insecurities about using reference photos, given the emphasis on the photo in the final piece, but I've learned to embrace it. The photographers are incredibly supportive, often expressing their honor in having their work translated into a painting.


This year, I've accepted that realism is my niche. It takes time, and I can't compare my process to others who can produce a painting in a day or two. With this collection, I've tried to change things up by working on multiple paintings simultaneously, a crucial part of my routine.


On a typical day, I plan by looking at which paintings need the most work and create a rotation. I set specific time limits for each painting, ensuring I find a good stopping point. Detailing and glazing play a significant role in my process, with glazing involving a clear liquid medium and a bit of paint to tone down the opaque detail layer, adding color gradually.


Building up fur is a meticulous process, and every painting is unique in the number of layers it requires. Some days are more productive than others, a mental aspect of it. To begin a painting, I skip toning the canvas and jump right in, drawing out the subject. While I'm not a fan of the drawing part, it's a necessary evil. 

Once the drawing is complete, I block in the color focusing on getting the base dark colors down before adding highlights and details. Going from dark to light is my approach, with highlights being the final touch. Glazing helps when things get too light, toning it back down. It's a constant interplay until the painting feels full and complete.


Another reason these paintings take a while is the mental part. There are moments when I hit a block, especially when I'm nearing the finish line. It's a mental roadblock where I just can't seem to break through. So what helps is putting the painting away and working on others. Currently, I'm juggling 13 paintings for a big show in March and my Cassens Fine Art show in April. Having multiple projects helps my productivity. If I'm struggling, I'll put a painting away for a week or even two, then return with a fresh perspective. Being fresh, you forget the struggle and can work through a lot of paintings to reach that finish.


In today's world, there's this rush to get the next piece out on social media, to keep producing. Working on multiple paintings has taught me to slow down, not to rush so much. The result at the end is so worth the patience. At shows, people often comment, "You must be so patient." It's more perfectionism, which can be a curse, but it's taught me to be patient with myself and let the painting naturally reach the finish line.


The layering process is all about building body and avoiding that flat, 2D look. Looking back at my early paintings, they appeared flat. I aim to make the fur look plush by layering. The layering involves going in and adding purples, oranges, yellows, and even unexpected colors like pink and green. If it's in the rainbow, it's in life, so I just go for it. By year three, I've learned to push the expected colors and have fun with it.


These pieces are the first I've seen without the black background, and I agree; there's something special about them that brings a whole new dimension.


Absolutely, it does. I'm genuinely excited about it. Stepping out of the comfort zone was a bit scary at first, surprising even. I questioned why experimenting with my art felt intimidating. I think social media and the desire to make a career out of this played a role. You wonder how existing collectors will respond to the change. However, I've learned to put those thoughts aside and follow what the art is telling me to do. I'm not big on social media; I'm pretty lazy about it. Videoing myself while painting is challenging because I don't want to worry about the camera angle. It's not something I've been very good at, unlike some artists who excel in it.


Can you provide insight into the feelings or emotions you aim to convey through your pieces for this show?


I hope people take away a sense of character from each painting, as if there's a real soul that leaves them awestruck. I want each piece to draw viewers in, encouraging them to get up close and personal. I love it when people try to guess what's going on in the subjects' minds or simply admire the intricate details. The main goal is for each painting to embody a distinct character, especially since I often refer to these as portraits.


Do you, as the artist, have a favorite character in this collection or in general?


That's a tough one. I've noticed that bears are easy to capture personality in, and despite the challenge, they're probably my favorite. However, I also love working on birds. The owl behind me is really cool. Birds, in general, come together easier for me, unlike bears, which take the longest due to their dense fur and numerous layers. So, while bears are a bit more challenging, they're definitely the favorites among viewers. Personally, I find myself getting really excited when working on bear pieces, despite having to put them away for a week or two before returning to them.


Is there a personal story or experience that influenced the creation of a specific artwork? And how did this experience shape your artistic expression?


I can’t pinpoint a specific experience, but working at a fly fishing lodge in Alaska was transformative. It was the first time I was immersed in bears. They were everywhere, and I had the opportunity to observe them in their natural habitat. That summer was life-changing, prompting me to go to college and pursue fisheries management the following fall. During college, I found a great job working with invasive fish species back in Michigan and it was amazing. But, when my husband and I moved to Montana, I was having a hard time finding a job with my degree. It’s very competitive in Montana. I realized I would have to go on and get a masters degree and I just didn’t want to do that.


One weekend, we went to the big art show during Western Art Week here in Great Falls, just for something fun to do. We walked around and I was looking at all the art thinking, “Wow.” Inspired, I began painting again after a five-year hiatus. Because there was so much change happening in my life at that time, art became my escape again.


I decided to make some prints of the paintings I’d done, and I set up a booth at our local farmer’s market and sold them. A local photographer stopped by, saw my work, and said, “I’m going to get you in this big art show coming up. You’re too good not to be in it. A couple weeks later, he messaged me on Facebook to let me know I was in the show. I came to find out that it was the show I went to the previous year - the show that inspired me to pick up a paintbrush again.


So, that is what kicked everything off for me. What’s more is that it was really natural for my subject matter to be wildlife because that was my initial interest - that’s the field I originally wanted to work in. I wanted to be a biologist.


That gives me chills.


Everything came full circle and it changed everything. Since then, I’ve been doing this full-time. If you would have asked me two and a half years ago if I was going to be doing art full-time, I would have thought you were absolutely crazy. So, everyday I wake up and I think, “How did I get here?” It’s absolutely been a journey.


Divine intervention is all that comes to mind when hearing your story.


Montana changed my life. Living in Montana, there’s no shortage of inspiration for what I do as a wildlife artist. So, that’s another big part of it. In February, I'm thrilled to bring a trout painting to the Trout Unlimited banquet for an auction. All proceeds from this artwork will directly support Southwest Montana watersheds, allowing me to contribute to conservation efforts—a full-circle moment that I find incredibly rewarding.


This initiative reflects just one facet of my commitment to conservation as a wildlife artist. Moving forward, I hope to delve into various avenues beyond Trout Unlimited, exploring different opportunities to contribute to the cause. It's a significant goal of mine, and every opportunity that has come my way has reinforced the importance of staying open, taking risks, and embracing the unknown - to just be open and run with it.


As I reflect on the journey of the past three years, the progress I've witnessed in my art has been nothing short of amazing. I feel exceptionally fortunate to wake up each day with a sense of purpose, working on projects that keep me engaged and motivated. Having a continuous flow of creative endeavors is truly a blessing, and I realize that not everyone understands the profound impact a hobby can have on personal growth. The joy of seeing myself physically improve at something and the motivation that stems from it is something I can’t put into words. This aspect of artistry has become a vital takeaway for me—a testament to the unexpected, yet transformative, facets of creative expression.


It’s the growth of your art, but really, it’s the growth of yourself.


Oh my god, couldn't have said it better. That's so true.


How do specific moments in your life or the world influence the creation of your artworks for this show?


For now, I focus solely on western wildlife. It's a deliberate choice, reflecting my deep connection to the local environment. However, there's not necessarily a profound, hidden meaning behind it—I'm simply a wildlife artist. If an image captures my imagination and sparks the desire to paint, I go for it.


The underlying motivation is perhaps the wish to contribute to conservation efforts and instill a sense of appreciation. I hope my art encourages people to connect emotionally with wildlife, fostering a love for these creatures. There's a profound awe in realizing that these wild animals coexist with us, and I want to evoke that same sense of wonder and respect I experience whenever I encounter wildlife in person. It's like a journey back in time, and I hope viewers can share in that admiration and love for wildlife as much as I do.


You're actively contributing to wildlife conservation through your art, even if the path has unfolded differently than expected—and that's pretty amazing. It's like every turn is guided by divine intervention, giving me goosebumps.


People often appreciate the immense detail in my work, and it's more than just aesthetic beauty. It's about capturing the intricacies and uniqueness of wildlife, emphasizing the individual patterns and details that make each creature special. I hope viewers can sense the appreciation and awe I feel for the distinct lives each animal leads. Animals are as unique as people, and it's easy to overlook their individuality when we generalize them as "wildlife."

Many artists draw inspiration from various art forms. Were there any literary works, films, music, or other artworks that influenced your creative process for this show? I know you talked about reference photos, but is there anything else that maybe you find as a source of inspiration as you're creating these pieces?


Well, there's one wildlife artist who stands out as one of my biggest inspirations—Carla Grace, an Australian artist. When I ventured into wildlife art, she became my primary reference point due to her teachings and incredible attention to detail. Her technique struck me, and she played a pivotal role in shaping my journey toward becoming a realistic wildlife artist.


Apart from that, my primary inspiration comes from wildlife photography, especially the work of the photographers I collaborate with. Capturing compelling wildlife images is no easy feat, and the dedication and effort they put into it are truly unbelievable. People often underestimate how challenging it is to be a wildlife photographer. So, they are my main inspiration—those photographers who make it possible for me to create these paintings.


I've attempted wildlife photography myself, and it's not as easy as it seems. As a realistic artist, the inspiration is often on the surface—I see a beautiful image, and I decide to paint it. There might not be a deeper meaning behind why I chose a specific subject, but it's about being captivated by the beauty of the image and, in a way, paying homage to the photographers I deeply admire. It's about honoring their hard work and dedication by transforming their photos into meaningful pieces of art.


Light and shadow play a significant role in art, especially evident in your pieces with the depth and dimension you incorporate. Can you explain how these elements contribute to the mood and storytelling within specific pieces?


Absolutely, lighting is crucial. My husband has always urged me to enhance the light in certain pieces. Lighting and depth go hand in hand, and it's something I've recently delved into. I've learned that withholding excessive detail in certain areas creates depth, especially when an element is set further back. This revelation has significantly impacted pieces like the bear walking, making it appear as if it's stepping out of the canvas.


Lighting also plays a pivotal role. I often try to create a subtle glow behind the subjects, simulating the effect of sunlight highlighting lighter fur. It's challenging to put into words, but light is undeniably a major player in my work. It directs the viewer's focus, guiding them to where I want them to look. If the lighting isn't right, the painting might feel off, and the viewer's attention won't land where intended.


Mastering this interplay between light and shadow is an ongoing process for me, but I recognize its paramount importance. Achieving the right lighting ensures that the main focus is emphasized, drawing the viewer's gaze where it's intended to be. Eyes, in particular, often serve as the focal point, and utilizing these elements helps bring everything to that central focus point. It's a delicate dance, but one that I'm dedicated to perfecting in my pursuit of realistic art.


Can you share some insights into your upbringing and how it might have influenced your journey as an artist?


My upbringing was quite intense—I was a gymnast for 11 years in a fiercely competitive environment with some really tough coaches. Art became my refuge during those times. I was practicing five days a week, five and a half hours a day, and drawing became a significant part of my life. While I didn't delve into painting until high school, drawing was my go-to as a kid. It was my escape from the pressures of gymnastics, a way to focus solely on creating without the weight of practice schedules or performance anxieties.


Being able to immerse myself in art was crucial, given the high-pressure nature of gymnastics. Art allowed me to hyper-focus, where everything else faded away. It became an activity where I could escape the stress and concentrate solely on the creative process. It was an anchor for me, and that hyper-focused aspect was particularly vital for the type of person I am.


Childhood was a pivotal time for me, and art served as a significant escape from the rigorous demands of gymnastics. The pressure was intense, even terrible at times. Art provided a solace and a means to express myself outside the demanding athletic realm.

I was fortunate to have a supportive family. My mom was a talented artist herself, although she never pursued it professionally. Despite that, she always encouraged me in my artistic pursuits. My grandma was also a strong influence, fostering my artistic inclinations. The shop door to her hair salon was always covered in my drawings to show off to all of her clients.


Interestingly, I initially resisted turning my passion into a career, using the excuse of not wanting to transform my hobby into a job. In reality, it was probably more about fear and lacking confidence. I didn't attend art school, as I didn't see it as a viable real-life path.

However, art found its way back to me, and looking back, it's pretty remarkable. It didn't give up on me, and I'm grateful for that. Now, as an adult, I get to live my life fully immersed in art, and that's pretty cool. The journey from an escape during intense gymnastics days to a fulfilling adult life centered around art is something I cherish.


I want to delve into something you mentioned a moment ago, even though it's not in my questions. As a creative person myself who loves their hobby but is apprehensive about turning it into a career, I often grapple with the fear of making my passion my profession. I've noticed this sentiment echoed by others with side hustles. How did you navigate the transition? Was it a conscious decision, or did art come to you and say, "Let's do this"? Were there hesitations, and what was the process of shutting off those doubts and just going for it?


For me, it was about embracing adulthood and understanding what life truly means. Why wouldn't I want to do my favorite thing every day? Sure, there are days when I question it, when the easel seems daunting, but then I remind myself—what else would I rather be doing? Facing the monotony of a job I hate, like so many others? Why not spend my days doing what I genuinely love and becoming a master at it? It became clear that this is who I am, and why wouldn't I devote myself entirely to this passion that keeps returning to me?


Looking back after three years, maybe in 20 years, my perspective will change, but I doubt it. I don't foresee regretting this choice. It has allowed me to lead a unique life, even though it can be an isolating one. Being an artist can be solitary, but if you thrive in that alone time, as I do, it's incredibly fulfilling. Some days feel like work, but the idea that I wouldn't want to be doing anything else keeps me going.


After high school, I experimented with different paths. I was kind of rebelling during that time because life was challenging. Influenced by my mom and grandma, I attended cosmetology school. But, I hated it. Then, I met my husband (at the time, my boyfriend), and we started traveling and exploring together. His passion for wildlife fueled my reconnection with nature. Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved nature. I grew up near a pond, and every day as a child, I would spend hours out at that pond with the neighborhood kids catching frogs and turtles. 


In my early adult years, I rebelled and lost myself, but these experiences brought me back to who I was. It made me realize that this was always who I was meant to be. While some suggested over the years that I should have gone to art school, I'm glad I didn't. I'm happy I went about my artistic journey in my own way, developing techniques, and embracing my unique path.


Looking at your body of work, what aspirations do you have for the legacy you'll leave behind? How do you envision your impact on the art world, and what stories do you hope people will tell about your contributions?


It's challenging to gain recognition in the realistic realm, especially when there's a level of realism that leaves people questioning, "Is that not a photograph?" I'm not there yet, but reaching that point would be intense and cool. However, my main focus is on the conservation side. I aim to contribute as much as I can, giving my art a purpose beyond just a painting. If I can give back to wildlife and continue the full circle from my initial aspirations, that would be incredible. I want to seize any opportunity to contribute in that way.


As for being a fixture in the art world, I haven't given it much thought because I still feel relatively new to this. I ponder, "Where am I going with this?" But for now, my goal is to infuse my work with purpose and give back wherever possible.


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