Bridport’s Dattilio combines love of art and hunting

BRIDPORT — Four years ago, Vergennes Union High School alum Dustin Dattilio was a junior at Castleton State College, studying to become an athletic trainer. He spent some of his down time in his dorm room with a sketch pad and pencil, doodling and taking requests from friends.
“It started out as celebrity portraits,” Dattilio recalled during a Monday interview at his Bridport home. “People would say, ‘draw so-and-so.’”
Bryan Cranston sneering under his “Breaking Bad” pork pie hat. Harry Potter making magic. Rap stars Biggie Smalls and Macklemore striking ominous, pensive poses.
Give him a photo and he’d make it come alive. These weren’t the crude scrawlings of a Pictionary novice.
Dattilio’s friends were blown away. His pencil work was so exacting and realistic that he began to receive cash offers for his work. Then came commissions.
The new spending money and accolades prompted him to take a sharp career detour from athletic trainer to an artist in training. So Dattilio changed his major to fine arts, earned his bachelor’s degree in 2014, and is now well on his way to national acclaim thanks to a new, prestigious citation added to his nascent resumé. His painting “Morning Thunder,” which magnificently portrays a wild turkey in a meadow, was recently selected as the National Wild Turkey Federation’s (NWTF) 2018 “Stamp Print of Year.” Limited prints and $5 stamps of his vibrant painting will be auctioned off and/or sold to benefit NWTF’s conservation and hunting programs.
Like past winners, Dattilio will reap some financial rewards and national exposure as a result of his artwork being shown and marketed throughout the country. Proceeds from the sale of this “Morning Thunder” reproduction will benefit the NWTF through 2018. At that point, Dattilio can derive income from it.
And that’s a very good thing for a 24-year-old artist trying to make a name for himself in what can be a challenging field to make a living.
The accolade has also affirmed Dattilio’s decision to shift his painting focus from humans to the animal world. This transition dovetails with his lifelong love of the wilderness and hunting.
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” Dattilio said of his reaction to learning of his NWTF selection. “I had to read the (confirmation) email several times.”
Dattilio’s success hasn’t come overnight. He’s earned it through many hundreds of hours of often solitary labor in front of paper and canvas. He strives for photographic accuracy in his drawings and paintings, and that takes a great eye, intense study and a steady hand.
His first painting, in 2013, was of an owl. He confesses that initial work proved he wasn’t some kind of prodigy.
“It wasn’t very good; I’ve come a long way,” he said, chuckling about his first foray into painting. “I hear all the time, ‘You’re so talented.’ But people don’t understand the amount of hours I have put into this.”
It helped that Dattilio has always been interested in art, though not enough to think of himself as an artist.
“I used to draw comic books when I was a kid,” Dattilio recalled. “Outside of art classes in high school, I didn’t really do anything (with art). I don’t think I was a stand-out student or anything like that when it comes to art. It was definitely not something I thought I would pursue as a career. But here I am.”
He has drawn inspiration from his family history of hikes and hunting trips.
“I grew up in a family of hunters and I decided that if I was going to pursue this, I wanted to combine my passion for art with my love for hunting and the outdoors,” Dattilio said. “That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am today.”
Since birds and animals won’t politely pose in a meadow or forest, Dattilio must use photos of his subjects as his guide. Fortunately, there are many wildlife photographers who post their work online, and Dattilio dutifully requests permission from any photographer whose work he wants to use. He will sometimes be asked to pay a fee.
“Most of the time, (the photographer) is generous and won’t charge anything, perhaps just a print in exchange,” he said. “I’ve had some that didn’t want me to use their images — which is totally fine.”
Dattilio looks for photos that show wildlife in interesting angles, stances and habitats. He has also done some paintings based on mounts. He’ll take photos or mental notes of animals he sees in the wild.
His entree into the NWTF scene came by happenstance.
In January of 2016, Dattilio was invited to show his work at the annual Yankee Sportsman Classic in Essex. The event provides a market and forum for all things hunting. An exhibitor had canceled, and Dattilio was asked if he wanted to take his place showcase some of his animal and bird artwork.
He accepted, and received great feedback.
“The support that I got from all the hunters and companies there was unbelievable,” Dattilio said.
It was at this event that he met Fred Bird, the New England director of the NWTF.
“He asked if I would be willing to donate a print or an original painting to their annual convention in Nashville,” Dattilio said. “I said, ‘Sure.’” 
   THIS TURKEY PAINTING by Bridport artist Dustin Dattilio recently won national recognition and was selected as the “National Wild Turkey Federation 2018 Stamp Print of the Year.”
Courtesy photo
That’s what got him working on “Morning Thunder.” He only had a few weeks to complete the painting in order to meet the convention deadline. He spent many hours looking online for an appropriate photo subject and finally came upon a photo by Tes Jolly of Alabama. Jolly waived her usual fee because the painting would be donated to the NWTF. “Morning Thunder” — a term used to describe the powerful gobbling of a wild turkey in the morning — was her title for the photo, and she agreed to allow it to be used as the painting’s moniker.
With permission in hand, Dattilio set to work on the painting last winter. He spent four straight days on “Morning Thunder,” making for some late nights and early mornings.
He sketched in the outlines of his turkey, and used an air brush for background coloring. He filled in the details, very carefully, using various paint brushes.
“The drawing in my dorm room really enhanced my ability to work from photographs and draw accurately,” Dattilio said.
He doesn’t trace.
“You need to know how to draw free hand,” he said.
He fortunately did not experience any creative catastrophes along the way. Spills and other accidents have been known to happen.
“When you’re dealing with an air brush, you’re dealing with a mechanical thing; you never know what’s going to happen,” Dattilio said. “I’ve been close to finishing a painting and had the air brush splatter. When it splatters, it’s gobs of paint on the canvass that you can’t just paint over.”
“Morning Thunder” features a majestic wild turkey standing in a meadow, in the middle of a full-throated gobble. It is acrylic on 16-inch-by-20 inch gesso board.
The painting — and others Dattilio has created — have given him a greater appreciation for the beauty in nature.
“When people see turkeys (in nature), they have a very ugly head,” Dattilio said. “But during my time painting them, you realize all the different colors, and there is a lot of beauty within each animal. No matter what you’re working on, there’s always something that catches my eye about that animal that I didn’t notice at first.”
He was ecstatic to learn earlier this spring that his donated painting had earned NWTF stamp honors, and was excited to tell Jolly about the honor. He also got a kick out of sharing the news with the person who bought the original painting at a recent NWTF auction in Nashville.
“He was beyond thrilled about it,” Dattilio said of the buyer’s reaction. That buyer agreed to make the painting available for scanning to generate the limited prints that will be sold.
“Morning Thunder” has already earned Dattilio a bunch of commissions, mostly from out-of-state folks seeking realistic renderings of their pets, wild animals and hunters. Dattilio gratefully accepts the work, knowing that in the art business, you have to make hay while the sun shines.
“My goal is to have at least one of my paintings in all 50 states,” he said.
After the “Morning Thunder” wild turkey stamp is released, he’ll already have conquered the lower 48 states.
Dattilio will also continue to do some human portraits on commission, as well as wood burnings. And some people want to pay him the ultimate, extreme compliment — having his work appear on them permanently, as a tattoo.
That’s where he draws the line; some mistakes can be erased. Others, not so much.
Painting. It’s worth the long hours and occasional periods of low sales, according to Dattilio.
“I’d rather struggle doing something I love than struggle dreading going into work every day,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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