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Bitter-Sweet Sixteenth Year


The year started out with me painting away back in the studio, and one of my favourites from this year was a reworking of a painting from 2015. ‘Standard’. While ‘Aspire’ shows the same view, it expands on the scene to landscape format (Standard was portrait). I rarely do a different version of a painting but, in this instance, though I was pleased with the painting, I felt that there was something more to explore with the misty background in Standard. The original version is also an example of ‘I wish I’d bought it when I saw it’ (I now have a sign saying that on my stand). Standard was first exhibited at The Art Show at The Great Yorkshire Show in July of 2015. It then went on to be shown at Frickley Park Horse Trials in September, where a couple greatly admired it, but wanted to check its framed size would fit where they wanted it to go, saying they would get back to me. I didn’t hear from them, and a month later, someone who had seen it at The Art Show contacted and acquired the piece [please see footnote]. Literally a week later, the couple from Frickley Park got back in touch, but Standard was already in its new home. I explained the situation, also that I had decided to do a further working from my references, and the couple requested ‘first refusal’ on the new piece, which became Aspire, and went to its new home without ever being exhibited.

At first after losing our much-loved dog, and my studio companion, Riley, to cancer aged only 11 the year before, I could, at first, not countenance the idea of another. However, I had always wanted a whippet - a small, brown/red brindle female, like Mandy, who had followed me around one of the yards I rode at as a child, and said as much when people asked if I would get another dog. In February a friend told me of a litter of whippets bred by another friend of hers, and we went to see them when they were three weeks old. We were chosen by a ‘brindle parti-colour’ boy (mainly white with only a brindle mask) and promptly named him ‘Scribble’ (there is a story to that too). In April, our new ‘Buchanimal’ (and my potential new model) came home with us. It was only when we took him for his vaccination that the same vet who had diagnosed Riley nearly a year before, asked how we had found another dog that looked so similar to our previous one. Well Riley was a Parsons Jack Russell, and Scribble a whippet but at eight weeks, whippet puppies have not got their long noses yet and are a similar size to JRTs. As an artist, ever observant, I had not noticed (and neither had my husband) that their markings were nearly identical. The ebb and flow of life moves on, and in April we lost ‘Our Muse’, my husband’s horse, Boris. After 20 fantastic years with us, having had a heart murmur for 14 years, and having been retired for 2 years, Boris lay down in the field he shared with his best pal, Buster, and could not get up again. We were both with him as the vet eased his passing.

Running any small business can be relentless, and in 2016, I asked Lauren Armstrong, who I had met at a client’s yard, if she would help me one afternoon a week with administration, specifically taking over running my commission book. By now, I was being booked over a year ahead, and keeping in touch with clients was challenging when I had my ‘painting focus’ head on. I asked, without much more knowledge than a 'feeling' she would relish the role, but found out that, having run her own business, she had computer, business and management skills, as well and an interest in PR. She later admitted not only to having ‘heard of me’, but that she and her husband had pieces of my art in their home.

Within two weeks Lauren had me well organised, which freed me up for painting for more than just her one afternoon's work, as it took a whole burden of lists, reminders and worry that I 'had forgotten something important' off my mind. That focus is crucial to productive painting, and in 2016, I painted a piece that I had planned twelve years before, but never felt I had the skill to attempt. 'Hot Shoe' is a notable piece for me because it marks a further transition to expressionistic mark-making for me in the painting of the smoke. Technically, this took twenty-five layers of white watercolour paint (no gouache, acrylic or opaque medium was used). That takes some confidence, concentration and immersion in the process, but in that I also found a freedom of thought, pattern and execution that veered towards abstract to make a representational painting. I could not have picked a harder image to paint than one that focused on hands (the arm framing the foot being cared for) and smoke!

By the end of the year, Lauren had taken on writing a monthly newsletter, as well as dealing with enquiries etc. We had some news to share: In April I was promoted to Full Member of the Society of Equestrian Artists, for which you have to be proposed by two existing Full Members, submit works and a portfolio, and achieve a majority vote of the other Full and Honorary Members at the Annual General Meeting. I could not attend the AGM, because I was exhibiting at The Yorkshire Spring Fair at Rudding Park Hotel, where fellow artist, Michelle Clarke-Stables came along to help, but Glynis Mills (who proposed me along with Jennifer Bell) called to say that I had been voted in unanimously. So now I could add the letters SEA (instead of ASEA) to my name. Also that month, I was featured in the Chronicle of The Horse, a weekly American equestrian magazine, and in The Flying Shetlands digital magazine (also based in the USA).

At Bramham, I launched a 50 run Limited Edition Print from a painting of eventer, Ben Hobday, to raise funds for Wilberry Wonder Pony teenage cancer charity. Lauren helped with promoting the initiative, and Ben came to my stand to sign all the prints alongside my own signature. The whole run sold out at the four-day show, and raised a considerable sum for the charity. One was auctioned later in the year (again for charity) raising many times its initial selling price. Ever since I started my art business, I have worked with a chosen charity each year, but I consider it a private matter, and don’t usually talk about it. I am often contacted by people asking for donations of artworks etc. In one month alone received thirteen requests, some of them quite demanding and even aggressive. Certain charitable causes are closer to my heart, however, and any charity I work with is carefully chosen at least a year in advance.

My next show was The Art Show at The Great Yorkshire Show, but before that, Julie Cross and I went to Wells to take part in a workshop by American watercolour painter, Thomas Schaller, whose work we both admired. We were painting architectural scenes around the Cathedral city, and staying in an old coaching hotel in the centre, with the narrowest, tightest double bend to get to the car park. I was driving Julie’s (large) car, as she had just had an operation on her knee. On my first attempt to negotiate the route, I was half way through the double turns when we met a delivery van coming out. I had to reverse back out (thank you all my years of towing a horse trailer), and our first meeting with Tom was him being driven in the car that was turning off the road behind us that also had to reverse. It was the first residential workshop that I had attended, and without Julie to reassure my anxiety (and the support of another artist friend, Barbara E. Lewis, via email at night from New Zealand), I would probably have come home after two days. Julie has attended workshops all over the world, and knew what to expect, but I was a fish out of water. As I said, I have been a solitary creature in my work, and maybe naive in thinking that all artists want to help and support each other. I was totally happy and comfortable drawing and painting the architecture (remember, I used to paint historical buildings in my previous illustration career), and mostly sketched during Tom's demonstrations (he said he does the same). I was, however, totally unprepared for the politics among the fifteen strong painting group. We were given a garden room by the hotel to use as a temporary studio, and I marked myself out immediately, as I had a painting to finish for The Art Show. I got to the studio every day at 5.30am to work on the piece before breakfast, attended the workshop through the day, then worked again in the studio until dinner. This also most likely helped calm me. By the end of the week, not only the other painters, but the hotel staff were dropping by to see the progress of ‘Sea Of Hounds’.

On the first day of the workshop we painted in the Cathedral grounds. We were working quickly with very wet paint, and sometimes watercolour interacts to produce unexpected results. Pareidolia is the term for seeing patterns and shapes in abstract patterns (eg seeing objects described in clouds, or the face of Jesus in pitta bread etc), and my paintings have a tendency to form faces and ghosts – really, it is nothing to do with me. In a tree, there was the face of Gonzo from the muppets, and ever since, Barbara has called me Gonzo (I affectionately call her OB, which stands for either Old Bag or Opinionated Baggage, so we are well matched).

Sea Of Hounds was finished by the end of the workshop and was shown at The Art Show, where Julie Cross, and again Michelle Clarke-Stables, were also exhibiting. Michelle and I had worked together a bit at her studio over the past year, with her challenging me to try clay modelling (which I liked), and casting (which I didn’t). In August, we launched The Peoples Postcard Award. Anyone could enter a postcard – either artwork or poetry, and we also had entries from other artists, and celebrities including Arthur Smith, Jo Brand and Gok Wan. The curator of Hull City of Culture in 2016, David Sinclair, judged the postcards in three categories, with prizes sponsored by local firm Kirk and Cranston. Author, Milly Johnson, acted as host and auctioneer at an event on 29th September, where we raised over £1,000 which was split between two charities.

My final exhibition of 2016 was the Society of Equestrian Artists' Horse in Art, this time at The Heritage Centre for Horse Racing and Sporting Art, Newmarket. While now a Full Member, I only submitted four pieces, one of which, ‘Buckle Up’ won the Horse & Hound award, and was featured in Horse & Hound magazine that November. While nominally a hunting scene (referenced at the Quorn opening meet in 2013 and completed in 2015), this watercolour painting is actually about the nerves I felt before a competition, and uses the sky as a metaphor for the riders’ feelings. The use of a natural element to illustrate emotions is one that I had played with before, but I think this a seminal work as I felt that in this watercolour painting, I truly realised that which I had set out to achieve. I had not intended for it to become a print, especially having already published part of the painting as last year's Christmas card, but a print was requested so I eventually published an Open Edition Print (a print run that is signed but not numbered and allowed if an image has previously been published as a card). The best guidelines around publishing art are produced by The Fine Art Guild, and you are interested, I wrote a blog in my 2018 art terms glossary - R is for Reproduction which covers the various terms and 'rules'.

Loss had not finished with us yet, and in late October we had to say goodbye to another Buchanimal, my horse, Atlas. 'Counting Sheep' is a watercolour that I painted over the Summer in 2016, and is a deliberate attempt to reconcile my feelings, knowing that I would soon lose my Once In A Lifetime horse of 20 years. There is a Limited Edition Print of Counting Sheep , but the original remains in my own collection. We miss our past Buchanimals very much, and remember them often. All are immortalised in paint, however, and we have those memories too.

I decided to look forward rather than back in my Christmas card this year, which features our new pup whippet, Scribble. Being a rather energetic sighthound, I feared for our Christmas tree, though actually he totally ignored it. I decided to joke about my worry in 'Christmas In My Sights'. The joke is completed in the drawing on the inside of the card.

Footnote: Work exhibited in galleries, including ‘pop-up’ ones like The Art Show, are sold on a commission basis, with the gallery retaining usually between 30% and 60% of the ‘wall price’. If the Gallery is VAT registered, then that figure becomes 36% to 64%, if the VAT is charged on the commission. Some galleries and agents charge the VAT on the full sale price, in which case the figures become 42% to 67% of the wall price. Most artists are not known for being talented at maths or contracts, but it pays to learn, and can be more costly than predicted if you don’t understand what you are signing. I have also been approached in the past by potential buyers who 'knew' about gallery commission, and assumed that they could get the piece from studio for half the price that they saw on the gallery wall. I am afraid it does not work like that. As an artist, there is a price expectation for my work, and it would be unfair and unreasonable to display a piece at a particular price on my stand or in studio, and then double that for the gallery. In fact, when I sell a piece through a gallery, I am taking a smaller payment than the painting’s perceived value in return for the wider audience that would see my work, and for not standing the fees involved in running a trade stand, (though I still have to stand framing costs and transport to the gallery, and back if it does not sell). In addition, some galleries have contract clauses that demand payment of commission fees if the piece sells within a certain time period of leaving their gallery (only enforced with the artist, not for a client re-selling a piece), regardless of where the customer saw the artwork. In the case of Standard (mentioned in the first paragraph), I contacted the Yorkshire Agricultural Society through The Art Show organisers to inform them of the sale, but they graciously declined the commission. In other instances though, I have paid gallery commission fees in this manner. That seems common sense to me. As an artist, if my work does not sell in a gallery, then why would they ask me back and have my work there? There is also an issue of trust and ethics involved. As a professional artist, there is an expectation of professional conduct in my business practice as well as in my art practice.


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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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