Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

Georgia painter Jay Kemp is fast making his mark in the world of wildlife art

  • Mark Wexler
  • Aug 01, 1996
Jay Kemp has some unusual ideas about how to have a good time. Consider the three days he spent inside a blind watching cardinals and other birds visit a feeder. "It was during an intense blizzard three winters ago," says the wildlife artist. "My feet were frozen stiff and my hands were so cold I couldn't make sketches, but I had a great time taking photos and watching the birds."

In truth, Kemp had more than just amusement in mind when he set up camp inside the frigid blind. "I wanted to paint a portrait of a cardinal in winter," he says. "But before I could do that, I needed to spend considerable time observing the species under the right conditions. Experiencing a cardinal in a snow storm firsthand is far more dramatic than simply looking at a photo of one."

For Kemp, portraying wildlife on canvas is impossible without such field experience. The 29-year- old Georgia native, who last December was named by U.S. Art magazine as one of the nation's top eight artists to watch in 1996, devotes as much time to observing animals outdoors as to painting them in his studio. "I need to ensure the accuracy of my work," he says. "My detailed style does not leave any room for error."

As the paintings displayed on these pages illustrate, Kemp's wildlife portraits are remarkably true to nature. Yet in creating such detailed paintings of animals, the artist does not simply try to replicate photographs he takes in the wild. "When I paint something that is alive, I want it to look alive," he says. "By manipulating the lighting, background and pose of an animal with my brushes, I try to create a scene that would be difficult to capture on film with just one photograph."

A collegiate baseball player, Kemp grew up thinking more about athletics than art. He didn't take painting seriously until the late 1980s, when an instructor encouraged him to pursue a career in art. "In the 25 years I've been teaching painting at North Georgia College," says instructor Win Crannell, "I've had very few students with such innate talent as Jay." Crannell told Kemp that he should concentrate on painting the subjects he knows best and enjoys the most--wildlife, nature and the outdoors.

"It was like someone had suddenly turned on a light bulb inside of me," says Kemp. "He gave me the courage to think that I could actually make it as an artist."

Today, less than a decade after completing his degree in art at North Georgia College, Kemp has already succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The artist's original paintings, which now fetch as much as $20,000, usually sell as soon as he completes them, and the limited-edition prints of his originals also sell out.

In creating those paintings, Kemp says his goal is to portray on canvas some once-in-a-lifetime, chance moments that he has witnessed in the wild--fleeting images that can be recreated only through many hours of painstaking work. "For me, painting can be a stressful, sometimes agonizing experience," he says. "Yet for all the frustrations, I still can't think of a more enjoyable way to spend my time.

For More About This Artist
Jay Kemp is among a select group of artists whose paintings are available as limited-edition prints from NWF Editions. For more information about prints of Kemp's work and the phone number of an art gallery near you, call 1-800-699-9693. NWF Editions is a subsidiary of the National Wildlife Federation, which is dedicated to sustainable development of global natural resources.

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