Thursday, April 14, 2016

Swimming With Dolphins

Yesterday I was talking about Lucian Freud's horse paintings, saying I didn't understand what he was trying to do with them. It's an odd thing to ask, I guess. I'm not trying to assign some deep meaning to them. Maybe he just wanted to paint something else for a change. All those ghastly nudes! Or paint something for Debo, a close friend. Most horse pictures are pretty straightforward: a portrait of so-and-so and his favorite hunter, or a champion racehorse. Munnings went a lot further, painting vibrant pictures of horse fairs, hunt meets and racing scenes - horses and English life. (There's actually a book of his paintings with that title.) There are countless other horse painters - Stubbs, Herring, Ferneley, Landseer - who've elevated the genre to near legitimacy, but that's a post for another day.
I wanted to become an artist because I liked to draw. I didn't actually know how I was going to achieve my goal. I couldn't afford college. I had taken art classes all through high school and had put together a portfolio of my best work, so I thought I'd be able to get a job in New York City. That's as far as my planning went. I had a vague idea that I would paint more pictures, put together a better portfolio and maybe even take an art class or something. I stumbled into publishing, taking a job as a paste-up and mechanical artist. (It had "artist" in the title, so I figured I was on the right track.) I soon learned there was no art in the work I was doing, but I was supporting myself and needed a steady job.
I moved around a lot, finding better positions and earning more money. Eventually I found a job as an artist working for Karl Mann. He had a painting factory (literally) on West 13th Street. I created original works of art, copying a "master" painting that someone else had created. A client could order artwork seen in the catalogue or showroom up on 59th Street. Sometimes, I'd be painting five of the same picture at one time! It was excellent training. It was also loads of fun, since I got to paint in all kinds of different styles - abstract, collage, realism. Not to mention it's where I met my future husband.
As a young artist in New York City, I was talented, confident and technically very agile. I could put paint on a canvas in a way that intimidated other people. I'm not bragging or blowing my own horn. I'm making a point. For years, I allowed my natural ability to just carry me along. If a thing was in front of me, I could paint it. Other considerations must have entered into my creative process - perhaps I wanted to capture a particular light effect or show the humor in a frisky foal's antics, but I wasn't aware of them. The act of painting was and still is, intuitive for me. I just painted what I saw. I learned how to see (and paint) hue, value and chroma from Michael Aviano in his atelier on 79th Street. I learned how to paint portraits in John Howard Sanden's class at the Art Students League. My ability to "slap paint around" served me well. I took figure drawing classes at Evie Fisk's place (not actually a class, just a model), visited museums and galleries, and had serious discussions about art and artists. It was all very vital and exciting.

When I decided to specialize in equine art, that was exciting too! I found my way around the race tracks and hunt meets, which provided plenty of new subject matter and entry into a different world - the world of owners, trainers and riders. I had lots of commission work, as well as gallery exhibits. I traveled a lot. I went to the Kentucky Horse Park and visited the legendary Calumet Farms. I went to Aintree to watch the Grand National (National Velvet and all that), I visited Munnings' house and studio, Castle House, Dedham and saw where he created all those masterpieces. It's been a wonderful ride, and I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to do what I love for so many years. But I have a caveat. Selling my artwork has changed me. I can no longer differentiate between painting to paint and painting to sell. Artists have wrestled with this problem for centuries, I know, but it worries me because I don't know how to solve the problem.
Let's back up a little. Years ago, when I was a member of the American Academy of Equine Art (AAEA), I accepted an invitation to teach a week-long painting workshop in the Kentucky Horse Park. One of the lessons required the students to take a story from a magazine such as The Thoroughbred Record or The Blood Horse and illustrate it.
As an example of what I wanted, I showed them a painting I had recently done. The viewer was underwater, looking up into the sunlit surface of the bright blue water, with a shadowy silhouette of a horse and dolphins swimming around it. I'd been looking through a copy of The Thoroughbred Record and came across a story about a racehorse in Australia, who'd been training on the beach (I guess that's what they do down there). Suddenly the horse threw his rider and galloped right into the ocean. He continued to swim farther and farther out and soon began to tire. He was in distress and certainly in danger of drowning when a school of dolphins suddenly appeared and herded the hapless equine back to shore or to a rescue boat. I was captivated by the story. Why did the horse head for the ocean? How did the dolphins know he was in danger? What did the horse look like? I considered doing something from the point of view of the exercise rider and trainer looking on helplessly as the horse swam out to sea, or a close-up of the horse, with just his head above the water and the whites of his eye showing the panic in them. I considered adding a few dolphins, leaping or nudging him or something, but it just didn't convey what I was feeling. Then I started thinking about the dolphins and what they would have seen. Why did they rescue this strange creature? Clearly it wasn't anything from their watery world. Could they sense his fear and panic? (I'm sure they did.) So I chose the dolphins' point of view to convey the bizarre story.
That's an example of conscious planning. Now I have a story about subconscious influences.
On one of my many sojourns to the hunt country of Unionville, PA, I was following the hunt by car with some friends from the area. All day long, we kept running into another follower, Mrs. Nancy Hannum in her banged up old Jeep. (She was Master of Cheshire for many, many years.) She drove through creeks, over hill and dale, off-road and on to keep up with the hounds. I was told it was a common sight, as she could no longer ride to hounds. I didn't pay too much attention to her when I was taking photographs, because the exciting part was seeing the pageantry of the hunt - pink coats, beautifully turned out horses and riders, and hounds everywhere. When I got to my studio to paint a scene from that day however, I discovered I had one photograph of Mrs. Hannum right behind the huntsman and hounds as they were heading home. I knew immediately that was my subject - the spirit, dedication and determination of that legendary lady! Titled, "Mrs. Hannum Riding To Hounds", I consider it one of my most successful paintings. It tells a story. It was not a conscious choice of subject. But in spite of all the noise and excitement, somewhere in the quiet recesses of my mind, I recognized Mrs. Hannum's indomitable spirit that pushed her to continue doing what she loved.
Getting in touch with the subconscious (or trying to) will make you a better artist. How do you do that? I'm not really sure. Ask yourself questions. Reflect. Examine. Muddle through. I find looking through my photos is a good way to discover subconscious influences. (While looking through my Grand National photos for a new subject, I discovered I had photographed the same police horse year after year without realizing it.)
This post was supposed to be about planning a picture, about having an idea of what you want to do in a painting before sitting down at the easel. It's not a subject they cover in the how-to books. They're full of techniques: how to mix colors, paint skies, use watercolors. Very few focus on how to find what motivates you to paint. Just ask yourself, "What do I want to do with this picture? Why do I want to paint it?" If you have an answer, your painting will be more successful. I guarantee it.


  1. Comment section working. I was starting to get interested but the formatting isn't compatible with my allergy brain. Can you add more spacing between paragraphs? That first section is wayyyy too big to read without touching the screen to keep my place.

  2. I believe I may have been in your second class, and your teaching influenced my future teaching. I'm all about having a personal point of view before you start that painting. As the former Dean of Painting for the AAEA, I was part of many juries for the shows. Capture my imagination with some degree of proficiency, and you were in the show. There were many paintings competing for the spots on the wall, many of them very well done. But a few were exceptional, telling a snippet of life, showing personality without being too sweet. Love your work, loved your class, and miss you!

    1. Cindi: It's nice to think I may have influenced such a wonderful, gifted artist! Those workshops were so much fun and produced so many great paintngs!

  3. and i have 2 Cancelli originals. xo

  4. I remember Mrs. Hannum. Ben Hardaway (who is still alive and kicking) said she would scare the hell out of him, when he got in the car with her (hunting). That's saying a lot. I had a very nice visit with her one afternoon, can't remember the context, it wasn't a painting.
    Loved your Blog. Keep it up!

  5. I'm laughing out loud! That takes some doing to scare Ben Hardaway! Mrs. Hannum was truly one of a kind, and the world is a poorer place without her.

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