Thursday, September 15, 2016

Artistic Influences

Today, I'm going to write about artistic influences, which to me is one of the most important aspects of an artist's development. I've long admired the works of the Old Masters, especially Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck, Thomas Lawrence, Henry Raeburn and the more contemporary painters, Sargent, Sorolla, and Munnings. There are countless other painters I admire, but these artists represent the core of my artistic influences. I also want to emphasize once again, the role of the subconscious. We may or may not be aware of what inspires us to paint what we do.
As I've stated in earlier posts, I studied portraiture at the Art Students League with John Howard Sanden. Sanden is a slick, brilliant painter, with soft colors and attractive people in his canvases. I could have studied with one of the more classically trained artists at the League, but I liked the fresh quality of Sanden's portraits, and his excellent draftsmanship. I had just come from Aviano's atelier, where students were required to paint the same thing for weeks at a time, so I was ready for something different.
I learned a great deal from working in Sanden's class. Sometimes I'd paint the same pose for the entire week, sometimes I'd pick a different view each day. Sanden's lectures were lively and informative and I never needed to take notes. I remembered most of what he said, even to this day. He was lavish in his praise for his students' work, and was one of the biggest influences of my life. Although I didn't end up painting portraits of people, the training I got from his class was invaluable.
About ten years ago I attended one of his lectures at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. He was giving another of his memorable performances, telling of his world travels and famous people he's painted over the years. When he stated that he never copied other painters or paintings, I thought perhaps I misunderstood him, but when someone in the audience asked him about other artists' influence, he reiterated that he's never been influenced by anyone else's work or ideas. I find that quite remarkable. Why would any artist want to eliminate a source of inspiration, no matter where it comes from?
For example, I went to see the Joachim Sorolla exhibit at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art on 57th & Madison in 1989. It was a very large exhibition, with many paintings never before seen in this country. We all know about his gigantic murals up at the New York Hispanic Society in the Bronx, but this was a show of his astonishing pictures of children on the beach, women in cool interiors, and the unforgettable "Mending the Sail," a magnificent, life-size study of sunlight and shadow.
"Sewing the Sail" by Joaquin Sorolla
Back in the 1990's, when Thomas Hoving was turning every exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art into a mega-media event, with lots of hype and PR, here was an important exhibition that was flying below the radar. People were overheard asking, "Why haven't we ever heard of this painter before?" Several of the paintings made a deep impression on me. Of course "Mending the Sail" was a marvelous tour de force, but another, smaller and unpretentious painting titled "Picking Raisins" also caught my attention. It shows a dark interior with women performing some unknown task. A broad diagonal slash of yellow light cuts across the plane of the floor, neatly slicing the picture in two. A very thin sliver of light indicates the door, the only clue as to the light source.
Years later, when I was visiting friends in Kentucky I was taken to the Kentucky Training Center, where horses were being walked along the shed row. A thin stream of sunlight was shining on the floor, coming from an open door. As the horses walked through the light. I was mesmerized by the effect. It immediately brought to mind the painting by Sorolla. Of course, when I got home I worked up a canvas of the subject. It's still one of my favorite paintings, although now I'd like to make the edge of the light less square at the end, a la Sorolla.
"Morning Sunlight"
Sometimes we're aware of these influences and sometimes we're not. I recently made a discovery about Munnings and Charles Wellington Furse, one of my favorite unknown horse painters. He was an extremely precocious painter, painting some of the most beautiful pictures I've ever seen (alas, only in books). He was in poor health his entire life and died at the age of 36. I can only imagine what he would have accomplished had he lived as long as his contemporaries, Munnings and Sargent. "Cubbing With The York and Ainsty," a life-size painting of the children of the M.F.H., Lycett Green, Esq., was painted in 1904, the year he died. A large group of children on horseback sweep in from the left, two boys and two girls and a few stray hounds at their horses' feet, with the huntsman and his hounds off to the right. It's a masterpiece of atmosphere and light, even more remarkable considering much of it was done in his studio. Even the size of the canvas, 7 feet x 9 1/2 feet, belies the effort it must have taken, given the extreme frailty of the painter. In 1908, four years after his death, the Burlington Fine Arts Club published the "Illustrated Memoir of Charles Wellington Furse, A.R.A." It's a lavishly illustrated, over-sized catalogue of an exhibition of his work held posthumously at the Club in 1906.  Along with thirty-five black and white reproductions of his paintings are Furse's lectures and letters, including one where he describes working on the picture to his wife. "The picture moves. and the children are almost finished, and to-day I get a bay horse into the room, and hope to get ahead with that. It is exciting as he will have to mount half a dozen steps, and I am a little alarmed lest he put an erring hind leg through the canvas. I am staying on (in London, I'm assuming) to finish as far as may be - the hounds and the bay horse and the head of the little girl's horse, part of which shows." The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy the year after his death, (as far as I can ascertain), since the catalogue states the painting was exhibited at the R.A. before being shown at the Burlington Club in 1906.


There was another young whipper-snapper exhibiting at the Academy in those days - Alfred J. Munnings. Now you can't tell me he didn't see Furse's painting. It's a gigantic masterpiece, one not easily missed or overlooked. One can just imagine the impression seeing it must have made on the young Munnings. He was exhibiting two pictures that year, "Leaving the Fair," and "The Low Meadows." He was only twenty-seven at the time and quite impressionable. His influences were still tied to the German painters of the late 1800's, as Brian Sewell notes in his article in the Evening Standard, "These (paintings of gypsies and horse fairs) were a response to the lively, even urgent, compositions and fluid brushwork of Heinrich von Z├╝gel, a now forgotten animal painter long established in Munich, where Munnings was again in 1909; it should not be forgotten that Munich was then still one of the great European schools of painting, particularly of academic realism."
http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/exhibitions/sir-alfred-munnings-an-artists-life-richard-green-w1-8319257.html
Fast forward twenty years to 1924, when Munnings was in great demand as a portrait painter. He was asked to paint a large group portrait of Lord & Lady Mildmay of Fleet and their two children on horseback. The painting has remarkable similarities to the Furse painting. I discovered this likeness while perusing Christie's sporting art catalogues in my library. There on the cover of the December 1999 sale is a detail of the Mildmay painting. Because of the way it's cropped on the cover, its striking similarity to Furse's "Cubbing With the York & Ainsty" is clear. The turn of the girl's head, the positioning of the riders and their mounts, even the horse with his head lowered, have their origins in the Furse painting. Now, I'm not saying Munnings deliberately copied the composition, but I am suggesting that the influence of Furse's picture is clearly evident. I think Furse's painting has more movement and is exciting to look at, while Munnings' portrait has a stiffness I associate with commissions in general. We never seen to be able to paint the exactly picture we'd like to paint, but rather have to defer to some degree to the wishes of the client.


The degree to which we're influenced doesn't necessarily depend on whether we choose to be influenced or not. At times we make a deliberate choice to use something in our work, but there are often times when we're unaware of the source. Earlier in this post I stated that Furse was an "extremely precocious painter." Imagine my surprise when, checking some of the information, I came across this description of him in the introduction to the catalogue, "precocious artist." I know I must have read this intro before, proving my point!
All the information for this post has come from books in my own collection. It's quite a luxury to be able to research what paintings Munnings was exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1905. Thanks to Jean Goodman's, "What A Go! The Life of Alfred Munnings," I was able to find the complete list of paintings he exhibited at the Royal Academy, starting in 1899 and ending sixty-one years later. After I finish writing this, I'm going to go back and count how many paintings Munnings exhibited at the Academy. It's rather impressive!
Books are a great resource for me and one of my greatest pleasures is to peruse volumes long out of print. I urge everyone to maintain as large a library as possible. There is so much information to be found in books. Of course, the Internet is a great resource too, but there's nothing like a thumbing through the pages of a good book to find just the information you're looking for.
I'd love to hear what influences you. Please write a comment below.
Reading List:
"Illustrated Memoir of Charles Wellington Furse," Burlington Arts Club, 1908
"The Painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida" by Edmund Peel, 1989
"What A Go! The Life of Alfred Munnings" by Jean Goodman, 1988
Christie's New York, Sporting Art Sale Catalogue, Wednesday, 1 December 1999

Friday, September 9, 2016

Should You Discount Your Work?


I'm back from my summer in Saratoga Springs, NY, after spending a week in Colorado with our son, who's out there studying mechanical engineering. Colorado is breathtakingly beautiful. I'd love to spend some time out there painting the mountains and skies. The lack of oxygen at that altitude though is alarming. I'm in decent physical shape, but hiking up the mountains was difficult because I couldn't breathe. It's a little frightening at first, but in moderation, you can acclimate yourself to go a little farther each day. Someone told me taking aspirin also helps because it thins your blood. Hopefully I'll be able to spend more time out there in the future, and make it all the way to the top of Horsetooth. It's a funny looking rock, and is the iconic landmark associated with the college town of Fort Collins. I love the name. Sort of like when I had a doctor named Dr. Withers. Hee haw!
The thing that really struck me on this visit was the lack of overweight people living in Fort Collins. Everyone seems to be on a health kick out there - even pregnant women were climbing up the mountain like goats! Lots of health food stores, restaurants and juice bars. Cars equipped with bike racks, kayaks, fishing and camping gear, tons of half ton pickups, RVs and campers going up or down the mountains to get to that favored camping/fishing spot for Labor Day. Bikers were everywhere, cycling up impossibly steep roads, undaunted by the summer heat or slope of the mountains. They take their fitness very seriously out there. I go to the gym three times a week and walk a lot, but those people take it to a whole other level. Pun intended.
The instant I set foot on the ground back in New York (Newark, actually) I was shocked to see how many people still smoke on the East Coast! I went outside the terminal to look for the shuttle and the smoke was so thick it smelled like the inside of a bar! EVERYBODY was puffing away on cigarettes, e-cigs and cigars. Nobody in Colorado smokes - at least not tobacco anyway! I couldn't help but notice all the smoke because I'd been in that clear mountain air for a week. Although I don't take my personal fitness to quite the same level as Coloradoans do, I think people would be a lot healthier on the East Coast if they just gave up their ciggies.
But let me get back to the Saratoga saga and my success, or lack thereof, with the gallery. I'd say all in all, it was a successful venture, but I'm not sure I'll be doing it again next year. The amount of work involved is staggering. I'm getting too old to do this myself or even with the help of my husband. Hiring people to set up the gallery is expensive and a bit frustrating. I had to design the layout of the gallery on the fly because the walls were so heavy that once you put two of them together there was no moving them. I actually had to figure out how a thousand square feet of space would flow from a small piece of scrap paper with X's and squares on it. Once the walls were set up (with the help of two hired hands), it was a simple matter of deciding where every painting would hang and every sculpture would go. Only kidding! It's never a simple matter; it requires a lot of thought and planning. It takes a few days to hang even a small show like mine. Then we had to hang the lights to properly light the paintings. I installed some extra fixtures myself after the gallery was set up, because it was essential that people could see the paintings properly. The space was always evolving too. A friend gave me some extra print racks, so I had to improvise a way of displaying them so people could browse through them all. Finally, I had to print and cut out labels, order posters, and hang up my shingle announcing I was open for business.
Traffic was spotty at best. People staying at the hotel seemed to be in a hurry - checking in or out, going to or from the track, going to the pool or parking garage, going out to dinner, or coming back from dinner too inebriated to look at paintings. I used to hear stories about a certain gallery owner who loved that sort of client - especially in the wee hours of the morning!


I advertised in the only paper worth reading up there - The Saratoga Special. The Clancy brothers - Joe and Sean - started it 16 years ago and have turned it into a very successful publication. They're terrific writers - smart, funny and they really know their horses. They were jockeys before they became writers. I got most of my visitors to the gallery from the advertising I did in The Special. I was very impressed with the response I got from my 1/4 page ads.
I came away with several commissions, some sales and some contacts. I don't know if that will translate into enough sales next year to make it worthwhile. The old adage, "You have to spend money to make money" is true, but spending money doesn't always guarantee that outcome, and one has to be savvy enough to know when and where to draw the line, so to speak. I think the perception people have of the galleries in Saratoga has changed. They don't seem to understand the long tradition it represents. An art exhibit is no longer a destination; it's just a diversion on the way to something else - dinner, drinks, the track. People would walk through the gallery like they were going to catch a train - hardly bothering to stop to read a label or look closely at a painting. I'd hear people out in the hallway, commenting on the beautiful paintings inside, but they rarely took the time to come in and take a better look. I just couldn't understand it.
So let's tackle the question posed in the title of this post - Should you discount your work? The answer is a complex one with no "one size fits all" solution. I'm sure you've all had the experience of putting your work in a gallery and painstakingly writing out a consignment list of the work, title, size and price, and the commission taken by the gallery. When you get your first check from the sale of one of your paintings however, you're surprised to find that the price was reduced by 15% before the gallery commission was taken out. When you ask the dealer what happened, he tells you a client bought four paintings, one of which was yours, and was given the usual 15% discount for buying in quantity. Or just that the client asked for a better price and the dealer gave it to him to "help the sale."



The day before I closed the gallery, I got a call from a prospective client about a painting he was very interested in. I was a bit surprised to hear from him. A week earlier he and his wife had come in and seen a painting they really liked. They were effusive about it. They discussed where it would go (their home or his office), how they could fit it in their car, etc., and said they'd be back the next day to pick it up. They didn't come back and I put it out of my mind. It happens a lot in this business. "I'll be back" or "I'll be in touch" is a phrase which often means just the opposite. This prospective client was now back home on Long Island and wanted to know if the painting was still available. I told him it was and we discussed the price again. I had given him a very good discount when he asked if that was my best price in the gallery. I wanted (and needed) to make a big sale. It's a very large painting and it was priced at $9,000. I offered him a 15% discount, thinking this would seal the deal. But they walked out without the painting and didn't show up the next day. It was now even more tempting to accept his cash offer over the phone. Here was my chance to make the sale. But at what cost? Essentially he was asking for a 44% discount! I told him very politely that perhaps we could discuss it in the future when he could meet my best price of $7,500. I thought that was a good way to phrase it. I hope he does call again, to tell me he has the money to buy it. It would put me in the black. But if he doesn't, that's okay too. There's a difference between negotiating a deal and giving away your work. "Suppose it never sells?" you ask yourself, as you weigh your options. That's a chance you'll have to take. It's been my experience that serious collector's who have limited funds will often ask to work out a payment plan on a work they want, rather than pass it up. Some artists don't want to negotiate at all, which I used to think was a bit unreasonable. People like to haggle. Especially in this economy. Price your work accordingly and then add 15%, so you can give a discount if requested. They do it all the time in business. Why can't artists be savvy business people too?
The bottom line is, I didn't sell the painting, even after I gave the client a very substantial discount. What does that tell me? It tells me he doesn't want the painting badly enough. I have no way of knowing whether he can afford it or not. Perhaps there are other things he'd rather spend his money on. Or he likes playing the game. Haggling is a game I'm not terribly good at playing. Perhaps I just don't know how to close the deal.
What I came to realize is that my work has a value, and selling it for way less than what I think it's worth would make me feel worse than not selling it at all. Even when the bills are piling up. An idealist? Maybe.
Jonathan Shepard, one of the most successful trainers ever to saddle a horse, came in while I was on the phone with my client. He'd overheard my conversation and when I got off the phone, he asked me if that was somebody trying to "beat me down" on my price. When I replied yes, indeed it was, he gave me some solid advice. "Stay firm!" he declared in his impeccable English accent. By Jove, I think I will!

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Demise of the Art Supply Store

I had an interesting visitor in the gallery today - a sales rep who sells frames and artists' materials to stores nationwide. We had a long talk reminiscing about the good old days when art supply stores were plentiful and stocked with real artists' supplies.
When I first began painting (back in the Stone Age), New York City seemed to have art supply stores everywhere you looked, and they were fully stocked with materials for every type of art - fine, commercial and graphic. Arthur Brown, Pearl Paint, Sam Flax and Freidman's had at least one location in the city, but typically many more. It seemed there was a Sam Flax on every corner. These stores were geared more towards commercial art. This was because all the advertising agencies and publishers needed stores close enough to be able to deliver art supplies in a timely manner - sometimes the same day. Archaic items like rubber cement, layout pads, pencils, colored markers and storyboards, which have become obsolete in the age of computers, were all standard fare back then. If an office ran out of something it wasn't a problem because you just went down to the local branch on your lunch hour and charged it to your corporate account. There were specialty stores too, like Joseph Torch, on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue where you could look through shelves loaded with fabulous handmade papers - sumptuous watercolor and pastel papers from France and Italy, drawing pads and watercolor blocks of Fabriano and D'Arches. All of this was standard fare - no special order was required. Imagine that if you can!
For everything else, there was Arthur Brown in midtown. A large, fully stocked art supply store, it was the place to go for the finest quality sable watercolor brushes, oil paints, pens, printing inks and sculpting materials. The prices were a bit steep, but if you needed something that wasn't quite mainstream, this was the place to go. I don't remember when Pearl Paints actually showed up on my radar. I seem to remember they sold house paint or something, and it wasn't the giant art supply warehouse it later became.
When they closed its doors on Canal Street a few years ago, it sounded the death knell for quality art supply stores everywhere. Even though I live within commuting distance of New York City, there is no longer a retail store devoted exclusively to art supplies. With all the mergers and closings, such as Utrecth and Dick Blick, these stores have become mega stores that substitute vast quantities of pseudo-art supplies for quality artists materials. They cater to no one. One size fits all. The only drawing paper you can find is Canson pastel paper in a limited number of colors, and even if you find a suitable color, the sheet will invariably have a dent or crease in it from someone carelessly putting it back into the poorly designed wire display shelf.
I detest the craft stores that have monopolized the market. A. C. Moore (which I consider to be the best of the lot, although by no means a suitable substitute), Michael's and the new kid on the strip mall block, Hobby Lobby, seem to have thousands of items I will never use, and nothing I actually need. There isn't a store in existence in New Jersey where I can just walk in and buy something as simple as a Robert Simmons Filbert bristle brush.
Try getting a roll of primed or unprimed linen canvas, or a bottle of turpentine, let alone a particular kind of brush. Or a stretcher that isn't an even size. It's not that the store is temporarily out of stock; they don't carry odd sized stretchers because there's not enough of a demand for them. A 15" stretcher requires a frame with a 15" measurement somewhere in its configuration, which doesn't exist in their tidy little world of standard sizes. And yet, you'll find row after row of mirrors, candles, furniture, millions of different markers, beads, popsicle sticks, rubber stamps and ready made frames. Heaven help you if you need a frame other than a 8" x 10", 11" x 14" or 16" x 20". At one time you could purchase wood or metal frame sections in any size and assemble it at home. Although they were all very basic, they served in a pinch. Not anymore. They're long gone. Your only option is to order a custom frame. All custom frame orders in these places are horribly overpriced (even after the automatic 50% discount they give on every order), the people aren't very knowledgeable, and it takes many weeks to make just one frame. This is not the type of service any serious artist can or should tolerate. Maybe it's fine if you're framing a print to go over the sofa, but an artist doing an exhibition with upwards of a dozen paintings to frame in a hurry? Never.

When I lived in New York City, things were simple and uncomplicated. When I moved out to the suburbs, I became aware of how limited the access was just by virtue of the fact that I was "no longer in Kansas anymore, Toto," but the problem was still manageable. Whenever I couldn't make it to Pearl Paints on Canal Street, I'd drive to the one in Woodbridge, NJ. Not the same company, or so they insisted, but they had the same name, same logo and most, if not all, the same inventory. It was a good alternative to driving into the city. When they closed, I discovered the Utrecht Outlet in Cranbury, NJ. They had a fabulous warehouse sale once a year, where they pretty much gave the stuff away. I bought things like sculpting, woodcutting and etching tools, with the idea of using them someday. (I haven't used any of them to date!) But the deals were so fantastic, I couldn't pass them up. One year I came away with two gigantic rolls of primed Belgium linen canvas, and a carton of four  48" x 60" gallery wrapped canvases for less than the cost of one roll of linen.
It's not the bargains I miss so much as the assortment and variety of the materials available. What do art students, amateurs and even professionals do nowadays? I'm constantly amazed by the lack of knowledge of the sales clerks in these stores, and the tacit acceptance of these stores by the people who frequent them as the go-to place to buy their art supplies. I'm often asked about materials when I'm shopping. My advice is invariably more helpful than the employees'. After all, most have never used any of the supplies they sell. What a difference this is compared to the employees at Pearl Paints, where the employees were sometimes more knowledgeable than college professors about the materials they were selling.
Art has always been on shaky footing when it comes to choosing a career. How many of you were told by your parents, "That's fine dear, but how are you going to make a living?" Or asked, "When are you going to get a real job?" Fortunately, I never got that from my parents. I was encouraged to pursue the career I seemed to want even as a young child.
I was informed by the visitor in the gallery that the last bastion of this old world order, New York Central Supply, down on the lower East Side is also closing its doors forever. What a shame!
So the odds are definitely stacked against young artists these days, as it becomes harder and harder to obtain the basic materials needed to paint and draw. There are many teachers and schools that still teach classical methods, such as Juliette Aristides in Seattle, Washington. She has written two excellent books, "Classical Drawing Atelier" and "Classical Painting Atelier". One must be very determined to become a classically trained fine artist these days. The rewards of an artist's life, however, are definitely worth the effort.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

New Heights!

Yesterday I got 45 page views! Thanks everybody! Keep coming back.
Being in the gallery all day has given me the opportunity to really study the paintings of the artists I represent - Heather St. Clair Davis, Peter Smith, Booth Malone and Larry Wheeler. I've discovered a few interesting things lately. For instance, the Heather St, Clair Davis landscape has a fox in the foreground that's camouflaged by the rust and brown colors in the brush. I made an even more exciting discovery this week. She signed the painting twice! While studying the way she painted the grassy lane that takes your eye right into the middle of the painting, I noticed some underpainting below her signature that called for a closer examination. Under the surface, there it was - her signature in a light, Naples Yellow hue. It's bigger and lower than the second signature, which is in brown. It's been painted over, but is still faintly visible. Now you might ask yourself why she did this. Someone even asked me if this meant it was a fake. Rest assured; it doesn't mean it's a fake. This is an exciting discovery that only adds to the value of the painting.
Two signatures are visible - one in brown, the other in faint yellow.
For centuries artists have repainted, resized and revised their work. When it's visible, it's called "pentimento." The brush strokes and sometimes even the color, come through the top layer of oil paint, making it visible to the viewer. The significance of pentimenti (plural) is that they offer a unique glimpse into the painting process of the artist. (Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of the term if you don't have access to any books on artists' methods and materials such as Mayer, etc.) John Singer Sargent often repainted areas of his large canvases of aristocratic clients in elegant gowns and luxurious surroundings. The most famous of these is the fallen strap on Madame Gautreau's gown in Portrait of Madame X. It caused quite a stir back then - it symbolized scandal and loose morals! Although Sargent exhibited it at the Salon in Paris in 1884, it was not well-received and the sitter's mother asked that it be withdrawn from the exhibition for fear it would ruin her daughter's reputation. Sargent refused, but later repainted the strap so that it was sitting on her shoulder. It's now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is considered one of Sargent's finest paintings. (Personally, I've never cared for it. The contrived pose with her twisted arm, the minimalist background and sickly complexion of the sitter have always made me uncomfortable. Madame Gautreau was considered a beauty in her day, but this painting hardly flatters her. Parisians must have felt the same way, for it was soundly rejected by the public and the critics, and quashed Sargent's hopes of establishing himself as a portrait painter in France.)
I suspect Heather might have restretched the canvas or changed the size, because the first signature is very close to the edge of the frame. I'm not an expert; I only know from my own painting adventures that a composition can be improved by changing the size. (There's something to be said for doing preliminary sketches. Ahem!) The painting has backing paper on it, and I'm not going to open it up to see if that's the case. A prospective buyer, on the other hand, might actually request it to learn more about the painting.
I have a pair of paintings I did of a fox cub or kit and English foxhound puppy in the gallery. Originally they were 8" x 10". I put them in square 8" x  8" frames which I had lying around in the studio. It only occurred to me to cut down the pictures after trying to find some finished paintings that would fit the frames! They look so much better in the square format and yet, it would never have occurred to me to change the size if I hadn't been scrambling to find finished pictures for this exhibit!
Oopps! Unsigned. Better get the paint and brush out!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Travers Week!

Travers Week. When the racing world converges in this small upstate town in anticipation of the summer's final showdown. This is what's known as the "top of the stretch". The homestretch, the final strides to the wire, the finish line! Travers Week is traditionally the week leading up to the most important race of the entire meet. Saratoga is called the "Graveyard of Champions" because so many champions have been beaten here. The Travers is notorious for the favorites getting beaten. Secretariat, Affirmed, American Pharoah all suffered the same fate - a loss in the Travers. Losing to horses who just seem to come out of the woodwork for this one race and then retreat right back into it.
Last Saturday's Alabama was the unofficial start of Travers Week. We were treated to a spectacular win in that race by America's newest sweetheart, Songbird. A filly who looks like her daddy (in horse racing that's a good thing; in people, maybe not so much) and runs like him too. Only faster.
My parking space karma was good, as usual. I left the gallery around 4:30 pm and drove straight down East Avenue to the front door of the track. I did a quick K-turn to snag a spot half a block from Union Avenue, facing in the right direction (away from the track). I got to the paddock in time to see the eight race on the monitors before figuring out my "spot" - the best place to try and get a photo of Songbird. (I took my camera this time.) I looked in my program to see what her post position was, and looked around for tree number 6. No karma here. The "6" was across the paddock, near the saddling enclosure, as far away as it could possibly be. I'd only have two chances to photograph her up close before the race - coming into the paddock and going out. The trend in the past ten years has been to have two grooms accompany the horses in the paddock, so getting a photograph of the horse's head and neck without a person blocking it is now impossible. Undaunted, I pick a spot along the rail near Big Red Spring. It's a shady spot, with long shadows and large patches of sunlight. The  horses for the Fourstardave are now beginning to enter the paddock. King Kreesa and Grand Arch (last year's winner) are being saddled under the trees directly in front of me. I click away. Great light. Great color. I can easily picture what I'm going to paint here.
King Kreesa and Grand Arch (#2)
Then it's, "Riders up!" The horses leave the paddock but I stay put. I don't want to loose my spot. The race goes off and there's an inquiry after the race. It delays the start of the Alabama a few minutes.

"KEEP BACK 4 FEET" is painted in big red letters on all the paddock rails. Used to be a time when there weren't any rails surrounding the paddock. People could just walk among the horses being saddled to get a better look. I know, I know. The world is a different place now. But I think it sends the wrong message to the fans. It certainly isn't a very friendly message. Everybody just ignores the warning.
Entering the paddock
The horses are entering the paddock for the Alabama now. They come into the paddock in consecutive order, one, two, three. I look for number six. Here she comes. Her head's down and there's lots of tack on her - bridle, halter, etc. It's hard to see her face. They walk directly to the saddling shed. They don't take a turn around the tree or anything. I'll only get one more chance for a photo when she comes out. They no longer walk the horses around the paddock one full time. Just put the riders up and walk out to the track. Songbird has a lead pony in the paddock, which further hides her from view.
Songbird!
The pony is in the way as she comes around the corner.
The lead pony blocks my view!
I get wonderful shots of the pony....
It took me three weeks to notice that the saddlecloths are color coded - red and white for number 1, white and black for number 2, etc. It's always the same for every race. I feel rather silly, since I'm supposed to be so observant! They have the name of the race and the horses on them for the Alabama.
I race down to the end of the grandstand to get some photos of the horses warming  up. I finally have a chance to get some full length photos as they warm up. I take some nice shots of Weep No More, Going For Broke, Go Maggie Go, Dark Nile as they circle back towards the starting gate. I finally spot Songbird as she comes around the turn. She looks magnificent. Before they head to the starting gate, Mike Smith crosses himself and looks towards heaven, uttering a silent prayer before the race.
Mike Smith asking for Divine guidance
Then suddenly, he looks confident and ready to go. He smiles as he talks with the outrider.

Songbird wins the Alabama easily - as easily as Frosted won the Whitney two weeks ago. Another awesome performance by the best filly in the country. I wonder what NYRA can possibly do to top this. The Travers seems a bit anti-climatic. I've never known a year when the biggest stars weren't the three-year-olds in the Midsummer Derby. It's as if summer's already over. I can't believe it almost is.
Songbird Takes Flight!