How it is Made: The Inspiration behind the Painting

The medium of Acrylic has a huge range of possibilities - vivid colors, versatility of application, easy water soluble clean up and the option of capturing the finest of detail. But to fully benefit from this versatile medium one must learn to control the brightness of the color, soften the naturally hard edges and "blend" smoothly from one color to the next if you so desire. By controlling transitions with carefully applied layers the appearance of a variety of textures can be achieved. Accurate mixing of colors is essential, as the thin layers dry almost immediately, and at best, are semi opaque, requiring painting of each area several times.

My inspiration for THUNDERING HOOVES came from a wonderful day at a historical exhibition and plowing demonstration. Horses are a lifelong passion and favorite subject for me, and the variation of texture of the harnesses drew me to the heavy horse teams. When I find myself surrounded by horses on a sunny day, I take numerous photos to capture the action and patterns of light and shadow. Back in my studio, I decide on a composition, often rearranging animals and zeroing in on one aspect of a photo.

In this particular painting, I wanted to capture the power of the horses, without losing the "gentle giants" feel of the painting. The original photo, a full body shot, was cropped in close - I generally avoid cutting an animal at a joint such as the knee, as it can look awkward, but in this case, and I felt the cropping added to the "coming right out of the picture" feeling I was trying to capture. I begin with a small drawing, concentrating mainly on shapes and placement of the animals and correcting the distortions the photo may have. With a pencil and a piece of tracing paper over my drawing, I shade in the lights, darks and midtones, and use this value study to decide the final cropping of the image. I determined the size I want to do the painting, enlarge the basic shapes onto a fine grain linen canvas and stretch it. With a painting of this size and complexity, I spend several days carefully drawing the image onto the canvas. Though this step will be totally obliterated by paint as I go along, it provides a map for the early stages of the painting, ensures the correct placement of all the straps and buckles that make up the harness, and is the stage where I really get "connected" with the image. I seal the completed drawing with a mixture of 1 part gesso, 2 parts Matte Medium and 2 parts water to prevent the pencil bleeding into succeeding layers. By the way, this is the only time I ever use a medium - throughout the painting process my colors are thinned only with water.

With a mixture of my darkest color - most often a combination of Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue - diluted with water, I begin by establishing the pattern of light and shadow onto my canvas. It is this pattern that will carry the painting from a distance, and it is critical to the success of the finished piece.

Early in the painting I need to determine whether I'm going to "paint the light" or "paint the shadow". To maintain the appearance of strong sunlight and the realism I desire, I find it helpful at this point to decide if the majority of detail visible in the finished work will be in the areas of sunlight, with the shadows kept dark, or in the areas in shadow, with the lights somewhat blown out. In this painting I have decided to paint the light, to emphasize the golden reds of the horses against the dark background. I wash in layers as necessary to deepen the colors, aiming for the main hue, value, and intensity of each area. I generally don't use any white at this stage, but let the number of layers determine the darkness. Color decisions, changes from the photo reference, and corrections of value distortions are easier when tackled before the eye becomes to accustomed to looking at the image and before a lot of time is invested on details. I've decided on a powerful sky to compliment the strength of the horses, but with enough blue showing so as not to have a threatening appearance. I've added dark green trees and background to set off the warm colors in the horses. This complete, the paint, though loosely applied, gives an accurate representation of the look of the finished piece. From 30 yards away, it looks pretty much finished!

The challenge of the next several weeks work is to maintain the color and freshness of this stage while adding subsequent layers. I mix colors approximating those of my original block in, and as quickly as possible, cover the canvas with layers of opaque and semi-opaque paint. Wherever I like the look, I let some of the first layers show though. The paint is washed, scumbled, sponged, or scrubbed onto the canvas, using my largest brushes, and occasionally rags, sponges or pieces of sponge used like a brush. The consistency of my paint varies from that of light cream, to paint right from the tube. I then begin to work around the canvas, adding details and refining each area. I begin with the darks, most often at the center of interest, which is generally my area of strongest light/dark contrast. Each area is worked from dark to light, with the photo as a starting point, but adding colors from the horses into the harness, colors from the sky into the reflections in the metal, and colors from the background into the shadows. "Blended" passages are the most difficult to achieve, as the layers dry much too quickly for a smooth transition. Where I want a soft gradation from one color to the next, I use several thin layers, mixing each color gradually lighter as I go, scumbling the paint and allowing the slight texture of the canvas to break up the application. Each lighter value is layered on top of the previous, with some of the color before showing along the edge of the current layer. Light softly blended areas, such as the sheen on the horses, soft folds in fabric, or the lightest of skin tones can have up to a dozen layers, each only slightly lighter than the previous one.

I work around the painting, adding details to the areas I want to attract the most attention, and leaving others almost as is - with all of the colors in place from the original block in, I can better relate each area to the finished work as I go. I always work dark to light, softening edges where needed with transitional colors. Each area is brought to completion, and I move on to the next, until the entire surface is to my liking. One last check to sharpen some edges and soften others and the painting is done. I sign it, and brush on a coat of varnish - I like the Liquitex Matte Varnish (Satin Finish).

I've done paintings as small as 2 3/4" X 3 3/4" or as large as 30" X 50". I prefer working on one painting at a time; a piece the size of "Thundering Hooves" takes several months to complete. Acrylics still fascinate and challenge me, even after more than twenty years of working with the medium. With a bit of practice, the paint happily translates into satin, leather, or the softest of fur. Horses are a passion of mine, but so is light, and so is texture. I love to combine the beauty and personality of an animal with the illusion of light and texture in a painting. My goal is create a painting that not only captures the essence of my subject, but be a smorgasbord of textural surfaces for the viewer's eye.

A parting thought: A photo is an excellent tool for capturing action, lighting, and a “moment in time", but the information it gives you is limited, and some work from live models will make it easier to fill in the blanks. I was very fortunate to begin my career with 6 years of drawing portraits of people, horses and dogs, most done from life. Though I have done it, the technique I've described above is very time consuming and not always practical for work with a live model, however most animals will be surprising cooperative for an hour or so - often better models than people! In all my years of portraiture, I only had one horse that absolutely would not stand still. I moved the easel a bit, and as long as she could watch, she stood perfectly!