Capturing a Fleeting Scene

Capturing a Fleeting Scene

Lakeland artist Daniel Butler works to preserve the disappearing natural Florida landscape.

story by PAUL CATALA
photos by MICHAEL WILSON

Daniel Butler has spent time in ditches, standing in the muck in bemired shoes, among strands of trees during humid summer days and out in open pastures amid hovering flies just to picture it right.

Butler is an Okeechobee native and noted acrylic nature and landscape artist who has spent the past 40 years preserving Florida’s natural beauty plant by plant, lake by lake, animal by animal, stroke by stroke.

Now 56 and living in Lakeland, he has made a lifetime of nature and portrait art – Florida landscapes, forests, farmland, hunting and fishing trips and old homesteads, among others – his full-time job. He often spends up to 10 hours, seven days a week, documenting through dabs of paint a Florida rapidly disappearing underneath the bulldozers of housing subdivisions, shopping centers and golf courses.

The self-taught artist says although he often finds it disheartening to see what the state’s exploding population is doing to its natural beauty, he enjoys seeking out Florida’s diverse environments to remind people there is still much more to the state than homes, stores and theme parks. 

There’s really no such thing as seclusion anymore, but I find opportunities. I can be going down the road and see a ditch and look and there could be lilies or ducks or a waterbird and I have to pull over and take a look at that,” says Butler. “To me, a photograph is a guide, but when you put your painting scene in your mind into the nuances, like shadows in a certain area, extreme purples, yellows, all that’s locked in the mind and it becomes alive.” 

During a recent lunchtime painting session in his studio gallery in the lobby of Levy’s Imperial Tire & Auto Service Center in Lakeland, Butler puts touches on a current piece, an 18- by-24-inch portrait of Florida palm trees. When completed, he hopes for it to become one of his commissioned works, which can sell from $1,200 to $8,000 to private collectors.

Butler says he averages six to seven works per month, and that’s a comfortable pace for his artistic output of acrylic paint works.

“I’m an impatient artist so that causes me to have the need to have something that dries rather quickly; you can get the same depth with acrylic that you can get with oil,” he says.

The skills and talents to make a living as a landscape artist, Butler credits to his father, Robert Butler, a Florida Artists Hall of Fame inductee. Robert Butler, who died in 2014, was noted as one of Florida’s premiere Highwaymen self-taught artists of the mid-1950s to the 1970s who sold their artwork on the side of the road, focusing on Florida’s natural environments. 

Literally getting into the scene, Daniel Butler says, is what makes a painting flourish.

“If you’re going to be an artist, involve yourself in what you’re portraying on canvas. It’s okay to learn some formally, but it’s best to use your own instinct. What you’re trying to do is put a footprint down — this is me and this is what I believe in,” says Butler, who comes from a family of 11.

Although he has no formal art training, Butler says he paints through “instinctive training,” using colors to express feelings, which his father taught him. He uses that “training” outdoors, in the woods where he goes “quite a bit.” He says there are two ranches – one in Dade City in Pasco County and one in Polk City in Polk County – on which the owners have given him access to peruse the property on subject safaris. 

Near Dade City, the landowner, John Taylor, makes Butler’s painting frames. On his property, he has swamps, hardwoods, palmettos, pines, hammocks and scrub sitting ready for the paintbrushes. Butler estimates he’s made at least 300 paintings on the 2-square-mile area of that property hoping to inspire respect for Florida’s vanishing foliage and fauna.

“It’s amazing. I find kids now who were born here who have never seen an orange grove or know what an armadillo is,” he says with a chuckle. 

In addition to watching his dad, Butler cites Iowa wildlife artist Maynard Reece (1920-2020) and Canadian naturalist painter Robert Bateman, born in 1930, as two sources of inspiration. He says Reece’s paintings of ducks in a flooded timber made a big impression on him as a youth; Reece won the Federal Duck Stamp competition a record five times.

“I just saw the movement that he had in his paintings. He took his time to put those large amounts of waterfowl coming into that area with such motion and detail and I began to focus on ducks,” Butler says. He was my first outside influence.”

Growing up in South Florida, Butler says he and his siblings spent time hunting, fishing, camping and hiking after school. He says the sensations of an early fog-filled walk in the woods, “listening” to the silence and “smelling the rich earthiness,” have inspired him since he was a child. Those sensations continue to influence his works and desire to artistically document the ever-dwindling natural Florida.

Butler’s paintings have made the magazine and online pages of organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, the Wild Turkey Federation, The Wounded Warrior Project and others. Besides nature, he adds that his art has given him the chance to travel and meet “the people who made Florida what it is — their customs and traditions — and preserve those on easels.”

As for his artistic future, Butler says he’ll keep painting as long as he’s able and the love is still there. He says art is more than a profession, it has become part of him.

“I say, ‘Whoever you are, it’s okay to bring that out on your canvas.’ You shouldn’t care who likes it and who doesn’t,” he says. “And if you’re going to make money at this, forget about everything around you and concentrate on what you love because sooner or later, everything has its reward. It’s hard work but enjoy it.”