As I prepared to add the finishing touches to the portrait of the horse I was painting, I paused a moment to reflect on the photograph his owner had sent me. She admitted that the photo didn’t really capture him and only gave me a fleeting description of his personality. She was very specific about wanting me to paint the portrait exactly like the photo, except that he had been tranquilized that morning so I could “add a little life” to his eye. So, who was this horse that I had never met? Behind his sleepy eyes I felt like he was an intelligent, gentle soul. The slight smile at the corner of his mouth and his attentive ears gave me the feeling that he had a wonderful sense of humor. I knew I had to trust my instincts. I began working on his eye, adding a pastel highlight, then removing it and putting it down in a different place. I refined the shape and tilt of the brow, softened the lashes and then… a stillness inside me said… “that’s Amoretto”.
Though the piece was completed by my standards, I still waited anxiously to hear from the owner to see how she liked the portrait. A ripple of joy went through me when she called and her first words were, “I absolutely love it.” Then she said, “I am speechless, I don’t know how you were able to portray my horse’s personality so completely. The photo wasn’t truly like him at all, but you painted him as if you’ve known him all your life.” Her comments sparked my curiosity. How am I able to seemingly imbue a portrait with the spirit of a certain horse. Is it my artistic eye, that picked up the imperceptible expression, the attitude underlying the pose? Or is it something more intuitive? What is the presence inside the horse that reveals itself when I give it my full attention?
Sometimes I am asked to paint a horse that is no longer living. What then am I painting? In my portrait “Colors of the Wind” of Mr. No, I knew the photographs the owner sent me were just representations of the horse as he was in life. Yet I got the feeling as I worked that I was painting not a memory, but a spirit that was still present. I felt as if I were creating a window through which we could witness the horse’s state of being… “where” he exists now. The owner confirmed this feeling, saying that the portrait I painted of him makes her feel he is still with her.
When I met Slightly Tarnished, a beloved old horse belonging to Kristen, I could hardly relate his wizened face to the snapshot that she wanted me to create his portrait from. Yet I could see his gentle soul and his love for his owner. Slightly passed away while I was creating the portrait. Unlike his owner, who felt his loss tremendously, I was able to perceive his loss objectively. I wasn’t as affected by the shock of having him suddenly, “not there”. He existed in my mind and in the colors that daily emerged onto my paper. When I shipped her the completed portrait of Slightly, I waited two weeks and didn’t hear from her. Finally, I called and her mother answered the phone. When I explained that I was concerned that she didn’t like the portrait, she said quietly. “Oh no, its not that at all. It’s just that it is so much like him that she can’t even look at it right now.” Later, when her grief had abated, Kristen shared with me that the portrait is one of her most precious possessions. Through the almost life size painting, she feels as if Slightly is looking through a window into her living room, and into her heart.
I have come to understand that my portraits capture more than a likeness of a horse. They portray the essence, the spirit, of that individual. In the case of a horse that has passed on, my portraits celebrate the immortal spirit of that horse. This immortality is difficult to comprehend when we face the daily absence of our loved one’s physical presence, or we look at photographs that remind us of our lives together. Recently I was looking at photographs of my mother when she was young and healthy. I found myself grieving for her as the person she used to be. I had to remind myself that in the passage of time she has become who she is now. She is no less than she was, despite her appearance as an invalid in a wheelchair. I realized that the photographs were a false reality. When we look at photographs, we are looking at moments that existed in the past. We are aware of the time when someone took that “snapshot” in an attempt to forever preserve that moment. Therefore, when we look at photographs to remind us of our loved ones, we are always referring to the past.
When I create a portrait of a horse, whether the horse is two miles away or on the other side, I am connecting with the eternal essence of that horse. In my mind, the horse exists in the present moment, and it is that moment that I paint. The moment then extends into the present every time the viewer looks at it, so the image, in its own way, is always alive. I paint what is, not what was. I portray the eternal essence, not the finite earthly experience. I feel so honored to be able to depict the immortality of horses in my portraits, for the works of art often help heal the grief the owners’ feel from their loss. In giving themselves the gift of a portrait, they receive a beautiful reminder of their undying love.