My wife, Janis, loves horses. She used to ride a lot when she lived in Chula Vista, and she has wanted to have a painting of a horse for some time. Recently, when we were at an opening at 16 Patton (a gallery here in Asheville), she spotted a beautiful painting of a horse. It really was (is) stunning, and she's talked about it ever since. Then, a few weeks ago, she decided "dammit, my husband is an artist, and he can damn well paint a horse for me!" And since I have no desire to sleep on the couch, I agreed.
We did a Google search for photos of horses and started sorting through the roughly 8.2 trillion images to get an idea of what she wanted. The ones she liked the most were the ones where the horse was tossing its head with its mane flying. I printed out several images along that theme, worked up a sketch of a running horse (mane waving in the wind), and got her okay. Then it was time to start putting paint on canvas.
This is a good-sized canvas, 36"x48". I roughed in the horse and then laid on the paint with a painting knife. This isn't my usual style, but since a horse isn't my usual subject, it seemed like a good opportunity to try something new, and works done with a painting knife have a certain intrinsic energy. After a couple of days, though, this was clearly not going well. In fact, it sucked. So I scraped everything off. The next day, I came in with a brush (my normal painting tool) and started the horse over. From the beginning, the pose was much more dynamic and accurate. I could feel the weight and heft of the horse's body, the movement of its legs, the flow of the mane, the way the dust was being kicked up. The painting was rocking. Then I stood back and really looked at it.
The painting was awful. Terrible! It looked like something you'd see in a Tijuana tourist shop. It was as trite as you could get: "here's the white horse, running through the dust (or water, or whatever)" .... gag! I was embarrassed to have my name associated with it. Clearly, nothing could (or should) save this turkey.
So I went back to the source of all these troubles: the paintings of horses that Janis saw at 16 Patton. The artist is a woman named Mase Lucas. Her works are simply beautiful. The horses are real, with their own personalities. The paintings have a life of their own, a vibrancy, that my turkey lacked. Mase knows horse anatomy, and her creatures are accurately painted without being slaves to photographic likeness. They're portraits of specific horses, while at the same time capturing a universal horse spirit.
Once I saw Mase's works, I understood my situation better. I did a painting several years ago titled "Welcome to Sarajevo". It was of a house near the Sarajevo airport that had been severely damaged during the Bosnian civil war. My painting was done from photos I'd taken while with the peacekeeping forces there. I'd stripped out all the extraneous junk surrounding it and just focused on the house. An artist friend later described the painting as a "portrait". Good portraits capture, not just a likeness, but the essence of the subject - you immediately understand what he/she/it has been through and what its character is like. That's why my "portrait" of the house in Sarajevo worked so well. And that's also why my painting of the running horse failed so badly. It wasn't about a real horse, it was about some hackneyed idea of a horse.
So I'm starting over again. After this morning, here's how the painting looks right now:
The crappy running horse is gone. Now I have a great, mottled, richly textured surface to paint on. The next step is to research horses, understand how their bodies are built, find some good source material, and create a good composition. Something tells me it'll take a while. Meanwhile, Mase Lucas' paintings are my guide. I'm not going to copy any of them - they're her horses, not mine. But if I can get half of the character of her horses into mine, then I'll consider it successful.