Most budding artists start their career in a spare room at home, crowding out other family needs. Dan Wilson was no exception — starting in an upstairs bedroom. Over the next few years, he graduated to the living room and then to a portion of the unfinished basement that eventually had four walls and a door.
“Paint was everywhere,” smiled Heather Wilson, Dan Wilson’s wife of 13 years. “We still find paint in random places all over the house — even in the freezer. I thought it would always be that way.”
Wilson began drawing from the time he could pick up a pencil. “I doodled on everything,” he said. “My first sale was in seventh grade to one of my teachers. She had me draw John Wayne. I couldn’t believe she gave me $20. But I battled being an artist. I studied chiropractic, fire science and business, but I always felt a tug to go back to art.”
“Before graduation, Dan was all over the place,” said Heather Wilson. “He couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do. He considered being a seminary teacher, then business management because it was general. I asked, ‘Why not art?’ But I never thought he would do it full time.”
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Wilson graduated from Utah Valley University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. “My greatest mentors were Perry Stewart, a UVU art professor, and William Whittaker who mentored me after college. I was also inspired by Danish artist Carl Bloch and French artist William Bouguereau — two artists of the mid-1800s.”
Wilson has also been inspired by his wife. “I wouldn’t be able to give it one hundred percent if she wasn’t behind me,” he said.
The Wilsons first met at a gym in Utah. “I didn’t want to be that guy who gets her number at the gym,” said Dan Wilson. “Then I ran into her at a dance two months later. The rest is history.” The couple has four boys and two girls ages 2 to 11.
Dan Wilson’s respect for his wife is summarized in a post on his Instagram account, where he has more than 41,000 followers:
“I have painted Heather so many times because ... she really is way more beautiful in every way than the day I married her. ... She is constantly thinking of ways to uplift the people around her and is always trying to improve herself. Her testimony of Christ and His gospel makes me want to be a better Christian, father and husband. ... When I am weak, she is strong and is the crazy glue that keeps us together. ... She is the reason I am a happy man. I love you.”
“I originally painted just to have a career,” said Wilson. “I did portrait art and wanted to get into galleries. Then, I painted my first image of Christ, and two families bought simple prints. One mother stopped me the next week at church, got emotional and said, ‘You have no idea how much that image is uplifting us in our home.’ I thought, ‘That was really cool.’”
The next week at the exact same spot, another woman stopped Wilson. “She also got emotional and said: ‘I gave my print to my sister who’s trying to keep her family together. You have no idea how much it means to them and how much it’s helping.’ She said almost the exact same words. The lightbulb went off and I knew I’m supposed to be painting for a reason and that’s to uplift people in their homes with images of Christ.”
“When Dan was deciding what he wanted to paint, he was up and down,” said Heather Wilson. “When he realized he wanted to paint the Savior, everything just fell into place.”
But it hasn’t always been easy. To support his art career, Dan Wilson managed a freight-forwarding business for FedEx and Heather Wilson cleaned houses. “My first year I made $7,000 from my art,” he said. “Heather never second-guessed the whole thing.” In 2014, Dan Wilson started painting full time.
“It’s not a normal 9-to-5 job,” said Heather Wilson. “There’s no paid time off. His schedule varies. At 6 p.m. he may be in the middle of something he can’t leave. Sometimes he paints until midnight. But he’s a hard worker and takes on the responsibility of providing for the family. I’m really impressed how humble and teachable he is, always trying to better himself. He constantly studies the work of other artists.”
Inspiration is a process
Wilson relies heavily on the power and process of inspiration. “If I’m painting the Savior for a temple, I just want to do Him justice,” he said. “I’m intimidated every time. I spend a lot of mental prep work getting ready to paint. I get a father’s blessing. I include it in my fast. Then I do the best painting I can with the Lord’s help.”
Dan Wilson is quick to add inspiration doesn’t come all at once. “I can take it only so far and then I get stuck where I just don’t know what the best thing for the painting is. It’s then I receive more answers.”
This process was repeatedly manifest in his largest work to date: a painting of the Second Coming for the Washington D.C. Temple.
“This Second Coming piece was a big slice of humble pie,” said Wilson. “I ran into several things I didn’t know how to do. I’ve never done a mural this size before with 300-plus angels. It stretched me. When I get overconfident and don’t rely on the Spirit, I make a lot of mistakes I have to spend the next day fixing. It’s pretty easy to stay grounded when you realize you’re painting stuff you can’t paint by yourself. I learn something new each time.”
The Washington D.C. Temple painting
Wilson had completed six paintings for temples for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he received a call from the Temple Department to do another: an 8-by-12-foot oil painting for the Washington D.C. Temple. It needed to be completed in time for the temple open house in spring 2022.
“The Temple Department gave me the idea for the painting,” Wilson said, “based on scripture with the Savior coming in the clouds clothed in a red robe surrounded by numerous angels. I produced preliminary sketches with graphite. When they were approved, I was asked to do a 1-by-2-foot painting the temple interior designer would use for their color palate. When that was approved, they let me loose.”
Wilson went to work finding models and clothing for them, finding concepts for the trumpets, and then doing numerous photoshoots before putting it all together. “I spent hundreds of hours in Photoshop just placing the angels so they didn’t create a pattern and where the diversity was not stacked in one section. I had about 30 models, but as you go farther away from Christ the detail isn’t as apparent.”
There were more layers of approval for the painting, the last one being a member of the First Presidency of the Church. “The approvals were made from photographic prints,” said Wilson. “That bothered me because looking at a print is completely different than looking at the original. I was hoping someone would come to my studio, but they’re so busy.”
It took Wilson an estimated 2,000 hours to paint the Washington D.C. Temple painting — a fourth of it in prep. Imagine the struggle to keep the exploring fingers of six energetic children from experimenting with his oil paints. The Wilsons had succeeded for over a decade.
By then, Wilson had added a spacious art studio onto his Lehi, Utah, home. One morning he entered his studio and was shocked to find orange paint scribbled on his work.
“Well, it finally happened,” Wilson posted on Instagram. “We have gone 11 years of having kids with zero toddler vandalism on a painting. But that streak has ended. These two are trouble together. If you see them wandering your neighborhood, call the authorities. They can’t be trusted in civilized society.”
“They went to town on the clouds,” said Wilson. “I had forgotten to lock my studio and had left a bunch of orange paint on my palate. I really wasn’t that upset. It was my fault, and I could paint the clouds back over their creativity. And who knows? Their doodles may just be the start of their future art careers.”
More guidance from the Spirit
Wilson’s original concept was for 120 angels. To give greater depth to the painting, the number grew to more than 300. “I painted one angel at a time,” he said. “It took one to three days per angel. All of them had slightly different contrasts. The hardest thing about painting 300 angels surrounding Christ is to have them not consume all the attention and to have them go back in space evenly and consistently. I was really stressed out about it, and I prayed and fasted a lot. I put my name in the temple roll.”
One morning Wilson awoke early and visualized the use of a specific white glaze to apply in variation to make the angels complement and not compete with the image of the Savior. It gave them a glowing feel and helped them fit perfectly in atmospheric perspective.
“Such a specific revelation is a testimony to me that God is in the very details of our work,” he said. “That just doesn’t apply to me as a Christian artist working on temple paintings, but it applies to anyone in any career. God is in the details of our work and He can answer specific questions to help us be better providers, better employees, better employers, better husbands or wives, or wherever we need help. If we’re specific with Him, He’ll be specific with us.”
The originals of Wilson’s temple paintings will be displayed in a specific temple with giclée prints (high-resolution, pigment-based prints on canvas) going to other temples. “Over the next three years, I have more to do,” he said. “I’ve started one of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Then I’m going to do Abish raising the Lamanite queen and Moses with the brazen serpent.”
In his spare time, Wilson conducts portraiture workshops in his studio. He tells aspiring artists to focus on their drawing. “Just draw, draw, draw,” he said. “If you want to do Christian art on top of your training and your foundation of drawing, it will help your career if you are spiritually where you need to be so you can get guidance from the Spirit.”