Original Oil Painting, Windswept

This month’s mini-clinic goes back a couple of years to a special project. One 16×16 inch panel in a mural project put together by “Unity through diversity” Mural Mosaic in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Le Cadeau Du Cheval – The Horse Gift combined the work of nearly 200 equine artists from around the world and 238 panels into a finished piece of artwork.

I’m featuring this mini clinic today for the very simple reason that it’s not my usual painting method.

It was painted off the cuff.

That’s right. No planning! This is as close to a plein air or ‘from life’ painting as it gets!

The Panel

Artists were given a selection of panels to chose from and this is the panel I chose.

I’m sure I had some ideas about what to do with it when I made my decision, but I confess the first thought to cross my mind when I opened the box and looked at the panel was, “What was I thinking?!”

I had no idea what to put on it, but I set it up so I could look at it periodically throughout subsequent days. The idea was that something would come to mind. Eventually. I spent as much time as I could waiting for the panel to speak to me or for inspiration to strike.

It never did say anything and inspiration doesn’t usually strike. It’s more of a process of considering every idea that comes to mind and discarding those that don’t work for one reason or another until I get to the right one.

So it was with this project.

I looked at harness racing ideas. Thoroughbred racing ideas. Mustang ideas. Portrait style ideas.

Any idea that came to mind was considered. Most of them didn’t work because of the square format and the arrangement of values on the panel were also confounding. But most of them just didn’t spark anything but indifference. If there’s one thing that dooms most ideas, it’s indifference!

The Painting

After considering several ideas and attempting a more traditional style of working, I decided to just start drawing and see what happened. The first drawing was in pencil and was a spontaneous sketch. Some of the original line drawing is visible around the muzzle in the illustration above.

Then I mixed up Cerulean Blue and Quinacridone Magenta (M. Graham Oils) and “redrew” the image with a sable round. The original drawing served as a guide, but I made a lot of adjustments and refinements.

At this stage, it’s all about blocking in lights and darks and attempting to keep the design as true to the original color and value patterns as possible while painting as realistic an image as possible.

I added Titanium White to the base mixture of Cerulean Blue and Quinacridone Magenta and began painting highlights and shadows and blocking in values a little better.

Since this is still an early phase, there is also a good deal of correction. That is most noticeable over the crest and around the neck and shoulders, all of which I adjusted as I painted.

I worked on the mane and forelock and the areas of the background with which they interact. I need to be very careful to maintain the pattern of lights and darks because this pattern is only one small part of a whole and should contribute to the overall image.

I also worked over the ears, eye, muzzle and chin to reshape and position them.

Most of the painting revolved around defining the main features of the face (eye, muzzle, ears) and the mane, which is to be long and flowing.

I used a couple of fine brushes and paint thinned with walnut oil to paint the long, billowing hair of the mane and, to a lesser extent, the forelock. The result was pleasing while I painted.

But after reviewing it later in the evening, then again when I photographed it, I began to wonder about the color patterns. The diagonals are fine, but I need to adjust the colors . A good deal of the reds and pinks are missing.

I also wasn’t satisfied with the value range in the head, but that can be tweaked as the painting nears completion. The real subject is the mane so that comes first.

It often helps to know what to do the next time I start painting, though. Even if it’s fixing a problem area. Portrait artist William Whitaker is known to start each painting session in a manner that causes the least amount of damage.

I took a page from his book for the next painting session!

At this step, I painted over a good deal of the previous session’s work. I was getting off course in following color and values, so I worked with the painting on the easel and standing back far enough from the painting to see without my glasses. That forced me back about arm’s length and allowed me to refer more frequently to the printed image of the original panel.

I also used a medium, bristle bright (or maybe it’s a flat…it’s so well worn it’s hard to tell!) to apply color in broad brush strokes.

Then I worked wet-into-wet with a smaller, sable bright (or flat) to add finer detail to the mane and forelock.

The first thing I did here was go through a few albums of horse photos I’ve taken over the years. I wanted to check anatomy, values, and placement of lights and darks while I had enough wet paint on the canvas to be able to make subtle and not-so-subtle changes of that sort.

I found several that sparked new ideas and four that fit the project very well. Two of them were put away again and I kept out the best one, which was an almost perfect match, and the second best one, which featured a very light gray horse that showed subtle variations to perfection.

Equipped with those two references, I then began the final stage. The details.

It didn’t take much work to make a big difference. I could see an immediate improvement in the painting as soon as I started painting highlights.

Some of the smooth edges were softened, some of the lights lightened, some darks darkened, and detail added, particularly along the jowl and jaw.

The biggest change was around the eye. The eye was moved downward slightly and slanted forward slightly to make it more correct. With a reference to look at, I could also see where the primary and secondary highlights needed to be and added those. Once the highlights and the dark of the pupil was added, the eye really came to life.

The nostril and the inside of the near ear was darkened and I added the off side ear. The second ear is painted lightly to avoid creating too dramatic a shape in an area that is supposed to be fairly tonal.

Also, the mane is the center of interest, so other areas needed to be a little more subdued.

I drew in the long hair in long, flowing curves. I once did a colored pencil portrait of a harness racing filly named Blizzard Babe that had a lot of mane and that was my favorite part to draw and the favorite part of a lot of people who saw the finished painting.

So when I got down to the mane with this painting, I tried to use the same, loose-wristed technique to create those graceful lines. It was a bit more challenging with a brush and paint than with a colored pencil, but it worked very well.

I would have loved to spend a lot more time doing this because it was fun and easy and because long manes are a major part of the charm of a horse as far as I’m concerned. But less is sometimes more, so I cut the fun short after I had drawn enough fine hairs to suggest a full, wind-swept mane.

Following are a few more detail shots.

Le Cadeau Du Cheval – The Horse Gift, was officially unveiled at The Masters, at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in September 2008.

Some of my artist friends from the Calgary, Alberta area were in attendance and gave glowing reports of the event and of the mural, itself.

The finished mural represents the work of 187 of some of the finest equine artists from around the world. 22.5 foot high, it combines 238 various equine themed paintings with no digital effects to form one unified mural masterpiece.

Designed by Canadian artist Lewis Lavoie, the mural brings together the amazing talents of equine artists from such countries as Canada, USA, England Germany, Finland, Romania, South Africa, Argentina, Peru, Australia and Mexico.