Even today, after a highly successful 30-plus year career that has seen him paint pieces that are on display at Buckingham Palace – the home of the British Royal Family – and Casa Loma in Toronto, David Alexander Risk smirks when he’s referred to as a professional artist.

The prolific painter was the featured guest at last weekend’s Haliburton Home and Cottage Show, where he spent three days meeting fans, discussing his artwork, and doing live demonstrations.

It was something of a homecoming for Risk, being his first appearance at the show in more than 20 years.

“When we did the last one, we had a farm theme, which was in line with what we were doing at the time. We had a lot of farm animals; the kids all came out and had a great time. They gave us the whole bottom end of the curling rink back then,” Risk said.

For his return, the plein air nature and wildlife artist was front and centre, with a booth beside the entrance to the curling club. His stunning 30-foot by 10-foot display featured more than 100 original pieces – all painted especially for the show.

Sitting down with The Highlander, Risk, tongue in cheek, said his love affair with art began when he was just a baby.

“Mom and dad said I used to sleep in this big white crib and when I woke up, I’d stand up and bounce and actually move the crib all along the bedroom wall, leaving art behind,” he said. “As I grew up, I was always fascinated with nature. I loved sketching and doodling while everyone else played.”

He continued to hone his skills, and by the time he was 15 he was making good money drawing houses in his Markham neighbourhood and selling them to the homeowners. He eventually crossed over into wood burnings, where he would etch images of prominent buildings and businesses into plywood and turn them into art.

Now one of his more famous pieces, Risk recalls spending weeks on a piece showcasing Casa Loma, the gothic revival castle-style mansion and garden in midtown Toronto.

“I needed an extra $600 to pay for my wedding ring, so I went in there and asked to speak to the general manager. I was going to ask $250 for it,” Risk said. “But the guy brought me in, said he loved it and they wanted to put it right in their main lobby. He opened his chequebook and asked how much I wanted. I just about managed to splutter out $600. He didn’t even flinch.”

Once Risk and his better half, Sharon, married they relocated from the GTA to Haliburton County. He spent years working at a local lumberyard, while still drawing and painting on the side.

He remembers spending a few weeks perfecting a piece featuring a coyote in the wild. He brought it to the yard to show his co-workers.

“It was life-size. I wanted to put it in the boss’ office – we did, and one day his dog came in and starting growling and barking at it. That was the first time someone told me maybe I should consider becoming an artist full-time,” Risk said.

He ramped up production – painting multiple pieces daily for shows across the County. They sold out quickly. It wasn’t long before word of Risk’s talents started to spread. He became a featured artist at the Haliburton School of Fine Arts, winning best in show at one of their annual competitions two years running in the early 1980s.

He also remembers participating in a one-man show at Rails End Gallery around that time, which attracted around 600 visitors and completely sold out.

Self-taught, Risk draws inspiration from some of the biggest names in his field, including Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Leonardo Da Vinci. While renowned for his life-like style, Risk said he dabbles in different techniques and styles under other “brush names” – or aliases.

For years, he and Sharon operated a farm in the Highlands dedicated to educating and creating new experiences for local youth.

“We love working with young people – our hearts have always been with youth. They’re the future, the stewards of our natural world,” said Risk, who still hosts free art and nature classes in the community. “You can never give too much. We always love to give, and we find it always comes back around.”

One of his more significant donations can be found in the board room at the Haliburton hospital. ‘Campfire Traditions’ is an original work Risk donated to Haliburton Highlands Health Services in 2000. It displays peace and tranquility on a lake, with a campfire burning in the night’s sky. Risk hid about a dozen “paintings within the painting” in the piece, most of them wildlife.

The piece was painted plein air – meaning on location out in the wild. It’s Risk’s favourite way of working but doesn’t come without its dangers.

“I’ve been struck by lightning twice – this one time I got myself covered, hiding under a tree and them ‘boom’. I woke up some time later laying on the ground with holes in my shoes and smelling like something burning on the BBQ,” Risk said. “Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll be gone for a couple days a time. Sharon would never know where I was – I don’t believe in phones, so if something happened, I’d be in trouble.”

He recalls another time when, traveling across a frozen pond the ground beneath him suddenly gave way and he was quickly submerged in ice-cold water.

“I fell through an airhole and ended up going right through a beaver dam. I managed to get out, but it was cold, like 30 below, and I was a good mile from home. I just remember running and collapsing once I got through the front door,” Risk said. “Sharon said I was like a stiff piece of cardboard.”

Having painted for celebrities like George Burns and Bob Hope, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and even the British Royal Family – his piece ‘Miracle in the Making’ of a family of loons is hanging in a private collection at Buckingham Palace – Risk has made his mark in the art world.

He still paints daily, something he said he’ll continue to do for the rest of his life.

“I will keep painting until I draw my last breath. I have this gift that brings pleasure and joy to me, but also to other people. I wouldn’t ever want to stop that,” Risk said.