Spain had Pablo Picasso. New York had Andy Warhol. Kansas has Dan Branham.
Making his rounds as a meter reader for Midwest Energy in Hays
, Branham could pass the time listening to the radio or thinking about what’s for dinner. But what really interests him is the scenery outside his truck windshield and how it might look on canvas.
Branham is an accomplished, self-taught painter who spends hundreds of hours annually memorializing the state’s wildlife in meticulously detailed paintings that could easily be mistaken for photographs. What began as a childhood obsession some four decades ago is now paying off in success and recognition beyond his wildest dreams.
“When I was little, I always painted and drew. Probably around 5 years old I started drawing,” he recalls.
A Natural with a Brush and Canvas
“It just came naturally to me, especially when I started painting with oil paints,” he says. “A lot of people have a hard time blending the colors to make it look like it’s supposed to look, but it really came naturally to me without any formal training.”
And it’s not like he hails from a long line of van Goghs.
“I don’t know how it happened,” he says. “I keep asking my mom, ‘Where did I get this talent? Is there an artist in the family?’ and she says, ‘No.’”
Growing up in Great Bend, Kansas, he didn’t live on a farm, though he had relatives who did. That’s the only way to explain his favorite subject.
“When I saw wildlife, especially pheasants, I was just infatuated with it. I still am that way. I can’t get enough of it.”
High school art teachers encouraged Branham to pursue his talent, and he went to Barton County Community College in Great Bend on a full art scholarship.
“I learned things that I didn’t know, but I’m pretty much self-taught—just sitting down and doing different projects, learning from mistakes, learning from what you did previously.”
Meat Counter to Meter Reader
Far from the stereotypical starving artist, Branham spent 17 years as a supermarket butcher before arriving at Midwest Energy nine years ago at a friend’s behest. He’s worked in the warehouse and at a substation, and he’s now a meter reader and general helper, which gives him plenty of time out in the country.
For many of his years at the easel, Branham didn’t take painting seriously.
“I thought everybody could do this. I thought I didn’t have any special talent,” he recalls.
“I did it for myself. Then people started showing interest in it. ‘You want this? Give me $100, and you can have it.’ About five years ago, I started taking it a lot more seriously, more professionally.”
And for good reason: People started paying more and more for his originals. Today he displays his works at art shows across Kansas and is often commissioned to do paintings.
Branham was recently selected to be the 2018 Wildlife Artist of the Year for the Kansas Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt, an annual invitation-only event.
“Never in my mind did I ever think that I would have that kind of quality to be chosen,” he says.
He’s working on a turkey painting and knows the scene he wants to create, but his attention to authenticity means it’s not as simple as sitting down with a canvas and brushes.
“I do a lot of research as far as going out,” Branham says. “I’m taking pictures of trees, old buildings, and old houses to put in there for what I want in the scene.”
Almost everything is photographed from different angles. He even shoots different types of grass.
While out on his co-op rounds, if Branham sees something he might want to use in a painting, he stops to photograph it.
“Rarely do I actually get a scene that’s all together. I combine a lot of things to make the scene how I want it to look,” he says.
Branham estimates the turkey painting, due in November, will take him some 200 hours over about three months. He tries to paint every day but is mostly at it on weekends.
“I’m already stressing out about it because I like to be on time on deadlines.”
Give the People What They Want
“I’ve sold every original I’ve ever done, which I kind of regret now. But people want it, and I think that’s a good sign,” Branham says. “People are actually spending their money on something to put on their wall that you made. That’s an honor for me.”
Branham describes painting as “kind of like a second job.”
“I would love to do this full time,” he says. “I can see it on the horizon.”
For now, though, he’s happy at Midwest Energy, where he doesn’t really talk about painting with coworkers, though some have seen his art on his Facebook page where they comment and ask if prints are available.
“I hunt and fish with these guys. I’m no different than they are. They might be good at woodworking in their spare time, whereas I’m good at this.”
And while The New York Times hasn’t reviewed Branham’s work, that doesn’t matter to him.
“I don’t need an art critic because I’m more critical about my art than anybody could ever be.”