“A strange stillness dwells in the eye of the horse, a composure that appears to regard the world from a measured distance…It is a gaze from the depths of a dream.”
– Hans~Heinrich Isenbart
One day a little girl came to visit my farm. She had never seen horses up close before, and couldn’t stop talking about them. “Why are their eyes like round marbles?” She asked. “So they can see far distances.” I answered. I couldn’t tell her the real reason why she was so impressed by their eyes, because it would have taken familiarity with horses for her to understand why she reacted instinctively. Because the eyes of horses say what is in their hearts, and they never lie.
In a painting or portrait, I always create the eyes last. Up until that point, I am creating the beauty of the physical form of the horse and their facial expressions, but the presence of the horse isn’t there until their eyes are finished. The eyes are both difficult and rewarding to paint. All eyes are completely unique; both in expression and in the way they reflect light.
When I prepare to paint the eyes, I must be at my most perceptive. The photographs I use as references never truly capture the life in the horse’s eyes, so it is up to me to ascertain their true, inner self.
On a physical level, I must at once capture the liquid surface as well as the inner transparency, color, and depth. I must turn the eyes precisely where I want them to look. The pupil may not even be visible, yet it is there nevertheless, even if it is only a deeper darkness in a dark eye. The minutest changes in reflection, highlight, or shadow can alter the entire expression. The lids and lashes and brows all play an important part.
On a spiritual level, I must fill my heart with the true presence and spirit of the horse, and trust that it will come through me to the paper. I try to become the horse, to perceive what they are thinking and feeling, at the same time as appreciating the outward beauty and mystery of the elements of their expression.
At a certain critical point, the color chalk on paper becomes an eye of a horse looking back at me. I continue with this subtle process until a stillness inside me says the horse is present in spirit as well as body. Then the painting is complete.
A magical thing can occur with my paintings. People can feel the presence of the horse as if they were actually there. One of the reasons for this is because horses are so constantly in motion, that it is sometimes difficult to view their eyes for more than a split second. The stillness of the painting offers us the rare experience of looking into the horse’s eyes, and feeling them looking back for an extended period of time. Many of my paintings also have the uncanny phenomenon of the eyes following the viewer as they move. This experience is due in part to factors of depth and composition, but is magnified by the feeling that the horse is actually watching you, rather than vice versa. This adds a deeper dimension to the art, moving it from a passive experience of viewing, to an active experience of feeling that the image is alive.
One of the reasons I paint horse’s eyes is to direct the viewer to understand what the horse is feeling. The inner world of horses shines from their eyes. Both their joys and their sorrows are revealed, for horses cannot laugh, and horses cannot weep. Their hearts and souls peer from the depths of twin pools that reflect the world.
Once in awhile in a moment of contemplation, I catch myself looking into my mare Darma’s eye, and before my rational mind has a chance to label her as a “horse” with any definitions thereof, I find that I am looking into the eye of a being beyond imagining, full of a consciousness and awareness that surpasses my limited human brain. I could become lost in that deep pool… or found.