Although over the years he has bagged well over a hundred buffalo and a dozen-plus elephant, he is more interested in getting close enough to smell an animal than in killing it. “Guy was not a trophy hunter as such,” Dugmore wrote in a recent e-mail. “He hunted for the experience and excitement. What still stands out in my mind was his heavy breathing as we approached our quarry—not from fear, but from pure excitement. I am sure these experiences contributed to his paintings, particularly his charging elephant and buff.” Coheleach has killed one lion, “but I’m not proud of it,” and no leopard. “Sure, I’m weird for buffalo. But I never shot an elephant that I didn’t feel sick about afterwards,” he told Wieland.
Artists can read studies by wildlife researchers, like George Schaller, and fill hard drives with photos of zoo- or game-park cats, but a human-habituated collared resident of a luxury safari lodge doesn’t give off the same electricity as a “real” one. The difference is the fire in the eyes, the tension in the muscles, and the fat on the belly.
Coheleach was influenced by Swedish wildlife artist and hunter Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939), who depicted the interaction between predator and prey unsentimentally in the Impressionist style. Liljefors also looked for patterns in nature, which might explain Coheleach’s attraction to spotted cats, striped spiral-horned antelopes, and gamebirds; by American ornithologist, artist, and Alaskan explorer Louis A. Fuertes (1874-1927), who madly sketched live birds but worked from the specimens he shot, placing them in their habitats in works as remarkably composed as Audubon’s; and Berlin-born Carl Rungius (1869-1959), who hunted and painted the big game of the American West and the Yukon Territory.
In Coheleach’s art, design translates into appealing story-telling compositions, like his cougar descending a rocky incline by obliquely traversing the canvas from top right to lower left, or a Cape buffalo charging across and out of the canvas toward the viewer. He also uses composition to create the suspense between predator and prey. In Monkeys Above, a hungry leopard looks up into the highest branches of a thorn tree that continues off canvas, tricking the eye into both quadrupling the size of the painting and suggesting impending carnivorous action. He often provides the viewer with other clues—kicked-up dust, fresh tracks leading out of the frame, a burst of feathers against the sky—that simultaneously convey movement.
It’s no accident that his leopards, resting post-prandially on a branch in the dappled light of acacias, are familiar to big-game hunters, who probably comprise the biggest audience for his high-priced originals and limited-edition prints, and want to relate art directly to their experiences in the field whether pursuing elephant, kudu, or wild sheep.
Coheleach works on every scale, from 10 by 8 inches to 3 by 6 feet. Miniatures, he says, oblige the artist to be spontaneous, painting the overall design and shapes first and keeping it simple, shunning doodly details. Because “interesting colors make interesting paintings,” he looks for the siennas and ochres in a patch of green grass and will often use a palette knife to keep them clean and bright while creating surface texture. He thins quick-drying acrylics for backgrounds, spattering with a brush or dabbing them on with a sponge to create textures and depth, avoiding their sometimes plastic-y look. He uses gouache, a type of fast-drying watercolor-like opaque paint consisting of pigment suspended in chalky water, often employed by commercial artists for posters and comics. But he still likes old-fashioned oil on a linen canvas best.
If early in his career Coheleach catered to the market’s taste for representational art, his loosest, most impressionistic works are his most poetic and expressive.
Guy Coheleach is an all-American, tax and attorney-hating, action-loving original. And how can you not love a wildlife artist whose favorite rifle is a Champlin-made custom .460 Weatherby?
Although not an artist herself, Brooke says that, “to see lion and leopard, I’ve done my fair share of sitting numbly in dead silence in a hot blind, mopane flies everywhere and a fickle wind carrying the putrid odor of four-day-old bait.”