Florida Times-Union columnist Steve Nelson has been painting since he was four years old. The writing emerged surprisingly when he was nearly sixty. “Painting was my first love,” says Nelson in his bustling Times-Union newsroom cubicle. “Writing is just fun.”
His illustrated Wild Life column is a staple in the paper’s queue today, but wouldn’t have emerged without encouragement from Nelson’s editor, Ken Amos. Nelson considers Amos his writing coach, an essential figure in his process. Fortunately, Nelson identified parallels between his two forms when he first started writing the column in 2013. “Writing is a lot like painting,” he says. “You’re putting those words together to make a picture for people.”
The walls of Nelson’s cubicle are covered by his own paintings and articles. A multitude of glass dropper-top paint bottles—all Dr. Ph. Martin’s Synchromatic Transparent Watercolors—gather on his desk. For his column’s illustrations, he stays loyal to the brand. “For newspaper work, I need brighter color,” says Nelson of his paints of choice. “The newsprint washes out the tones.” All painting occurs at his newsroom desk. The writing transpires in the evenings and on weekends at his home in Yulee, where Nelson has lived since 1996.
“There’s too much going on here to write,” Nelson says of the newsroom. He prefers to write longhand on a yellow legal pad at home near his five dogs. While the creative labor occurs indoors, ideas for the column strike during Nelson’s weekend adventures through the woods. In his column, he’s hunted hogs, wrestled water moccasins, and befriended burros. All of his stories are true, though he admits that he allows himself some wiggle room to embellish.
“Once you put that brush stroke down, it’s down. When I write, every word in a sentence is important. And I’ll probably rewrite it four or five times.”
When exploring the natural world, Nelson relies on his senses to identify material for Wild Life. “I look for tension, conflict, and fear. Or something that happens that’s unusual.” The larger themes in his work emerge later during his revision and editing process. When a column comes together, Nelson jokes that it’s all a matter of divine intervention. “Painting is that way, too.” Nelson finds that writing has a malleability that paintings lacks. “Once you put that brush stroke down, it’s down. When I write, every word in a sentence is important. And I’ll probably rewrite it four or five times.”
The Times-Union veteran has been on staff since 1971. Today, he holds the title of Art and Graphics Editor, holding up his end of the operation without a staff. “I’m the last of the Mohicans.” At 63, he’s enthusiastic about the new challenges that writing and illustrating a column present him. Soon, he’d like to produce a calendar of wildflower watercolor paintings. His big goal is to publish a book.
Read Steve Nelson’s Wild Life column in the Florida Times-Union and at jacksonville.com.