Dargan Long: Dog handler with a paintbrush

Published 3:29 pm Friday, December 26, 2008

After a very productive morning of bass fishing at SouthWind Plantation near Bainbridge, Ga., I was awaiting lunch in the main lodge. Of course, bass fishing was not to be the main attraction. An invitation from Ed Weatherby had brought me there to hunt quail with Weatherby’s new D’ltalia side by sides. A rainy morning brought on the bass fishing, since I’m less averse to fishing in the rain than hunting in it.

As I strolled through the beautiful lodge, my eyes were drawn to a large oil painting of two pointers. My artistic eye is admittedly untrained, but the painting seemed to blend various aspects of classic 19th century dog art.

The dogs themselves were painted with close attention to anatomy, yet with strokes that transcended realism. The landscape was muted almost to impressionism, like a memory in which most of the details have gone vague except the cherished sight of the dogs. This trait called to mind the work of Percival Rosseau. And yet the dogs’ tails were perfectly parallel, a famous touch of Edmund Osthaus.

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I figured the painting must have cost a fortune, coming as it probably did from one of the managers, and I strode over to see which one had painted it. To my surprise, a thin red signature in the lower right corner read: “Dargan Long, 12-06.”

“Who in the world is Dargan Long?” I thought out loud.

“Oh, Dargan’s one of the boys that guides here at the lodge,” drawled the cook. She directed my attention to another smaller painting that hung over the back of a mounted whitetail deer. This one depicted two setters on point in the piney woods. Their mouths were slightly ajar, like dogs that have run far on a warm day.

“Yeah, that Dargan,” she observed, “he’s really talented.”

“When can I meet this man?” I asked.

“Well, Honey,” she said—I love the way Southern women talk—“we can introduce you to him after lunch.”

That afternoon, it was my pleasure to hunt with Dargan Long over his own dogs: Maggie, a Llewellin setter; Rex, a German shorthair; and Jack, an English cocker. Even the names of his dogs hearken to an earlier time, much like his paintings. Although Long may share talent and style with some of the old masters, his story is decidedly less aristocratic than theirs. And the story is worth telling, because the art emerges from it.

“My father died when I was three years old,” he said.

He recounted the daunting future that faced his mother as a widow with seven children in rural Georgia.

“If it hadn’t been for my aunt and uncle, we would’ve been in bad shape.”

The uncle was an avid coon hunter who owned a bait and tackle shop. He took Dargan and his siblings hunting and fishing. Often, Dargan and a brother would roam their grandmother’s small farm, shooting frogs with a BB gun. As they got a little older, they carried single-shot .410 shotguns around the farm, hunting squirrels and rabbits. It was at this time that bird hunting began to get a hold on him.

“There was an old pond on that farm,” he recalls, “and we always finished the day at that pond, shooting wood ducks as they came to roost for the evening. And then we’d stumble up to the house in the dark, half-starved, and smell the ham cooking in the kitchen.”

There was more than ham in that house. Long’s grandmother was a watercolor artist.

“I can remember walking through her house, staring at her paintings, and I think it was looking at her paintings that got me interested in art,” he said.

In high school, Long became interested in bird hunting. He received his first bird dog, a pointer, as a gift from a friend. Then he purchased another. Pete and Sam were the dogs’ names. They came into his young life at a time when his artistic sensibility was also beginning to emerge.

“I still have a painting of Pete and Sam in my office,” he said. “It’s probably the first painting I ever did.”

He joked that he keeps the painting partly as evidence of how far his artistic skills have come. After high school he became a farmer, raising peanuts on his brother-in-law’s land. About a dozen years later, he took a job managing a larger farm. But his farming days came to an end with Hurricane Kate in 1985.

“I went through some tough times then,” he recalled.

However, this abrupt end to his farming career was the impetus he needed to find his way as an artist. Long moved to Tallahassee, Fla., in 1986 to take formal art instruction. One of the hardest parts about the move, he says, was the fact that his dogs couldn’t come.

He sold his bird dogs to longtime friend Tim Smith, who is now the owner of SouthWind Plantation. The two men had grown up together, and had become especially close friends after high school.

In 1988, Long went to New York to study with the Art Students League, and has returned several times over the past 20 years for further instruction. The initial decision to go there was a difficult one, not least for financial reasons.

“My wife was expecting our first child,” he said.

But his wife, Kelly has always been his staunchest supporter in his pursuit of an art career.

“If it weren’t for my wife, I probably wouldn’t be painting today, because she encouraged me to pursue my art at times when no one else did,” he said.

Long’s drive was strong to earn his bread with his brush, and this vision saw him through the ups and downs of a beginning painter.

“I would paint until the money ran out, and then I would go and get a job,” he remembers, “and then I’d go do it again.”

He worked in the day and painted at night for several years. Then, in the mid 1990s, Long began working full time as a commissioned portrait painter, at last (barely) making a living with his art.

But he still wasn’t a dog artist. Not yet.

“I painted a couple of family portraits with the family dogs in them,” he recalled. “People commented on how good the dogs looked.”

Then a client hired him to paint a portrait of her two dogs. She had previously commissioned a portrait of her children.

“She liked the painting of her kids well enough,” Long chuckled, “but she really got excited about the dogs!”

So, in the late 1990s, Long began bringing his two great loves together. Bird hunting began to merge with painting, and the results have been beautiful. His new birth as a gun dog artist has coincided with the emergence of Orvis-endorsed SouthWind Plantation, owned by his longtime friend Tim Smith. Long guides quail hunters at SouthWind between painting jobs, and hunters are exposed to his art while lodging at the plantation.

The painting of the two pointers, which hangs in the SouthWind lodge, is a fine example of how a painting comes together in Long’s mind. The dogs are Darlin’ and Millie, two pointers that Long has hunted with at SouthWind. Long frequently follows the dogs with a camera, looking for moments he wants to paint. He looks for contrasts between light and shadows, and never poses dogs artificially. He watches for natural moments that happen in the real drama of hunting. He found all of the above in Darlin’ and Millie—but on two separate occasions.

“I liked the way both dogs looked,” he said, “but I didn’t want them by themselves.”

Thus, he created a convergence of two good memories in a single painting that presents both dogs together.

Long’s painting style is not quite realism, but not impressionism, either. He describes it as “painterly,” and the word captures the appearance of his paintings well. My own feeling is that photography has rendered realistic painting largely redundant, but there is still an important place for “painterly” paintings.

Oil is Long’s favored medium. He aims for soft lines and edges, without excessive detail or “overworked” backgrounds. Although Long paints landscapes too, he never lets a landscape take attention away from a dog. If there’s a dog in the painting, the dog is the focal point.

SouthWind Plantation is an excellent showcase for Long’s art. Dogs are clearly of central importance to the operation of SouthWind. During our first morning’s safety lecture, owner Smith announced that the fee for accidentally shooting a dog was $3,500. When I asked if the figure included taxidermy, he didn’t smile.

SouthWind’s hospitality is unmatched, and the quail shooting is expertly arranged. Dargan Long is both a highly talented artist and a humble, pleasant and competent hunting guide. And the Weatherby D’Italia side-by-sides blend all the beauty, balance and functional excellence we’ve come to expect from Weatherby. I would certainly like to have spent more time with all of the above. Perhaps next season I will.

Reprinted with permission from Chad Mason and Gun Dog Magazine. This article appeared in the December 2008, January and February 2009 issue.