I stumbled into painting the hunt by chance. My meandering path of artistic enthusiasms led me from landscape painting, to a spell as a professional portrait painter, and then, to the blossoming Plein Air movement, with its events and associations. Each held interest for me, but did not quite hold my focus.
A commission to paint a child led to a commission to paint his father, who was a Master with a local foxhunting club. A Master is an official of the club and is entitled to wear the distinctive scarlet jacket and colored collar. For the portrait, rather than sit him in a chair, I decided to go out and see what a foxhunt looked like. That was a revelation!
A typical hunt meeting begins in the morning at a designated fixture, the term for the farm or property where the participants assemble. Trailers roll in and unload horses. Riders tack up and mill around in low morning light, against a backdrop of beautiful Maryland countryside. The hounds arrive and spill out noisily, as the huntsmen and whippers-in keep them in hand. The hosts bring out stirrup cups and a light snack to serve the mounted field. Then, with a note on the horn, off they go!
From the day of my first hunt, I have spent almost a decade and a half focused on painting a mix of subjects that are connected to the world of horses in Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region. Foxhunters often ride Thoroughbreds to keep them fit, and race them in the spring at local events called point to points. These events are regional in flavor and have an informal air. The National Steeplechase Association offers a full season of sanctioned races and events, including the professional version of American Jump Racing. And of course, there is the track, known as flat racing, with the largest purses as well as a national audience. All this is supported by horse breeding and training, a large part of the economy of our area.
The true subject matter is the people who fiercely maintain these traditions. With family connections that reach back generations, they form a unique culture. I have found them to be an admirable bunch. Good humored, they love to be outdoors and enjoy a good party. They have been very welcoming to an artist who is constantly asking if he can hang around, set up an easel along the racecourse, or offer his pictures for sale at various events. They have been extremely generous, and I believe genuinely appreciate seeing their way of life represented with interest and authenticity.
The challenges this sport sets for a painter are considerable. At first, I spent time attending events with a camera in hand. Everything moved so fast, I did not yet have the skills to attempt working directly from life. As I began to understand what I wanted to paint, I began to bring my plein air skills to bear. I learned that gouache was the best medium for working quickly on location. Painting the landscape was the easy part. The horses, hounds and figures were more challenging!
I realized that painting the horse on location meant that I needed to be able to do so from my knowledge of the subject. I set myself a program of study to memorize the basic forms and actions of the Thoroughbred. The best tool for this turned out to be sculpture. A couple of simple clay models helped the most. I understand DeGas’ wax horse models now. They taught him the form and served as studio tools to paint the pattern of light and shade correctly. This is the opposite of the usual advice “to paint what you see, not what you know”! Without knowledge of horse anatomy, you cannot interpret the immediate visual information. Armed with new skills, I have increased my ability to produce several useful studies from each event I attend. Many studies stand alone as complete works, but more often, they are a step along the path to realizing a fully finished, larger composition.
This is an Oil Painters group, but let me add a bit about gouache. I use gouache as oil painting by other means. I use the same pigments, put them out on an arm palette, often use them at full strength, and build up the image like an oil painting. Gouache can be used like watercolor, but I like the opaque covering power. It cannot be beaten for speed and convenience on location, and for travel. It also is practical as a medium for previewing an idea for a composition. I use it for working from my imagination as it allows for quick correction and exploration.
Photography still plays a large role in my work. I love working from photos, they inspire and reveal aspects of the subject I simply would not see any other way. The races and hunts are photographed by many professionals and amateurs alike, and I have made great use of their work, always with permission and compensation. Some people shoot with me in mind, having previously discussed the aspects of the event in which I am interested. As the Official Artist for the National Steeplechase Association, I work closely with their Official Photographer, who is the only person with on-course access. It is a collaborative process.
My style is painterly and expressive, and my frequent work on location cultivates the impressionistic effect I strive to maintain in the studio. Sporting Art is often set on a lower pedestal by art critics, because the Sport aspect often supersedes the Art. My aim is to express the visual poetry, but also be a keen interpreter of the peculiar character of the subject. “Expression without description” is a personal motto.
My oil technique is simple. I do not use solvents. Refined linseed oil is my only medium. I mix a small amount into the pigments I do not find buttery enough from the tube. After that, little oil is added. I do not like working on gessoed panels. I need the texture of canvas to achieve the look I want. Everything is directly painted with no preliminary drawing, although, as De Laszlo said, “All my painting is drawing”.
I try to finish a painting in one continual process, rarely taking longer than a couple of days. If the painting is not working, it gets scraped or discarded. My most important insight over many years of painting is to not hesitate to begin again. Most lengthy battles on an oil painting are lost. Sargent suggested that a satisfactory portrait could not be achieved by correction of unsatisfactory parts; it had to be begun again and built up in a smooth process. I think this is true of almost all subjects. If I start well and keep the flow, I may succeed in carrying it through. This sort of oil painting will not usually allow you to pull out a win with late fixes.
I do not see an end to my enthusiasm for being a Sporting Artist. It combines all the subjects to which I am attracted. For a painter who maintains the traditions of representational oil painting, it seems to be a particularly good fit.
Over more than a decade of painting on location at equestrian events, I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen another artist. I invite you to come on out and give it a try. See you at the races!