Monday 20 January 2014

My new friends

For the past several months, a group of new friends has invaded my studio and, indeed, my life. It started with an email I received last winter while I was out of the country:  a woman I met at a trade show wanted me to create a portrait of her three horses. We corresponded and concurred that we should wait till spring, when the horses shed their shaggy winter coats, to work on getting some photos of them for reference material. She also requested I make a farm visit so I could meet the horses and collect my own photographs.

Spring rolled around and the day came for me to visit the small farm named after the resident senior horse. The setting was gorgeous - a rural valley with a dramatic backdrop of mountains - and to my delight there were goldfinches EVERYWHERE! The place was alive with stunning bright-yellow flashes of colour. My camera was out and in action within moments of my arrival.

At the farm gate I was met by the resident dogs - two Weimeraners and a cheerful terrier pup - and after an enthusiastic greeting by the farm’s owner, I was introduced to the horses.

The elder horse is what I would call a real Southern gentleman - a senior Tennesee Walker, jet black, perfectly mannered, and oh-so elegant despite his advanced age (30+) and failed eyesight. He spent most of his life with his current owner and as a result has never had a care in the world. The big black horse is a local icon, his gentle nature makes him a favourite of children, and he reminded me very much of my own horse Duke, not so much in appearance but in his way of being (Duke, long gone now, was part American Saddlebred, a breed closely related to Tennesee Walkers). I recognized the relationship between this horse and his owner as a partnership built on years of caring for one another, of mutual friendship and of complete trust - an intimate, personal bond. The portrait was to be a tribute to him and would reflect his very special place in his owner’s heart.

Then there was the little guy – a darling pony who greeted me by putting his head under my arm for a hug. The newest equine member of the family, he came to the farm via a local horse rescue group and is definitely home to stay. He has a leg that shows evidence of an old injury and therefore he’s best suited to life as a companion horse, a job he takes to heart and excels at. He may be small, but he’s spunky and unlike so many ponies I have known who can be pushy and even nippy, his manners are perfect. I would have sneaked him into my car and spirited him away if I thought I could have gotten away with it! I’m sure he’d have been totally happy living in my suburban back yard (not! Nor would the local authorities have been too pleased about it.)

The pony’s best friend is another stunningly beautiful Tennesee Walker with flashy pinto markings and just about the most beautiful eyes a horse can have. He and his pony buddy could almost be twins in terms of colouration and markings. But compared with the warm greeting I received from everyone else at the farm, I was surprised at how reserved this horse was, eyeing me and my camera with obvious suspicion and keeping his distance. Then I heard his story: a long history of abandonment and abuse that brought tears to my eyes. The scars on his face and the damage to his psyche are evidence of his hard life. Although still young, a string of neglectful owners and violent treatment have made him wary of strangers and ill-at-ease with the world in general. Thankfully he has his trusty sidekick pony to comfort him, the confident leadership of his elder horse companion, and now, at long last, a committed owner who will stop at nothing to ensure he overcomes his troubled past as much as possible. He will never again be ill-treated but nor will he ever recover completely, having simply endured too much hardship at the hands of humans. It breaks my heart to know that people can be so cruel, but balancing that are the people like his current owner who care so deeply they will do anything in their power to right past wrongs. And so this beautiful, damaged horse has a safe and loving home for the rest of his life. 

After getting to know the horses, hearing their stories, taking about a million photographs of them, and then watching them gallop joyfully out into the hayfield together, it was time to sit down and talk more about the portrait.

In the house I was shown the spot where the portrait would hang over the fireplace mantel, giving me a sense of size and scale. Then my client and I sat down to chat on a shady porch overlooking the hayfield, with mountains forming a majestic backdrop, swallows darting in and out of nesting boxes, and finches and blackbirds fluttering at feeding stations.

The horses soon came to the fence to mooch carrots with the Weimeraners standing by in case any carrot crumbs came their way. The pup, in the way of terriers, explored the hayfield.

An idea was already forming as to how I would like to compose the portrait. I mused about it on the drive home while recalling my day’s experiences. After some more contemplation, I developed a sketch, sent it off to my client, and was delighted to learn that my vision very much matched hers. It was a perfect!

I have been glad to be able to take my time working on this portrait, and to slowly and carefully develop the elements. My client has checked in periodically by text or email, and visited me in person at a fall trade show. But all the while she has reminded me that there is no rush, that I should take my time and enjoy the process. And so I have.

I reflected on each horse and his story as I worked, remembered the sleek Weimeraners, and the bright yellow finches, and the beauty of the farm with its guardian mountains.

I have diligently worked away at the portrait – quietly, carefully and joyfully – and here is the result:

I'm actually still tinkering with minor adjustments and there's a little bit of work still to do on the background, but it's nearly complete. Feeling "finished" can be an elusive thing when working on a complex, detailed piece like this, but I'm confident it's almost there and happy that my client is thrilled with the previews she's seen. It's been quite a journey. One that won't be complete until the portrait fulfils its destiny and is hanging in that pre-ordained spot over the fireplace mantel.

In my years of creating portraits of people’s beloved animals, there is a handful that really stands out in my memory. This will be one of them. Art making is always an emotional process and the connection an artist forms with her/his subject is an intimate one. After working on this portrait, living with it, and getting to know the subjects, I now count these animals and their human guardian among my friends.

Update: The finished portrait!



  1. absolutely breathtaking! love your work soooo much!!

  2. nice story. I like that you showed the progression of the drawing.

  3. Deborah, I love you. These are photos I had not seen. The story and it's title of "My New Friends" as you might imagine, made me cry. Meeting you and having you immortalize my family is one of the best things that has ever happened in my life. I will print this out and attach it to the back of the portrait when it comes. THANK YOU from the depths of my heart. Cristine, Simon, Sam and Lightning (not counting the dog and bird)

  4. Cristine shared this art with me and I love it! She introduced my granddaughter to horses 10 years ago and she has loved them ever since Simon was the first horse she rode. Thank you for the caring you put into your work.
    Victoria Revello