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.
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.