The Opportunity Arises
It was the kind of commission I would have dreamed about as a fledgling equine artist; a valued client wants a large mural sized piece painted on location in Louisville, Kentucky. What to do? Well, for starters… plan it in autumn (or as we call it here in Arizona… summer) during the Breeder’s Cup, conveniently to be held for the first time ever at Keeneland in nearby Lexington, then make haste to hop on a plane with paint brushes in tow! So started our 2 week lateral trip from the southwest to the south, including over a week in Kentucky, followed up by a visit to Florida!
Old Louisville is the largest contiguous collection of Victorian mansions in the United States, which means it’s an amazing wonderland of old houses and large, ancient trees adorned with full on fall color. The whole area is positively dripping with character and class. There’s also a prestigious Art Fair held every fall at St. James Court, the heart of Old Louisville that includes notable historic buildings like the Conrad-Caldwell House. I’ll most certainly be looking into that event. The fact that all this was located less than three miles from Churchill Downs just added to the mystique. It was also the first time I’d experienced “real” autumn in over 30 years, bringing back fond memories of my childhood in Minnesota (perhaps if I’d had any “adulthood” in Minnesota the autumn and winter memories would be less fond)!
Getting Set Up to Paint
First thing we tackled almost right off the plane was to head over and pick up the 4’ x 6’ canvas I’d had on hold at a local art store. Even though I’d reserved a mid sized car, it was very fortuitous that they instead, at no extra charge, gave us a much roomier Ford Edge crossover. We arrived at Preston’s Art Center to retrieve the canvas, and immediately felt right at home. It had the comforting feel of a cozy hometown art store cluttered with fun art stuff, like a heaping slice of home cooking for us.
The Temporary Studio
The house itself was a beautiful, grand old red brick piece of history. My working space was in the basement, while we’d be sleeping way up on the 3rd floor. Our joints were quickly reminded how unaccustomed to stairs we were, having lived in Arizona 30ish years where most homes are only one story (no basements. either). The basement was very comfortable, with a large TV that picked up TVG so I could keep up with racing… and the perfect chair (hint: I want one – see photo below). It also featured walls lined with colorfully lit shelves inset into the wall to showcase expensive bottles of bourbon and other libations. One of these alcove’s, of course, held the 2015 Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby bottle featuring my artwork on the label, which naturally acquired the artist’s signature before we left.
Getting Ready to Paint
This whole painting adventure had clearly shaped up to be a practice in flexibility, something that’s actually part of my working method, so it didn’t phase me. If any painting I’m working on seems determined to take another direction, I’ve learned not to fight it, and giving in to that inevitability actually makes for a fun ride.
I started prepping the canvas while the game plan was nailed down. Similar to my piece Two Horse Race (above), a race horse or two galloping across the canvas, but almost life size. I couldn’t imagine anything more fun to paint… or so I thought (foreshadowing). I chose to do this piece in acrylic, as the shorter drying time would help me be more productive with my limited time. Not really a problem, acrylic used to be my primary medium, so aside from some rebuilding of my supply inventory, it wasn’t an issue.
I used black gesso to prepare the surface, it makes working easier when a dark background is desired. Then I went old school and used the grid-method to transfer the chosen reference images to canvas. You can see the grid below (in feet) on the canvas and (in inches) on the image, helping guide the proportions as I sketched from the source image, which was printed at 4 inches x 6 inches so it would scale up neatly from inches to feet (see what I did there). I sketched in the possible second horse to test it out and see if it helped anchor the composition, but it was unanimously decided to go with a solo horse for maximum impact. Then I began the monochromatic underpainting, big fancy words for a black and white first layer of a painting.
A Break to Visit Keeneland
Painting plans in place and initiated, I was feeling good about where I was at and was ready to day trip it over to Keeneland for morning workouts and racing the day before the Breeder’s Cup (Thursday). We’ve done this “Thursday the day before the Breeder’s Cup” thing before, in 2010 when it was held at Santa Anita in the Los Angeles area. The traffic was typical LA weekday traffic, and the track had moderate crowds in the morning while pretty dead for the races later in the day. Not the case with Keeneland, it took us 30 minutes to work our way by car to the grandstand (where I was dropped off) once we reached the track and another 45 minutes for my poor husband to park and meet up with me by the rail (far enough away he needed a tram ride back to the track).
In spite of the congestion, it was a beautiful day in a beautiful setting. We saw (and photographed) lots of big name Breeder’s Cup horses. It was like the Oscar’s for racing fans, minus the red carpet, designer outfits and fashionistas. We did, however, just miss Amercian Pharoah’s planned workout, but since it happened on the training track we wouldn’t have seen it anyway, like most of the fans there. He was also a no-show for paddock schooling after the 3rd race (as was announced) later on, but it WAS Keeneland, a track like this was enough. Surrounded by rolling hills of bluegrass dotted with the wooden fences and pristine stables of horse farms, it’s a magical and serene location for anyone who loves horses. The specific celebrity horses that were there were but the cherry on top, though I’d really hoped to get my eyeballs (and camera lens) on THE horse… American Pharoah… was there still a chance? Be sure to tune in for Part 2 to find out!
To be continued, Part 2…