This month we met Dan Burr, a painter, illustrator, and fly fisherman located in Tetonia, Idaho. Thanks to his talent, experience, and training, Dan has built a successful career painting and illustrating all types of subject matter. His book illustrations and paintings portray everything from pirate ships to historical battles to Christmas mornings. Luckily for us, his work also features plenty of fins, flies, and fishing scenes. Read more about Dan and his work below.
Flylords: Did you grow up with any artists in your family?
Dan: My father was an artist, and from my earliest memories I can remember watching him working on a painting or other project in our living room or garage. He encouraged me to draw and paint from an early age and set me on the path to pursue being an artist. He was also a fly fisherman, and he introduced my older brother and me to fishing. We had a wonderful childhood fishing the small streams near our home in northern Utah.
Flylords: Have you always enjoyed painting subjects from the natural world?
Dan: I started painting when I was very young. My dad set me up with a pallet and canvas and gave me some basic lessons, then turned me loose. I’ve been drawing and painting for so many years that it’s just part of me—it’s what I do and how I see the world, especially the natural world. I guess because I grew up in a rural setting I’m drawn to the natural world more than the urban world. When I was young our parents moved us away from the city to the mountains, and before my father died I thanked him for doing that.
Flylords: What drew you to study illustration in college and graduate school?
Dan: Because of my father’s encouragement to draw and paint I took art classes in junior high and high school. When it came time for a career choice I wasn’t really sure what I would do, but I knew it had to be something with art. I had married into a family of Doctors and well-educated people. At my wife’s insistence, I applied to Utah State University’s art department and was accepted, and it was there that I was exposed to illustration as a career.
Illustration made perfect sense to me. I love telling a story with my art, and Professor Glen Edwards was so well-rounded that we learned what we needed to know to start our careers. I received a BFA in 1989 with an emphasis in illustration and my wife and I left Utah to start my career in New York City.
I started working for some of the big outdoor magazines and book publishers and never looked back. Fifteen years later I decided to go back to get a graduate degree because I started teaching illustration classes as a part-time instructor at a local college. Graduate school was terrific because I met new people in the industry and made some new, lifelong friends. It also broadened the direction of my career to illustrating children’s books, which I love.
Flylords: What has shaped your style as an artist?
Dan: Because of the places we lived and the things my family did, I was exposed to the natural world—fishing, hunting, camping, etc. I remember watching my dad paint on location on some of our camping trips. That influenced me more than I thought at the time. I don’t remember thinking, “I’m going to do that when I grow up,” but it was part of who he was and is now part of who I am.
I’m a hunter and fisherman and the subjects of my pursuits are incredible to look at. I can’t help myself for wanting to try to capture what I love in my work. I love fishing with a fly rod and looking at the incredible variety of fish that I have been lucky enough to connect with. The other day I was fishing with my son in some new water and he landed a beautiful rainbow with huge spots on its head. I’m sure that fish will work its way into one of my paintings.
My education was a formal, traditional education. Our instructors demanded that we learn to observe and draw and paint, not only from life but using our imaginations as well. As an illustrator, you have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks when you can’t get the reference you need to complete a narrative. Over the years my style hasn’t changed much, and I’m still satisfied representing the subjects I paint in a representational way. I don’t wander too much from nature and sometimes simplify things, concentrating on shapes rather than details to describe what I’m doing. I love the process of making marks on a surface more than the details of the subject.
Flylords: What do you hope viewers experience when they see your work?
Dan: I hope those that see my work can connect with what I have done and my interpretation or representation of something that they love. Everybody wants to hear the story behind what you are doing. A good narrative tells that story, is complete, and has nothing missing or wanting. For instance, in my fishing paintings, I want to represent the fish naturally and in a setting with elements that would or should be in the scene. I make sure that light is beautifully represented, the surface of the water is believable, and that whatever is under the water makes sense. Composing any painting is a challenge because the design must work. It needs to feel right and today, with so many critics looking for mistakes, you have to get it right if you want to stay in the game.
Flylords: Do you prefer digital or traditional painting and illustration?
Dan: I was trained to work as an illustrator with a pencil and paint, and the first fifteen years of my career I did just that. I love the feel of paint on a surface, but I don’t like making changes or adjustments on a traditionally painted illustration. I started working digitally in 2002 and had to learn the software that would allow me to draw and paint digitally, then how to duplicate my traditional work using a digital process.
It took a while, but now I love working digitally. I have so much freedom to edit the work and make the changes that improve the final outcome. It has allowed me to be more creative and willing to explore possibilities. On occasion, I still work with paint and love it, but because my work is mostly for the screen or printed page it makes sense to work digitally. When clients commission a painting, I paint it with paint and, for the most part, love doing the work. When I’m doing an illustration project, I paint it digitally and, for the most part, love doing the work.
Flylords: What keeps you interested in outdoor subjects?
Dan: The other day, the same day my son caught that nice rainbow, we were wading up the river and suddenly a scene opened up that was truly incredible. I’m amazed almost every day by what I see. The world around us is incredible and the critters that live in the places we like to be are amazing. It just seems normal and natural for me to want to capture some of it in a painting or drawing—it’s what I do and I hope I never lose that need in my life.
Flylords: What are the steps in your artistic process?
Dan: As an illustrator working for publishers, I’m usually working with a text or story of some sort. The editors or whoever I’m working with will suggest ideas for the image and we will discuss different solutions that would be best for the space in the layout and that would best help tell the story.
Sometimes the editor will send me a story and let me come up with the ideas for the illustrations. When I read something I see images in my head that fit with the words, then I do a sketch that attempts to capture what I think of. Sometimes I do a lot of sketches and sometimes I do one or two, then I gather references to help me create the finished sketch that I will send to the publisher for their approval.
Once they approve the sketch I go to painting the finished art. Reference material helps me portray what is in my head. Because I’ve been painting for such a long time my brain can fill in a lot of gaps, but not in a way that is as good as nature can do it. So, I use as many photographic and observational references as I can get to help me fill in the blanks.
Flylords: What role has fishing played in your life?
Dan: I’ve been fishing with a fly rod almost as long as I’ve been drawing and painting, so having a favorite story or experience is like asking if I have a favorite painting. I probably do but then I’ll remember another one and think to myself, “maybe that one is the favorite.”
I do have treasured memories of specific fish, takes, and places. For many years, I guided fly fishing trips part-time during the summers for a local lodge. There are so many stories from those trips, some funny and some not. I also have a specific memory with my wife and daughter when she was very young. We were on the South Fork in July, and the mayflies were everywhere. The fish were pounding them, and the boat was anchored on a shallow bar. I was trying to help my daughter hook one of the feeding cutthroat, and she finally did. I can still see that day with her curly blonde hair in the sunshine, her excitement at trying to cast the fly, and her mother taking photos of it all. Days on the river should all be like that.
Later our son came along and we have spent many days on the same river. One day, when he was still pretty young, he caught a beautiful cutty with a fly he had tied. I have a great photo of that day, but I don’t need the photo to remind me of it. He’s on that same river today fishing, even though it’s January and cold outside. Fishing has become his passion and I cherish the days I get to spend fishing with either or both of our kids.
Flylords: What keeps you painting?
Dan: Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’ve been able to make a living as an illustrator for all these years. This year makes 33 and it’s hard to imagine where the time has gone. Digging through my files and looking at dates on the work flashes me back to the day or days when I was doing the drawing or painting. I remember every one and most of the circumstances surrounding each.
There are days when I don’t want to paint, but I can honestly say that my work still brings me joy and fulfillment. I love finishing a project—it’s satisfying to paint the last stroke or sign my name to a painting. I guess that’s what keeps the ball rolling, oh, and the paycheck that goes with it. I get paid to paint pretty pictures, and money is a good motivator. I hope I never tire of wanting to go through the process of making a painting or telling a story.
Flylords: How can folks learn more about you and your work?
Dan: My website is a good place to see a broad range of my work. There are several videos of me working and talking about projects, a brief bio, and even a photo of me. You can follow me on Facebook or Instagram, and my studio is open to visitors by appointment.* If you like to fish and know how to row—I mean really know how to row—I’m open to a day on the river to discuss whatever you want, except my fly patterns.
Since 2012, Flylords has been a proud leader in telling the stories of anglers and guides from around the world. Through film, photography, and journalism we strive to make each story as unique as the person or place it’s based off. Our goal is simple: inspire the next generation to get outdoors and hit the water!