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Every Painting Has A Story

First published Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Every painting has a story: Its source; its process; its contribution to my style or learning; its history; its life after it is completed. A few of my clients like me to write down the story for them to keep with the painting through interest or for provenance. When I am manning my tradestand or at a gallery showing my work it is often the stories of the paintings that connect the viewer from simply admiring a painting to remembering it or even wanting to give it a home. Most artists find the ‘selling’ bit of their work very difficult, myself included. Maybe one day I will share that story; of why, and how I forced myself to be able to stand up and speak to people about my work, whether in a selling/marketing/PR form, or as talks and demonstrations. Suffice to say it has been a long, arduous, certainly uncomfortable, sometimes painful process and even, on occasion, physically debilitating, but it is a process that has been ultimately rewarding in some planned and some surprising ways. The easiest way for me to talk to people is for me to tell them my working process or to tell them the story of the painting.

Almost all my paintings start off as sketches and photographs. If I don’t immediately paint them, the photos will sit on my ideas boards around my studios and the sketches will sit both in my sketch-book and in my visual memory (one of the reasons that it is important for me to sketch) until the right time, if, or when that comes. I am a bit of a butterfly with sketchbooks, having several on the go at once, often 6 or 7 of different sizes, plus a small journal for both writing and little ideas drawings. When I sketch I have learned to leave blank pages around sketch pages for later development, but sometimes fill these with further sketches if I start to reach the end of the book without having worked up previous sketches. In this case development work is done in other sketchbooks, on receipts and cigarette packs, in my journal or in layout pads. Development work consists of re-drawing to correct anatomy, thumbnails of composition alternatives, colour notes, overall tonal notes and associated ideas that sit within the work to help convey narrative or atmosphere. Therefore my sketchbooks are not chronological – my journal is a better indicator of timeline.

I am lucky that my painting is character led so the stories are implicit. The stories of why I painted them or what they meant to me are usually less straightforward, but I have seen a progression in my ability to express my thoughts over the years. I have always thought deeply about my work and what I want to convey, and while once I was once content to simply make studies to consolidate my ability to render anatomy, texture, to practise skills within a certain medium, explore a medium and later to handle light-play or to experiment with technique, I am now wanting to push my boundries to expand the narrative and atmosphere of a piece. With hindsight I can see how certain pieces, even from when I first started to work with a painter’s mind-set, fitted into this progression. With the benefit of my learning from the studies I am now revisiting sketches, ideas and even paintings that have been set aside for years as I now have more capacity to develop them to their potential. This makes the stories even more interesting to me, and hopefully to my audience, who get to see how much work and thought goes into a piece and how that piece lives after it leaves my easel.

Both the paintings I have chosen to illustrate the stories behind my work are side saddle paintings. When I first started as an artist I was heavily influenced by Charles Johnson Payne (Snaffles,1884–1967) and we have two of his prints, one of which is a lady jumping aside on a grey horse. Before I officially started my career as a fine artist I made some side saddle studies (right) and once started, I received a couple of commissions from side saddlers, so using these to illustrate seems fitting.

Case study one: ‘Chuckle’, watercolour (2013). In 2012 and 13 I was looking at a lot of equestrian art that sat centre within a black, white, single or duo-colour background, which I found unsatisfying as the background was just ‘there’ and just a backdrop for, rather than playing a role in, the image. I was playing with the idea of compositional structures and for this I needed a strong subject image so I thought of the sketches and photo reference from a side saddle demonstration that I had seen at Blenheim Horse Trials a few years before. I wanted to work with an off-centre subject and make sense of this by an abstract background of colour washes. For the background to play a part in the painting it needed a structure, so the composition is set up using the Golden Section (also referred to as the Golden Rule, Golden Mean, Golden Ratio) and Nautilus Curve constructed from it.

The palette for the background washes are the colours that I use the most, then all the colours within the painting of the horse and rider are mixed from those four wash colours: Rose madder, Ultramarine, Sap Green and Madder Brown. The Abstract colours echo colour and tonal movements through either the horse or rider and the texture / dapple patterns on the horse’s neck were made using a repel effect with salt.

‘Chuckle’ was the first painting that I made using an abstract background, completed in Summer 2013 and first shown in The Art Show at the Great Yorkshire Show in July of that year. It was submitted to the Society of Equestrian Artists’ Horse In Art Exhibition in 2013 but, while being accepted through digital pre-selection process, was unsuccessful in panel selection. It was then successfully shortlisted in the Artists & Illustrators Artist of the Year Award the following year and shown at the Mall Galleries in London in January 2015 as one of 50 shortlisted paintings from over 8,000 submitted.

The painting was posted on social media in July 2013 and seen by Emma Brown, who recognised her horse Pipsqueak (Vintage Port). I had been told that the horse was called Chuck, and as the rider was looking down and laughing, had titled the piece ‘Chuckle’. Through this contact Emma invited me to the opening meet of the Quorn hunt where 44 riders hunted sideways! From the public’s reception to the painting a Limited Edition of 150 prints were made. The prints are titled ‘Pip’s Party’ (Emma named them) as Pipsqueak is known to attend parties that she holds at her converted barn home. She commented that I had captured not only Pip’s character but also “the whole expression of happiness, measured as being sat on this horse”.

The original of the painting is now in a private collection, but prints from the limited edition are available.

Of course when I talk to people about the paintings it is not as comprehensive as that description, which was a written provenance for the new owner of the painting. I am driven by my work and my purpose, and to write such histories and regurgitate them would not allow people access to that passion.

Case study 2: Buckle Up, Watercolour (2015).

This painting leads on from the first case study in that it came out of sketches and reference photos from the Quorn Opening meet that Emma Brown invited me to attend.

I have always been fascinated by the background story, the preparation, the communication and reflections between a horse and rider. Ostensibly this is a hunting picture, but actually it is not about that at all, which is why there are no hounds and there are only two horses and riders. In fact the painting is an expression of the feelings and nerves that I had before competing, whether that was eventing, dressage or any other discipline. Though I have never ridden side saddle, that rider is representing my emotions. Outwardly pretty calm, her inner feelings are illustrated by the ominous sky swirled with a sickly yellow. She wears blue to link her to the sky. Her horse too reflects her inner apprehension and anticipation, being tense, above the bit and with swirling marks to denote his restless tail (my horse was particularly sensitive to my feelings and often showed this frame before, but hopefully not during, a dressage test). The swirling marks are then also echoed in the not too realistic rendering of the grass beneath the pair. The composition is left to right depth diagonal, using the ground perspective and the cloud-line to focus the view onto the second rider: the professional, to the right of the first pair as per the convention of western reading from left to right. My hope for my future state of mind, he wears green to link him to the ground (grounded) where the marks are more controlled and uniform. The sky is calmer and clearer behind him, though the cloud line transverses his head so he is not entirely unaffected. His horse is relaxed and focused, echoing his inner calm. Whilst the foreground horse is painted in a range of (symbolic to me) colours, the chestnut horse is uses a more limited palette, emphasising reds for strength and boldness. Both riders buckle up their girths in readiness and anticipation for the day ahead. You can view this painting at face value: two riders preparing for a days hunting, or read deeper. Once my work has left my easel its life and story become its own and that of its conversation with the viewer, but I noticed at its first showing that many people returned to this painting to look again. Like a film that has layers, it stands reviewing even if the ‘true’ meaning is obscure, the fact that there is underlying meaning does seem to resonate with the viewer.

‘Buckle Up’ was again first exhibited in The Art Show at the Great Yorkshire Show but two years later than ‘Chuckle’ in 2015. It was accepted through the International Watercolour Society for the 2016 Fabriano In Acquarello International Watercolour Exhibition in Fabriano, Italy. The painting was also used in an adapted form for my 2015 Christmas card. The printer digitally cropped the image to the foreground rider only and then added snow!

The original painting is still in Italy as I write. The altered (Winter) image is planned to be part of a print set of four side saddle paintings set in the four seasons due to be published before the end of 2016.

The idea of the sky reflecting the rider’s feelings came to me many years ago. It is only recently that I have felt my control of the watercolour medium is approaching sufficient to be able to attempt to express that. My month of painting only skies in 2014 was part of that process. Writing my thoughts about a painting in my journal before working on it each day was suggested to me at a workshop with artist Lesley Humprey and is one that I have found very useful for clarifying those thoughts, inspiration and motivation. Dressage trainer Shana Ritter quotes the phrase “the horse is the reflection of the rider” meaning in schooling and dressage that the horse will echo tension or kinetic poise from the rider’s body, and my experience with my horse in particular re-enforced that that applies to state of mind as well as state of body. They are themes that I have only just started to explore and many stories and paintings are yet to come. I would be pleased to share them with you.

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The contents of this article or blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article or blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article or blog. Ruth Buchanan disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article or blog.

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