Cameron Bird had to make the difficult choice of riding the range or painting it.
The Lac La Hache artist chose the latter but his former career as a packhorse guide at the Chilcotin Holidays Guest Ranch is a huge inspiration to his works of art.
“Working up there is one of the biggest inspirations for what I do. I paint a lot of mountain and high alpine scenes so by riding horseback you’re sitting there going through the environment slowly so I was able to study everything,” Bird said. “It gave me the confidence to paint. Just like a writer. They say “write what you know” and I’ve learned over the years to paint what I know.”
Bird, 49, grew up in the Lower Mainland but had developed a love for the old ranching and horse history of the Cariboo. After learning how to shoe a horse, he decided he wanted to work with them. He took a guiding course in the Chilcotin before finding a job at the Chilcotin Holidays Guest Ranch. It was there he met his wife Amanda.
As a packhorse guide, Bird said he loved the physical aspect of guiding and the wide range of work, which included log hauling, taking people on pack trips and big game viewing. The demanding remote work, however, made it difficult to paint and deliver his work to galleries. Eventually, he chose to hang up his saddle to pick up his paintbrush full time.
“I realized to really do it full time I just had to just make the leap. There was really no ‘right time’ so I just did and have been painting full time since 2000,” Bird said.
Going professional was something that Bird had dreamt about since he was a child, following in his father’s artistic footsteps. He started selling his detailed realistic watercolour pieces in high school in 1989.
That started to change when he met his mentor, Kevin C. Smith, whom he studied with for a decade. Smith encouraged Bird to begin using oil paints and to develop his own unique style, which has evolved greatly over the last 30 years.
“These days I’m not even really thinking of a pretty picture I’m thinking of powerful interlocking colours and shapes,” Bird said. “I think it’s a natural evolution just from painting every day.”
To create a piece, Bird scours his sketchbooks for inspiration. He has several of them in his studio with detailed notes on the setting and location of the sketches. From there he does a study on a board of wood where he captures the energy and basic colours of the final product.
Once the study is complete, using custom canvases made in Kelowna, Bird begins to paint his impressionist depictions of Cariboo landscapes and landmarks. He switched to this almost abstract style to better depict the power of the images he sees in his mind’s eye.
“My style, one brush stroke can say more than 50 brush strokes. I like power in my paintings and a lot of people do like stronger paintings on their walls and brighter colours,” Bird said. “Today I have the chance to push it.”
Bird uses only one brush for each painting and uses sign painting skills learned from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Learning how to hold a brush gently and load it properly has been key to his success.
His large paintings can go for as much as $10,000 and are sold in galleries from Banff to Quebec. On the business side of things, he credits Amanda’s support and organization skills for keeping what he does profitable.
Despite the fact they could live anywhere they want, Bird said they chose to settle in Lac La Hache to raise their family. He loves the “dry country” of the Cariboo and continues to find inspiration in its landscapes. He usually produces 120 paintings a year and estimates he’s done 5,000 over the course of his life. While being a professional artist is risky, he said it’s a lifestyle he loves to live.
“I never tire of it. When we go on vacation, if I want to relax, I usually have to go to places that I wouldn’t paint. Mexico, New Zealand or London I can just relax, I wasn’t inspired to paint. When I’m in Jasper, though, I’m thinking ‘oh that’s a painting, that’s a painting’. I’m inspired all the time.”