Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Painting From Photographs


Monmouth County Hounds waiting to move off.
While working on several paintings using the photos I took in Virginia this past spring, I realized I had some great ideas for a blog about working from photographs.


There are a lot of opinions out there about using photos. They run the gamut from the idea that copying a photo is cheating, to the realization they're a valuable tool in the artist's arsenal. I subscribe to the latter point of view. Someone once told me they thought painting from a photograph wasn't valid because it was just copying something that had already been done. I tried to argue the point that it was just another aid in the creative process, but I couldn't persuade my colleague to see my point. I finally suggested I would give him a photo, a tracing of it, some paints and brushes and all the time he needed to reproduce the image in oils and see what he came up with. That ended his argument. What he had failed to take into consideration was the amount of skill required to "just copy" a photograph.

When I was a young girl, I used to copy the drawings of Paul Brown, Sam Savitt and C. W. Anderson from the illustrated horse books so popular in the 60's. It was a great way to
learn how to draw horses and riders. I had no idea I was more or less continuing the classical tradition of the Old Masters before me, whose apprenticeships usually began with copying classical works of art.
I began taking photographs when I started painting horses professionally. I photographed many different types of equestrian competition: racing, showing, eventing, hunting, etc. I bought a camera and taught myself the basics of taking decent photographs because for one thing, I wasn't allowed to use anyone else's photos. The copyright laws are very strict (as they should be) about using other artist's work without permission or compensation. Besides, I didn't want to use someone else's subject matter. Every photograph is a personal artistic statement, so unless you're using own photos, you're borrowing someone else's idea.

I discovered that working from photographs has many pitfalls. For one thing, the human eye doesn't see a subject like a photographic image, frozen in time and space, but rather as a series of images that flow together creating the illusion of movement. I tried to watch that movie about Eadweard Muybridge recently, but it was so terribly boring, I only got halfway through it. I'd rather just study his books with all the photographs of various subjects in motion. His studies of the walk, trot, canter and gallop are simply fascinating. The most enlightening aspect of his work is how he captures the same sequence of motion from various angles. It clearly illustrates how different the subject looks from the front and back (or side) - at the same time.
A series of photographs showing the sequence of strides of a galloping horse, from the front and back.
It's hard to believe the photos in the top row all correspond to the ones on the bottom.
If you don't have a copy of his book, Animals in Motion and the companion volume The Human Figure In Motion, I suggest you go and get them straightaway. Dover puts out an inexpensive hardcover and softcover versions, and should be on every artist's bookshelf.

The first problem with working from photographs (to my mind) is the frozen image of a horse galloping or jumping (or whatever). It's always very much at odds with the image I've formed in my mind. The subject often appears awkward as limbs are bent at strange angles and the light and shadows obscure the form. I see so many artists slavishly copying every wrinkle and blemish I have to wonder why. I suppose they think the camera is accurate and "doesn't lie," but I think it also has to do with not knowing what to leave in, what to take out and most importantly, what to add. When I first started working from photos many years ago, I copied the photos exactly as they were, but as I became a more confident painter, I realized I didn't have to reproduce the photograph exactly. I could change things around, even add details from other photos or from my imagination.


I suggest that you do a lot of observing before taking any photographs. I realize you'll be impatient to get out there and start taking pictures right away that you can convert into paintings. There might be a few missed opportunities, but the time spent simply observing will pay off afterwards. Going to a few horse shows, races and hunt meets will give you a better idea of the type of activity that interests you the most. Take a sketch book and do some quick motion studies. Once you have an idea of what you want to paint, you'll be better prepared to take photographs that you can use. Try to think about what makes a canter look like a canter, what aspect of a horse jumping a fence really typifies that particular movement or what draws you to the subject in the first place. This careful analysis of the subject will help you to snap the photograph at the right moment. How do you think all those brilliant photographers like Barbara Livingston and Tod Marks get those photos? Luck? Chance? Yes and no. They have a sense of what's happening and they're at the right place at the right time to capture it.


When I'm working from photos, I often piece together numerous photos to improve areas that need improving. This is not always easy to do, since there isn't always the "right" reference material available. One can be tempted to just copy the photo, since it's so much easier. After all, it's right there. But even one change can drastically improve a painting, as I'm about to illustrate with the photograph below. Pop Quiz! Can you spot what's wrong with this photo?
As you can see, this is actually a lovely photograph with great light, color and composition. So what's the problem? The grey horse on the right looks like he's headless! If you look closely you can see part of his head and eye to the right of the girl's shoulder, but at first glance, it looks as though he's missing his head. Although the mind's eye might even fill it in for us since we know he couldn't possibly be walking around without a head, it would be so much better if we could actually see it. (I don't know how to use Photoshop well enough to be able to add a head. Maybe in another lifetime.) None of the other photos I have of this scene are any better, so I tried making it up. For my first attempt, I painted directly on the canvas. I wiped out two or three versions before deciding to figure it out with paper and a pencil before committing it to paint.
I traced the figure of the rider from the painting, then made up a head and neck without referring to any photos. My pencil sketch didn't look right either, so I looked through some of my vast collection of photos. I also looked through sporting art auction catalogues for ideas. Nothing was exactly what I was looking for, so I emailed a dear friend (a noted equine artist) asking if she had anything to help me. She sent me several of her photos, all of which could have worked. After comparing her photos with my drawing, I realized I had put the horse's head and neck too low and too far over to the left. I also made the neck way too long and the head way too small. Foreshortening (rendering forms in perspective) has always been difficult for me draw correctly. I think it has to do with my idea of what's happening to the forms. I think they're getting further away (i.e., the head) and therefore should be smaller. Compare the head in my drawing to the head in the photo. It's more than twice as large in the photo! Paul Brown and Sam Savitt were masters of foreshortening, which is one reason why they were such master draughtsmen.

The first photo  (left) shows the correct position of the horse's head and neck in relation to the rider. The line of the horse's neck originates somewhere in the middle of the rider's lap and the point of the knee. This was a perfect photo to use for reference. Even though the light and shadow is diffused, the pose is perfect. I couldn't have done better if I had the model standing in my studio!
This photo and the one below it are of the same pony. However, the second photo was flipped or reversed to match the pose in my painting.
In both photos, the dark lines of the bridle perfectly define the shape of the pony's head, giving me the essential information I needed to figure out the side- and underplanes of head. This helped me to determine what would be in light and what would be in shadow.
I eventually settled on the photo of the pony without the rider (left) because not only did it help me visualize the correct position of the horse's head and neck, it showed me the underlying anatomy of the withers and shoulder, which is hidden by the rider. I also liked the floppy ears better than in the other photo. In my made up sketch, I had him looking very alert. The ears are an important detail when it comes to painting a horse's expression. This position suggests a more relaxed feeling, a feeling of having a communal conversation with the other two horses, or perhaps listening for his rider's signal as to what happens next: "Do we stay here? Are we going yet?"
Next, I added some of his shoulder in front of the rider's leg because he's no longer turned so sharply to the right, and straightened his front legs a bit.
Finally, I took out the cast shadow of the chestnut pony on the grey's hindquarters. In my painting it didn't quite "read." It just looked like a big blue hole on the horse's flank. I realize this is an important detail because it creates the sense of light and atmosphere in the painting, but until I get it to look like a cast shadow, it's staying out. I will continue to work on it until it looks right, but if I can't make it work, it will just have to be sacrificed.
This may seem like a lot of extra work but the difference between the painting and the original photograph shows it was well worth the effort. There's no headless horse here, which makes it a much more pleasing image. Don't you agree?
The almost finished painting of a group of foxhunters chatting while they wait for the field to move on.
A final point: I don't like to work from tracings, but if you need to or like to, then by all means do so. I've occasionally resorted to this method when it involves a large group of hounds or horses. Some people might consider this "cheating." I don't. I say do whatever works. It's just a drawing aid. Purists may disagree, but even Raphael traced his own preliminary studies onto his canvas for large, complex designs. One caveat: I find tracing severely inhibits my painting. It stifles the brush strokes and curtails the application of the paint in a fluid manner. Like paint-by-numbers, you're not allowed to go out of the lines because the photo (in theory) is the most accurate version possible. If you look at the painting I'm using as an example in this post, there is a lot wrong with the drawing. It's definitely not been traced. Just look at some of the relationships of the shapes. They're quite different from the photo. Yet, the painting has a lovely, painterly quality that I feel might have been lost if I had traced the figures. That being said, tracing is just another tool in the paint box. If it helps you paint better, go for it! If you're tracing a photo just to save time or effort however, my advice is don't do it. Being lazy is no excuse to trace the drawing. If you have the ability to draw the subject freehand, you should make the attempt. It might even improve your drawing skills, but as I already said, one tends to be dictated to by the tracing rather than the other way around.
The point I'm making is that working from photos is not intrinsically good or bad. Photographs are like brushes and oil paints; they're just another tool to help you achieve your goals. How you use them will determine whether or not they're beneficial. I like to think of it more as working with photographs rather than from them.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Inspiration - Vasari Artists Colors

I know it's been a while since my last post. These take a while to write and the arrival of warmer weather brings with it all sorts of chores to do outside. I'm waging a loosing battle with mowing and weeding. Alas, if I had a gardener and a maid, I could write and paint more...


At first, I thought this post was going to be about Vasari's Oil Colors website videos. It is to some degree. But it's more about finding inspiration. ("Again?" you ask.) There's a myth going around for the last one hundred and fifty years or so, that artistic inspiration strikes in a flash. The most popular image is of a starving artist in some Parisian garret (whatever that is), who is suddenly struck by an idea so inspired, he can hardly paint fast enough to keep up with his thoughts. He paints maniacally, without sleeping or eating, until at last he completes his masterpiece. He's utterly spent and exhausted when he's done. Of course, he receives the public recognition and admiration he so clearly deserves and lives happily ever after. Well, I hate to break it to you, but this couldn't be further from the truth. I suppose the myth lives on because the reality is so disappointingly unromantic. It's positively dull, even boring. The fact is, inspiration comes from the day-to-day routine work, the daily grind of sitting down at the easel and painting, every day, every week, all year long.


Okay, got the picture? So you're humming along, working everyday and getting some good work done. Every now and then, you do something you feel is a notch above your usual standard. How do you know? You just do. Everything just goes smoothly and the results really show your mastery of the paint. Sometimes, however, you get bogged down in the familiar, the safe, the tried and true. You use the same techniques and utilize old solutions for new problems. You don't push yourself. You get complacent. You don't even realize you're in a rut. After all, you are working every day. Isn't that enough?


While I was at the Bryn Mawr Hound Show a few weeks ago, a colleague told me my palette is too brown and my paintings are very flat. She said they didn't have enough light in them. No one likes to hear criticism of their work, and I certainly don't agree with her, but I went home and decided to try to see my work through her eyes and fix the "problems." But where to start?


Pondering the problem of too much brown, I tried to think of the different ways to mix a color or neutralize it or tone it down. I know there must be lots of solutions. Here's where the Vasari videos come in. They have a terrific website which I visit regularly to see what new products they have for sale, such as videos, books, paint sets, etc., as well as their bi-weekly color "sales." They also have some very in-depth videos about color mixing. It's a masterful blend of sales promotion and tres sophisticated how-to color mixing techniques. You need to watch them a few times to get the nuances of what they're demonstrating, because they talk about color temperatures, density, chroma, etc., in a very quick, matter-of-fact way. Now, I think I have a pretty sophisticated eye when it comes to color, but these people are absolute geniuses. I mean, do you know the difference between Lead White and Titanium Zinc White? (I didn't.) I guess they have to be good at mixing colors, right? Duh! After watching the videos, I realized I can't live without their "Rosebud" or "Brilliant Yellow Extra Pale." Take a look at those videos and honestly tell me you can live without "Rosebud!"
https://vasaricolors.com/pages/videos


My shopping list of Vasari colors includes: "Rosebud, Brilliant Yellow Extra Pale, Bice, Video Blue Extra Pale," and "Naples Orange." I'm eagerly waiting to add them to my palette. Meanwhile, I'll just have to muddle through with what I have. Which brings me to my final point. I know artists often use a palette they've customized for their particular subject, i.e., portraits, landscapes, still lives, etc. Perhaps it's one they learned at a workshop or from a book. And it becomes written in stone. It never changes. I feel I've become a little too insistent on using Zorn's five color palette, or the "less is more" ideology. I get a real thrill when I add a color or change something on my palette. When I discovered Manganese Violet a few years ago it was like a whole new world opened up! So, be open to color additions or subtractions on your palette. Try mixing up your own "Rosebud" with the colors you have. I suspect it involves Alizarine Crimson and perhaps a blue and yellow of some kind. I'm going to do it right from the computer screen as an exercise in color mixing.


A Note: Artists should never forget they're always students. I recently bought some painting videos by Richard Schmid, a highly-regarded landscape painter. He uses a palette knife, no medium of any kind to mix his paints, and paints outdoors in all kinds of weather. In one video, the paint is actually beginning to freeze and it's snowing! He uses many different brands of oil paints, so you needn't worry if you have a paint box full of exotic names like Gamblin, Grumbacher, Winsor & Newton, etc. The only thing you need to concern yourself with is that you buy the best you can afford. No student grade, please.


Take a workshop, join an artists' organization, a sketch class or watch painting videos on You-Tube to keep your mind sharp and open to new ideas.


Happy painting!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Middleburg's Closing Day


Middleburg's young entry ~ Piper ~ negotiating a stone wall
I think I've finally recovered from my trip to Virginia, although putting the clocks ahead one hour during my trip didn't help. I always feel like I have jet lag for weeks after Daylight Savings. It doesn't matter if they're set an hour ahead or behind. My body just doesn't seem to be able to adjust. I've tried to acclimate to it by waking up earlier (or later) as it approaches, but it doesn't help. The least they can do is turn the clocks ahead on a Friday afternoon so everybody gets out of work an hour early and turn them back on a Monday morning so we get to sleep in an extra hour. Then perhaps, at least  psychologically, it would make it more palatable!

The reason I went to Virginia in March instead of June or July was to photograph several of the hunts in and around Middleburg before the close of the season. I'm gathering reference photos for an upcoming exhibition f paintings, "The Virginia Hunts." It's an invitational show of Signature Members of the American Academy of Equine Art (AAEA), and I'm very excited and honored to have been asked to participate. Hunting season was just ending and formal hunting doesn't start up again until next fall, so I wanted to get some material to work on through the summer. The exhibition is slated to open in May 2018, at the Museum of Hounds and Hunting in Morven Park in Leesburg, VA. It will coincide with the 2018 Virginia Hound Show which is held on the last Sunday in May.


I was on the road for eleven days. I left my house on Friday, March 10th and didn't return until Monday, March 20th. I headed out in a snowstorm, which proved to be a mere nuisance compared to the giant snowstorm that hit a large swath of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast areas a few days later. My trip included the Middleburg, Piedmont, Orange County, Keswick and Farmington hunts. My original schedule included Warrenton and Deep Run as well, but that was sabotaged by the bad weather. Of course, one can never be sure what the weather will be like in mid-March, so I was a bit unlucky in that respect.


I'm still editing my photos, changing exposures, color, contrast and so on from my trip. I'm not a very good photographer; I take photos mostly out of necessity, since I can't paint from memory or my imagination like the sporting artists of the past. I set my digital camera on Automatic Program and hope it knows what to do. I feel guilty sometimes, thinking I should know more about what I'm doing with a camera, but never guilty enough to actually do something about it. Life is too short.
Middleburg's huntsman, Mr. Hugh Robards, with First Whip, Mrs. Julie Robards and the hounds waiting to move off
I made Warrenton my hub, as it was central to the state as well as five or six of the hunts I had on my itinerary My first stop was Middleburg on Saturday, March 11th. I wanted to see Hugh Robards' last day as huntsman with the Middelburg. Hugh has spent most of his life as an MFH in Ireland and the States, and the last three as huntsman for Middleburg. I won't pretend I know much about him. I met him while illustrating a book he wrote in 2006 titled, "Foxhunting, How to Watch and Listen," and I attended several hunts and puppy shows during his tenure as MFH of the Rolling Rock. I know enough about him to realize this was an event I didn't want to miss. (For an excellent article on Hugh Robards please see this week's issue of Norman Fine's excellent online magazine: www.foxhuntinglife.com.)
Life Imitating Art ~ Libbey Gilbert strikes a pose straight out of a Munnings' painting.
Actually, this photo illustrates what a keen eye Munnings had for the action and essence of a scene.

I drove to the kennels early on Saturday morning to make sure I caught the hunt staff before they drove to the meet since I had no idea where it was. I'm not one to meticulously plan ahead; come to think of it, I'm not one who even does the most rudimentary preparations. Somehow, it's never been a problem. I usually figure out where I'm going and how to get there, and this was no exception. When I got to Middelburg, I just typed in "Middleburg Hunt" on Google Maps on my iPhone and Voila! A few minutes later I was pulling into the driveway of the kennels. While driving around those roads however, I realized it might be a problem if one doesn't know which meet it is or its location. I can see how one might spend the entire day driving around the back roads of Middleburg looking for a field full of trailers. Except in Virginia they have a quaint practice of putting out a sign at the entrance of the farm or field with the name of the hunt and a pointing arrow: Middleburg Hunt ⇨, Piedmont Hunt ⇨, etc. I thought it was a nice little touch, but I think it has more to do with the plethora of hunts in the area - one can hunt every day of the week and never follow the same pack of hounds twice! They also start at a much more reasonable hour at this time of year - 10:00 A.M. No crack of dawn drive in the dark, thank heavens!

The day was cold and windy, but the sun was bright and making a valiant effort. I found Hugh in his tack room, smoking a cigar and looking thoroughly relaxed and happy. Julie, his wife and first whip, and Libby Gilbert were there getting ready as well. As Hugh helped Julie with her coat and boots, I couldn't help feeling quite privileged sitting there talking about his plans after he retires. We talked for about twenty minutes and then they had to leave for the meet. Hounds and horses were already in the trailers, saddles and tack already packed. I followed behind the two trailers. The meet was just a few miles away, so we arrived well before ten o'clock.


Photographer Liz Callar discusses the game plan with retiring
Huntsman, Hugh Robards and Jt.-MFH Mr. Tim Harmon 
A large field was already gathering at Patty Mulligan's farm on Mountville Road as we pulled in. One of the first people I met was Liz Callar, a talented and prolific photographer who lives in Virginia. I was familiar with her work, but hadn't met her before. She's the American version of Jim Meads - always in the right place at the right time! Super nice, super helpful and a hard worker. We exchanged greetings and cards. I'll be writing more about her. We became friends and she was an invaluable help to me in the coming week.

Goggles. Gee, I wonder how he got that name!
I looked around the field to see if I recognized anyone on horseback. I spied Jt.-MFH Jeff Blue in a large Ram truck. He told me he'd be following by car that day. His passengers included Susan Wight of the Plains and his broken-coated terrier, "Goggles." I recognized Dick McQuade, an acquaintance from steeplechase days, who was now whipping-in for Middleburg. Tyrrell Sharp, Hugh's former field master at Rolling Rock had come down for the occasion as well. There were many prominent people in the field that day but those were the only people I recognized. There were two  sidesaddle riders in the field, who cut very elegant figures in their dark blue habits and top hats. I think this one (below) will make an excellent subject for a painting.


They moved off promptly at ten o'clock and Hugh put hounds into a covert straightaway. The sun was behind the trees, lighting the veteran huntsman in soft rim lighting. (See below) It's my favorite type of lighting, because it features the subject, dark and in shadow, softly outlined against a dark background. It's reminiscent of a pastel I did over thirty years ago titled "To The Next Covert." I can see an oil painting of this for the upcoming AAEA exhibition. I'd add more hounds and more color to the trees.

To The First Covert

There were plenty of off-road places at this particular meet where we could follow in a car to watch the hunt. A man named Gus offered me a seat in his truck since I didn't have AWD in my car. He knew the country very well and we kept ending up in all the right places before anyone else. At one point hounds were on a line somewhere on the grounds of Foxcroft, and as we excitedly waited for the fox to emerge straight ahead of us, a car drove by and turned him and the hounds went silent. They eventually found again and crossed Mountville Road, but we never saw the field until they came in at the end of the day. Hugh had picked up the hounds at Foxcroft and drove them back to the kennels. I'm sorry I wasn't there for that. I imagine it was bittersweet for him to call them home one last time.

A delicious hunt "breakfast" followed in the open field at Mulligan's farm, with fine spirits and good food, including mulled cider, hot chocolate and soup cooking over a fire pit, courtesy of the Patty and another young lady whose name I don't know. My apologies! It was an excellent end to the day and the season.
And now April 1st has passed, which is the date some hunt staff begin or end their service. Hopefully Hugh will now have time to write his memoirs. -CMC

Toasted marshmallow wars ~ may the Force be with you!









Monday, March 27, 2017

The Straggler

I'll be writing about my Virginia trip at great length over the next few weeks, but a few events really stand out as quite memorable or funny. My day with Farmington provided one of them.



B. J. Korol, Crickett, M.F.H. Patrick Butterfield and Dugan
Farmington, in Charlottesville, VA was the last hunt on my itinerary. The MFH is Patrick Butterfield,
 a friend and supporter of sporting art. Farmington's closing day meet was Saturday, March 18th, and I thought that might be an excellent opportunity for some photos - Pat leading a large, nicely turned out field at the end of the season. Pat's wife, Kaye, introduced me to Sherry Buttrick, the Master of the Farmington Beagles and suggested I follow her, since she knows the country.
Sherry Buttrick discusses the game plan with huntsman, Matthew Cook


Sherry invited me to ride with her instead of following in my car so we could "do a little driving and a little walking." I thought it sounded like a great idea. I like to get out and follow by foot whenever I can. I should have known that Sherry was Master of the Farmington Beagles since I've seen her many times at the hound shows, but in my defense, I can't possibly know everybody and everything. In case anybody reading this doesn't know the significance of this little detail, beagles and bassets are foot packs. Master and field follow on foot, not horseback. Get the picture?


We walked down to an open field above the river and watched the hunt for twenty minutes. When the hounds went into the next field, we quickly walked back to the car and drove off after them to get a better view. We made a right turn onto an unpaved road with a sign pointing to "Percy Woods" about a mile down the road. We got out and watched and listened for about 15 minutes before Sherry said she was going to the next field. Granell Delaney had joined us, and the two of them started off at a good clip. I hesitated for a minute before going after them, which was a mistake. As I ran after them to catch up, I realized I wasn't making any headway whatsoever. I shouted to them, to let them know I was behind them, but they hardly turned to look back. The country they hunt is extremely hilly, and as I was walking down the second steep incline, I was thinking to myself, "I have to walk UP this on the way back!" I kept expecting the "next field" to materialize at any moment, but all I could see through the trees was Pat and B. J. Korol on the road - way up on the next hill with Sherry and Granell not far behind them!
Whippers-in negotiating a steep hill


I finally reached them at the top, where they had stopped to listen, but no sooner did I get to them, than they took off again. I was pretty winded and had to take a minute to catch my breath. At this point I was thinking I must be terribly out of shape, even though I walk five days a week at the Manasquan Reservoir.
Thankfully, it was pretty level going at the top until we reached a clearing by a house. Percy Woods perhaps? Sherry and Granell bounded down a steep hill to the right of the path, but I heard the hounds somewhere off to the left and decided to wait and see what unfolded. The hounds were on a coyote (they pronounce it without the "e" on the end) and were in full cry! They ran right past me. I didn't see the coyote, but I saw the pack. The huntsman was hard pressed to stay with them. He rode by three or four minutes later. The field had been running hard as well.




A couple of stragglers. I know just how they feel!
Sherry & Granell bounded back up the hill like a couple of deer and then followed the field as it disappeared down the hill once more.
I realized I just couldn't keep up and decided to go back to the car. I ended up walking all the way back to the meet where the trailers were parked. Now I know what those straggler hounds feel like when they can't keep up with the leaders and loose the pack. They stop and listen for a while, and if they can't hear anything, they just keep truckin' back to where they started.


Later that day, I saw Pat, Kaye, Tom Bishop and a few other members of the hunt at the Warrenton Point-to-Point. One of them laughingly asked me how I liked walking out with Sherry, and had I ever been out with her before. With a wink and a smile, I told them I'd actually been out with her twice - my first and last time!

Ex- M.F.H. Tom Bishop demonstrates his inimitable style - in a comfy chair, smoking his pipe

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Writing On The Wall

Since prehistoric man first applied colored clay to the walls and ceilings of caves in Lascaux, France, humans have been painting pictures of animals and horses. This morning, I think I heard the death knell sound for sporting art. The reason? I was just informed that Bonhams, one of the largest auction houses in the world, is no longer hosting it's annual "Dogs in Show and Field" art auction in New York City. Instead, it's being included in their Sporting Sale in Edinburgh, Scotland in May and October later this year. I was disappointed since it's one of the events I look forward to during Westminster week in NYC, but it didn't really surprise me. In the last decade there have been many warning signs of the decline of sporting art and when I heard Bonhams had finally given it up, it seemed like the end of the line for a wonderful tradition. They were the last survivor of a species on the brink of extinction - an auction house with a stand-alone sale devoted exclusively to equestrian, canine or sporting art.


The history of sporting art goes back centuries. The list of art dealers and auction houses who've fled the once profitable sporting art market is a long and distinguished one, but I'm only going to focus on the major forces of the last century or so.


The Past
Once upon a time there were two giant auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, which dominated the art market. One area in which they excelled was sporting art when it was thriving in the 1970's and 80's. Twice a year, they'd hold their annual sporting art auctions of paintings by such renown artists as George Stubbs, Sir Alfred Munnings, John Frederick Herring and John Fernelely. These auctions were usually held in June and December in two locations, New York and London. They were very popular due to the competitiveness of the art market. Not only did the buyers frequenting these sales want the fastest racehorses and best hunters, they wanted the most expensive sporting paintings as well. This often resulted in record breaking prices for paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings, the newest darling of America's "old money." When the market softened in the late 1990's, Christie's and Sotheby's (and many smaller firms) merged the sporting art with their Old Masters sales, and this is the model they still follow today.


For the last twenty years or so, smaller auction houses and galleries in New York City have rolled out the red carpet for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square with special events to coincide with its arrival in early February. Dog art exhibits, special previews and "Barkfests" - brunches and cocktail parties where owners are encouraged to bring their dogs - were hosted by the cream of New York society. These events were fun for the dogs and gave owners and competitors the opportunity to preview the artwork before the dog show. Alan Fausel created the specialty dog art auctions when he worked for Doyle New York. They held their auction on the afternoon of the second day of the dog show, but that proved to be too much a conflict for dog owners who wanted to be ringside when their dogs were being judged. Buying paintings of their favorite breed had to take "reserve" to watching their canine champions parade around the ring. When Doyle discontinued their auction in 2009, Bonhams found they had a monopoly on the market. Their changed the sale to the day after the Westminster Dog Show, giving dog owners and fanciers the opportunity to attend the auction without missing a single minute of the dog show.


An earlier casualty of this downturn in the market was Frost & Reed, the British art dealers who've been in business for over two hundred years. They completely quit the equestrian art scene in 2004. I'm not even sure if they're still in business. The firm got its start in Bristol, England, publishing high quality art prints and engravings in the 1800's. In 1908 the firm moved to London, where they began selling originals as their reputation and the demand for sporting art grew. This was due to an increase in the demand for racing, foxhunting and polo pictures by wealthy American industrialists who now enjoyed the same leisurely past times as their aristocratic British counterparts. Frost & Reed attributed their success and longevity to "...consistently aspiring to keep abreast of change." They didn't rely on auction sales, where bidding wars could send prices artificially soaring or plummeting. They initially sold to galleries, but eventually sold directly to clients with whom they had carefully cultivated relationships over many decades.
They began an earnest and well-planned takeover of the American market in the late 1960's, exhibiting paintings at sporting events in New York, Pennsylvania, California and Kentucky, where wealthy horse owners gathered to watch their horses compete. In 1979, they settled on a permanent venue in Saratoga Springs, New York, where racing's elite converge every August to host lavish parties to celebrate their champion racehorses' victories on the turf. Twenty-five years later, in 2004, after what can only be described as "a very good run," they pulled up stakes, never to return. They saw the writing on the wall. They knew it was time to get out. They kept their new gallery on the upper East Side of Manhattan open as a way of maintaining a presence in the States. The gallery featured mostly contemporary art, with a few dog art and one-man exhibits thrown in, but it was closed in 2007.
The Present
William Secord has always done a nice business with his gallery dedicated exclusively to dog art on East 76th Street. He also wrote five books on the subject of dog paintings and they're essential for any dog lover or painter. I suspect it was another sign of the struggling market when he moved his wonderful gallery from the upper East Side to his loft on 15th Street near Chelsea a few years ago. The new space is sleek and modern, but I loved the cramped little rooms tucked away on the third floor of an apartment building, with creaking floorboards and an elevator that barely fit two people. The new space sharply contrasts with the antique dog paintings in ornate gold frames by such revered masters as Arthur Wardle, Maud Earl and John Emms. It speaks volumes about the need to downsize in a shrinking market.
The Future
Looking forward, I was very encouraged by the return of many faithful clients and a good number of sales when I exhibited in Saratoga for the first time in a decade last summer (see my August 2016 blogs). The gallery scene there has always been cyclical. There are always fewer galleries in Saratoga in the lean years, and if last year was any indication, it's been tough going for a while. As the market picks up, which it invariably does, more and more galleries and artists will appear on the scene. Eventually, the market gets flooded with too much art, too many artists and not enough clients. Galleries start falling by the wayside until once again, there are only a handful left. Very few dealers are willing or able to take a financial hit for three, four or five years. The market is still depressed and I haven't any idea when, or if, it will ever recover.
So, what's a painter of dogs and horses supposed to do in such an unpromising climate? A niche market that has enjoyed only limited success is now in further decline. Animal painters have never been regarded with the same respect as artists of other genres. Artists like George Stubbs and Alfred Munnings are considered mere "horse painters" in some circles, in spite of their considerable talent and the astronomical sums of money their paintings command.
The art market is changing. More people have direct access to art and artists than ever before, thanks to the Internet. This is great news! Gone are the days when only a wealthy patron could afford to commission an artist to immortalize his prize hunters, or an artist was at the mercy of an unscrupulous dealer! Social Media, which has done so much for so many, is the answer. The Industrial Revolution has given way to the Tech Age, and artists need to go along with this new wave if they want to survive and flourish. Twitter, Facebook and a website are all tools to be utilized to maximize exposure and sales. If you don't know how to create and regularly update your own website, hire someone who can do it for you. Don't like Face Book? Too bad. Use it anyway. It's one of the best ways to get your work and ideas OUT THERE! Make a "How to Paint _______" video and post it on YouTube. Write a blog. Don't know how to Tweet? Ask Donald Trump what he thinks of Twitter. Got the idea? Familiarize yourself with all the options and decide which direction to go in. Sooner or later you'll find the right mix of social media outlets that work for you. Who knows? Perhaps we'll engineer a comeback for sporting art!


Postscript: I spoke with Alan Fausel of Bonhams about the factors influencing the sporting art market and he said there are many complex issues at work. The banning of foxhunting in Britain, Millenials not being interested in conspicuous consumption, dogs and horses relegated to pet status as opposed to having jobs (herding, ratting, hunting) and protests by animal activists groups such as PETA against purebred dogs (as opposed to shelter pets), have all contributed to the decline in the market. He feels what an artist should be most concerned with is trying to get their viewer to see what they see themselves, or show the viewer something they've never seen before. I think it's great advice!