I’ve been chomping at the bit (see what I did there?) to get around to painting American Pharoah, Triple Crown and Breeder’s Cup Classic winner, and the 2015 Horse of the Year. Now with the holidays long behind, and my schedule finally clearing, it was time.

Pondering on it for a few months, I had long ago decided to start with the most basic, traditional of poses… the classic head shot. Sticking with the comfortable & familiar the first time out of the gate allows me to get my feet wet and become more in tune with the subject. And yes, that means I do have plans for other paintings of the first Grand Slam winner in horse racing history, stay tuned!

Photo Reference

American Pharoah the day after winning the 2015 Breeder's Cup Classic.
American Pharoah

The first order of business is chosing the reference photo. I decided on one I took at Keeneland the day after he won the Classic. While the lighting was rather poor due to a dark, overcast day, it had enough information and an appealing enough angle to make it a good fit for a traditional style portrait. I’m not gonna lie, I toyed with including Bob Baffert with his stylish headband in the painting, but then I decided that image would stand out WAY better as a painting all on it’s own, maybe double life sized or bigger – but that’s all for another day when I try out a Peb inspired shift in style ;).


Sketch on Canvas
Sketch on Canvas

After working up a sketch from the photo, I’ve transferred it to the canvas. Now is the time to make some hard decisions. This and the underpainting stage (next) are the best opportunities to lock down any changes. There is much greater clarity on what will and won’t work once it’s on the canvas and it’s much easier to adjust and change things at this stage. So after looking at it for a while I’m not sure about the halter. It’s a constant dilemma, some horses look amazing and some not so much in a halter or bridle, this one could go either way. If he had been facing the other way it I would lean more towards keeping the halter as the gold name plaque is usually on the left side of the bridle, and while I could “flip” the direction, I really wanted to show his mane (horses are pretty consistent on which side their mane lays, sort of like a person always having their hair parted on the right). It’s standard in thoroughbred farms to see horses in these classic leather halters, and they look good, but a horse like this also stands so well on his own, naked as a jaybird. There’s a certain dignity and prestige in showing him “au naturel”, so I opted for that.



It’s not something I always use, but an underpainting is a wonderful tool for the artist. It’s sort of a map, a (very) rough black and white layout of the values in a piece. Sometimes they are toned in muted colors opposite of the subject (for me a blue/greenish tone works for most horses, the Old Master’s used a green for people). It sounds strange, but since paint layers are always slightly and imperceptibly transparent, light bounces through them in a way that scientific people can better explain and this creates a sense of depth. There’s many variations of this technique, some more complicated than others, but they all have a use, for both the experienced artist and the beginner needing some guidance. This is also the point where I’ve tested the look without a halter, and I’m satisfied enough to continue without it.

Bring in the Color…

Now the real fun begins, at least until I hit the (or one of many) ugly stage, then back to fun again – it’s that roller coaster ride that seems pretty universal to artists. Those that master surviving the ugly stage will go far. But this is MY playground, my own little universe in which to play God, and I am drunk with the power, or perhaps it’s that second glass of wine.

I start by building up the neck. I always work left to right since I’m right handed, if I work the other way I end up wearing half the painting on my right sleeve, in spite of trying to make good use of my mahl stick.

I’ve worked in the basic shapes, tones and value…

Then I start refining areas and adjusting blends and tones…

Now I’m getting it close to finished, a final tightening of the details and finishing of the overall horse along with adding a background is all that’s needed…

And here is the finished painting, as done as it gets for me (if I could I would probably work on certain pieces forever). I think one under appreciated skill that an artist develops is knowing when it’s finished… it’s harder than it sounds, though some paintings helpfully cry “DONE”, with a painful few scream “Get your hands off my you untalented hack!”. This one hit the sweet spot where I really couldn’t find anything else to work on.

American Pharoah