Wednesday 25 November 2015

A tale of four horses

Every commissioned portrait I make is special, and I don't mean because of my artistic skill - far from it! I mean because of the subject. It's because each animal is a one-of-a-kind individual in their appearance, their personality, and their life story. It's also because each human-animal relationship is unique.

When I'm asked to create a portrait of an animal, I'm aware it's because there was something extra-powerful between that human and that animal. I try to come to know each animal as well as I can in the brief time we might meet or, if they've already left this world or simply live too far away, from what their owner can tell me about them. I also work to uncover the particular connection between the person and his or her beloved four-legged friend. It goes without saying that capturing the animal's likeness in a portrait is important. I would add that infusing it with personality is crucial. And when I'm able to tap into the bond between the animal and its human partner, I feel like I've really done my job. 

A pencil drawing I made when I was about 14.
Horses were my first love (see my past blog A History of Horses) so any time I can work on something involving horses, I'm pretty happy about it. Over the last while I've been working on a coloured pencil portrait of not one but four horses - a project to delight the soul of a horse-loving artist like me.

However, along with the joy of creating this new work of art, the project has presented some unique challenges. These four horses span their owner's entire history of horse ownership dating back to the 1970s. Each represents a different time in her life, a different place, a different riding style, a different discipline, a different role. Each horse spent years with her, up until its death with the exception of the most recent arrival who is still going strong. They are of three different breeds but all are chestnut in colour with white markings. Even the two that share the same lineage - quarterhorses - are quite dis-similar in many ways, one with a high-headed, inquisitive expression, the other with a more reserved look about him.

Because three of the horses are deceased I'm limited to available photos - not a significant problem except when considering the size relationship between four animals who never actually lived together and each of whom are different shades of chestnut. The subtleties of their colour differences are not captured well in photos, particularly old slightly-yellowed snapshots. Conversations and consultations with the owner plus her lovingly written descriptions of each horse, his/her personality, and their time together have filled in the gaps. When I asked her, "Why chestnuts?" she said she didn't really know - they found her. She also told me about what she learned from each horse, and is still learning from the last of the four who came into her life not all that long ago - things like patience and bravery. Her bond with each of these individuals was and is unique, shaped by her life and by what each of them brought to her.

And so I am working on this most enjoyable project, starting with this preliminary sketch where I worked out the scale and composition.

They are arranged so that the horse from the most distant past is on the left, progressing through to the most recent on the right. The still-living horse on the right looks away from the other three, signifying his difference from the others.

Below is a photo of the drawing in progress (not a great photo because I took it on the fly using my phone camera under less-than-ideal conditions). I'm never good at photographing my work in progress because I'm simply too caught up in the work to be mindful of stopping to take pictures. However, this one particular photo shows the drawing developing from the ghostly horse on the left, where I'm just starting to build the image, to the more developed horses across the drawing to the right. I'm left-handed, so I usually work from right to left.

Both I and the owner are satisfied with each horse's expression and posture, with the relationship in height between them, and with the overall composition. Now it's just a question of persevering and getting it all done, and done right.

Some time later (and I don't count the hours), the drawing is nearly there:

And, finally, a photo of the finished product, framed and ready to go home:



  1. How incredibly beautiful. I found your description of the process absolutely fascinating. I, too love horses.

    Will there ever be a print available of this portrait?

    1. Thanks for your comments! There won't be prints of this one because it's a custom portrait.

  2. Wow awesome job, Really enjoy getting your email newsletter updates!

  3. Another happy portrait owner out there now Deborah. I SOOOOO enjoyed watching the 4 horses come to life right before our eyes for all of us that attended the Mane Event in Chilliwack last October. In all honesty, that is one of the main (mane?:)) reasons I attend that horse clinic each October because I know you will be bringing personalities to life on a piece of white paper. Impossible for someone like me to understand. Keep up the good work Deborah. People like me, who lost a dear, dear equine friend but have his very soul captured on paper above my mantle, will never be able to adequately thank you for your gift of immortality. You are the best!!!!!!!!!!!!!