Equine Adventures in Paint
As a kid, I had horses at home, and my sister and I and the neighborhood girls who also had horses would throw ourselves on them and roam the countryside of northern Minnesota. We trotted and cantered the gravel roads, me usually bringing up the rear on my small Shetland pony (who had to be about 30 years old) while the other girls on their larger beasts forged ahead through fields and ditches. We had a great time. Later, as a suburbanite with young children, I used to bum rides with friends on other people’s horses, and trail ride the hills around Ithaca. It was good camaraderie and a way to get outside.
But I reached a point in early middle age when suddenly I really wanted horses of my own. At my urging, my husband and I bought a 130-acre farm. To be fair, it wasn’t just so that we could have horses, but that was a perquisite. Horses came along when we had the infrastructure set up, nothing too special, just backyard animals without much breeding or training, but fine for what we wanted—which was to just ride around on our property. No goals, low expectations. A few years ago, I started taking lessons from my astonishingly expert next-door neighbor, and all of a sudden, my eyes were opened. She has lived a life rich with experiences and connections with everything from Pony Club to dressage, three-day eventing to driving. Through her influence, I started to attend sporting horse events, very different from the shows I had attended previously. I was getting a look at the horse world through the eyes of someone who really knew it, and did it ever look great! Colors, lines, action, beauty! What a wonderful thing to paint!
When I was little, I read all the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, which had great illustrations in crisp black and white of slim-legged Thoroughbreds. In contrast, C.W. Anderson’s beautiful graphite/charcoal drawings had tremendous detail (all that thin skin and blood vessels!) and a sense of stillness, even when the horses were running. Then there was Wesley Dennis, who illustrated Marguerite Henry’s horse books in color. His animals had tremendous character. I spent a lot of happy time examining the drawings and drawing horses myself. So when in the last couple of years I started thinking about how much fun it would be to paint horses in oil, I felt I had come by the interest honestly.
This past fall, as part of the new chapter in my life that includes far more painting on a daily basis (this is my triplet daughters’ sophomore year of college, and both they and I have passed through the inevitable year of transition) I have started focusing on learning to paint horses. They are a difficult subject. Their anatomy is challenging. A skeleton in headlong action, covered with muscles and blood vessels just under a thin multi-hued haircoat, is a subject to be reckoned with. There is the difficulty of trying to suggest detail in such a way that the structure is believable, without sucking the life from the picture by trying to capture every tiny value change. I have set myself the task of doing studies, trying not to think of them as finished pictures unless I want to. One of the unfinished paintings in the studio is a foxhunting picture with horses AND hounds. Talk about an exercise in humility. It’s going to take some time.
Tackling a new subject, with maybe a commensurate change in technique, is tough– sort of like plunging, in middle age, into horsekeeping with all its responsibilities and unknowns. The more you know about horses, the more you realize you DON’T know. Art is much the same. There is always something new to learn, and experimentation and pushing your boundaries is what keeps things interesting.