Putting Pencil to Paper

Wildlife artist elevates simple medium to carve out her niche in the art world

At 19, Dale Muller packed her duffle bag with hiking boots and a little point-and-shoot camera, and for $69, hopped a Greyhound Bus from Philadelphia to Livingston, Montana. She had just finished her junior year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and the wildlife of the West called to her. That summer she worked in the pantry at Yellowstone Lake Hotel and spent her free time exploring and observing wildlife.

“My mind was blown, and that’s when my love of animals and art really solidified,” she says.

Life came full circle for Dale last summer when she was invited to show her work in the lobby of Yellowstone Lake Hotel. Her talent as an artist brought her from the pantry to center stage. It took some time, but she’s arrived.

Dale has carved out a niche among wildlife artists by drawing ultra-realistic animals with pencil against sparce, geometric backgrounds.

“It focuses more on the biology of the animal and the detail and texture and accuracy of form and anatomy and leaves it up to the viewer to come up with the background,” she says. “The animal is the whole focus.”

The show in Yellowstone Park offered her an opportunity to talk about her work with a worldwide audience. She brought a work in progress to draw while she chatted with visitors. Many people bought prints, and she sold a few originals as well. Dale has been invited back to show her work during another weekend this summer.

“It’s just opened doors for me in such a huge way,” she says.

Since her “Inspired by Yellowstone” show last summer, interest in Dale’s work has taken off, with an increase in sales from her website as well as right from her drawing board. In her home studio in Roberts, Dale is working on a drawing of a large bison and another of a wolf. The wolf, although it’s not finished, has already been purchased by a collector.

“I love working with galleries, but how wonderful is it to make sales right from my website and studio?” Dale says.

Gallery shows have provided plenty of opportunities. In a recent large-scale show at Heist Gallery in Red Lodge, Dale sold all but one of her original drawings.

“It was a tremendous turnout from the community,” Dale says. “It felt so good. When you’re introverted and you’re at home working all the time, you never really know.”

She’s been invited to display her work at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole. The gallery is known worldwide for its outstanding and diverse wildlife art collection. Dale’s work will be included in an annual juried show and sale. The exhibition title is Western Visions.

“I went to the event years ago with a friend and just dreamt of my work being shown there,” Dale says.

She’s not sure what she will bring to the show, but she plans on drawing something special just for the exhibition.

Dale spends lots of time outdoors and visits Yellowstone Park often. She goes to observe and photograph the animals there. Bears are her favorite, and they are prominently featured in her portfolio.

“I never depict an animal that I haven’t experienced in real life,” Dale says. “It’s really important to me to have my work represent a personal experience.”

She studies animals with the intensity of a surgeon. Dale wants to know their form, understand how the muscle, bone and fur all take the shape of an animal. She wants to have all of that memorized because working from photos alone doesn’t give her the realistic detail she wants to achieve.

Dale made the shift to understated backgrounds in 2012 with a drawing of a moth with a damaged wing set against a white background. Called “Shattered Strength,” it was chosen by the Society of Animal Artists for its Art and the Animal Exhibition. The response was overwhelmingly positive. From then on, the absence of a background has been Dale’s signature style.

“I felt like at that time, galleries were dictating to me that that was the way it was supposed to be done, and it started to put me into that box of wildlife art, and I didn’t want to be put into that box,” she says.

Dale’s work appeals to contemporary art collectors as well as wildlife art aficionados.

She starts every drawing with a thick, soft pencil. The strokes are heavy, spontaneous and loose. She then layers texture over the lines, blending with a stump of rolled paper or a soft chamois. The result is a bright sheen on the darkest parts, while the lightest marks depict the softest textures. The lightest highlights are the white paper showing through.

“The challenge is the textures. That’s what keeps me engaged,” she says. “I want to push the medium as far as it will go.”

Dale aspired to be a painter but made the shift to pencil at the encouragement of a professor during her senior year of college. She still enjoys painting when she can. In her studio, an unfinished oil painting of butterflies sits on an easel with a jar of brushes nearby.

“It will call out to me again, I’m sure,” Dale says.

Dale has called the Red Lodge area home since she graduated from college. She knew she didn’t want to go back to New Jersey, and had already fallen in love with Yellowstone. Her boyfriend at the time was up for the adventure too, and now they’re married.

“He dropped everything and neither of us has looked back,” she says.

Dale is grateful for all the support she’s received along the way, from her husband to her friends and fellow artists – and even her landlord who kept her rent affordable for years. Even when she was pulled in different directions to make ends meet, Dale never gave up on her goal to be an artist. She weathered plenty of disappointment over the years.

“You have to be true to yourself,” she says.

From the beginning, Dale has done it all. She frames all her own artwork, maintains her website, and does all her own marketing, sales, packaging and shipping. She’s not giving any of that up for the time being, but she can’t help but think about the day she might. 

“I just want to draw,” she says. “I just want to work on my art.”

YOU CAN FIND Dale Muller’s art online at dalemariemuller.com


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