By Kay Braddock
When 27-year-old David Graham looks at one of his oil paintings, he sees more than the image portrayed. From the depicted badlands used as a backdrop to the yucca plants gracing the foreground, Graham envisions the original locations and experiences that inspired each layer of his completed work.
“It all starts basically with a good photograph,” Graham said, as he explained the painting process he undertakes with each of his western theme artwork. “I use that as a reference.”
He estimates about 5,000 photographs are stored in his computer – many of them taken during his seven years working on property about 10 miles west of Terry.
As Graham points to his work Almost to Montana he describes the origins of several features within the painting, including the badland bluff, and how many of them came from his time working as a ranch hand.
The painting, commissioned by the Montana Stockgrowers Association for their recent 125th celebration in Miles City, depicts an 1800’s cattle drive leading from Texas to Montana. The cattle drives helped establish Montana’s cattle industry and with it, brought about one of the primary reasons for MSGA’s creation - to help stop cattle rustling.
“The cattlemen were having a tough time dealing with these thieves,” Graham explained. “So they had to organize a group to handle that.”
Given artistic leeway, Graham was allowed to choose the subject matter and also selected the title for the piece. He explains he chose the cattle drive theme because it portrays the start of it all – from Montana’s origins in the cattle industry, to the cattlemen’s need to organize together in order to protect that industry.
“The picture also depicts a trail boss sitting on a rock ledge and he is supposed to be overseeing the operation,” Graham explained. “He’s just kind of sitting up there taking everything in.”
Graham relied on historical photographs, including those taken by the area’s well-known frontier photographer, L. A. Huffman, before beginning the piece.
“It was just kind of in my mind and then I found historical photos to support that idea,” Graham said.
It took the better part of a month to complete.
“I try to be pretty diligent with my time,” Graham said, explaining he usually begins early in the morning and works till midday.
MSGA purchased the first nine of the 25 canvas prints made. Eight of those were auctioned during the 125th celebration.
“I thought it was a great honor to do it,” Graham shared of being asked to produce the commemorative painting.
About a year-and-a-half ago Graham decided to begin painting full-time.
“It’s been progressing,” Graham explains of his artistic experience.
His interest in sketching began at an early age. By age 10 he began drawing western themes, mainly inspired by stories told to him by his grandparents. His maternal grandparents ranch near Plevna.
Graham was born in Miles City, briefly attending grade school there. He and his family moved throughout the state during much of his growing up years. The family of four lived in Bozeman, Columbus and Fort Benton.
After graduating from high school in Fort Benton in 2000, his family once again chose to settle in eastern Montana.
That decision would ultimately provide Graham with the many scenes that have inspired his work, as he and his dad worked together on property owned by Harding Land and Cattle Company.
“No, I never took art classes in college,” Graham explained, although he did graduate with a business management degree from Montana State University.
Graham was first introduced to the medium of oil painting in a high school art class.
About three years ago Graham approached the Grey Fox Gallery in Bozeman about showcasing some of his work.
“I’d gone in there before and told the guy I was an artist,” Graham recalled. They accepted four of the six paintings he showed them. Within eight months his first painting had sold.
In several of his paintings the cowboys portrayed are depictions of family and friends. Seeing the reaction of those who recognize those portrayed has become one of the many satisfying experiences of his work, Graham shared.
Published June 24, 2009