Would you or someone you know love a portrait of a beloved horse? Equine artists share secrets to successful commissions.
By L.A. Sokolowski
A nine-feet-tall, life-sized portrait of a rearing horse has consistently attracted more visitors and outsold more postcards and posters over the last 25 years than most of the vast historic collection at the National Gallery in London. Whistlejacket, painted by George Stubbs in 1762, has been called one of the most important pieces of 18th century British art and is arguably the best-known horse painting of all time.
To think it all started with a commission (“Eighty Guineas for one Picture of a Lion and another of a Horse Large as Life,” reads the receipt) for Stubbs to paint a chestnut stallion for Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquess of Rockingham.
Through the ages, horse lovers have wanted stunning likenesses of their prized equines. Even today, when nearly every horse owner has a device with a built-in camera, traditional portraiture remains in demand.
Do you yearn for a portrait of your own beloved horse? We asked nine well-known modern equestrian artists for advice for working clearly, confidently, and collaboratively to create a commissioned investment that you and ensuing generations will love and value no less dearly.
Find Your Style
“Spend time researching artists who appeal to you. Look around their websites. Many list prices, which might save the awkwardness of finding you’re not in a position to invest as much as you need,” says Canadian artist Linda Shantz, who was commissioned by the Dubai Racing Club to paint 1998 winner Silver Charm for the Dubai World Cup art exhibition and auction.
“Do not be shy in conveying exactly what you want from the artist. We love to get specific direction,” adds Kenna Al-Sayed of Sorrel Studios, who launched an online business called Commission Me through Equis Art Gallery, Red Hook, New York, while she was under COVID-19 quarantine in Abu Dhabi, turning clients’ images of their horses into engaging time-lapse TikTok videos and quick, inexpensive watercolor, ink, or colored-pencil sketches.
“The majority of equine artists are equestrians,” says Al-Sayed, herself a lifelong rider. “We love horses and know how important and emotional a portrait will be. Tell us stories about your horses, their quirks and personalities. This can help us create a mood or feeling within the work or offer suggestions you may not have thought of.”
Photos Are Clearly Necessary
For accuracy in portraiture, good color photographs for reference are a must.
“I’d say 95 percent of animal-portrait artists work from photographic reference,” says Jan Lukens, a North Carolina-based artist who has painted equestrian portraits of three US Olympic gold medalists and whose works hang in the collections of Ralph Lauren and the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia.
To get the results you’re dreaming of, you’ll need to put thought and effort into the pre-portrait photo session.
“Before the artist [or photographer] arrives, be sure you have the dog or horse exactly the way you want the animal painted,” Lukens advises. “If you want the horse braided in the portrait, have it braided when the artist arrives. If you want no tack, I suggest posing the horse with a halter, then drop the halter to the base of the neck so as to expose the head and upper neck but still give the handler a way to control the horse while the photography is under way.”
Enlist a couple of helpers for the photo shoot, Lukens says. “Horse portraits almost always need two extras: one to hold the reins and one to get the horse’s attention, make sure the ears are up, the expression is good, and the neck is where you want it to be.”
“Unless the artist is working from life, they need photos to complete the artwork,” concurs Arizona-based fine artist Nancy Rynes, whose work has appeared on PBS and on NBC-TV’s Today. “High-quality photos are absolutely essential.”
Rynes learned that lesson during one of her first commissions. “The client lived 1,500 miles away and, because of distance, I had to rely on their not-so-great photos. They were so small and grainy that I could not clearly see the rider’s features. Let’s just say it did not go well. While I did the best I could with their photos, in the end I had to let them know I would not be able to give them the quality they wanted.”
Rynes now prefers taking her own photos or coaching a client through the process because “lighting, angle, type of camera used, how large the subject is in the field of vision, all play important parts in getting quality photos. Don’t be afraid to ask the artist what they need in order to give you the best possible finished work.”
Copyright Notice: When You’re Using a Professional Photo
If you have a horse photo you love that was taken by a professional photographer and you’d like to have the commissioned portrait more or less replicate that image, “The artist should insist on getting permission from the photographer before using for portrait purposes,” says Gretchen Almy, the official artist of Equine Affaire and a dressage rider based in Massachusetts.
“The copyright is still held by the photographer, even if the horse owner has purchased the photo,” Almy explains. “The artist should have the integrity—and legal obligation—to do the right thing and involve the photographer.”
Timing Is Everything
For best results, arrange portrait commissions when your horse is fully shed out, suggests Connecticut-based fine artist Alecia Barry Underhill, creator of the popular poster Horses from A to Z.
“I can fix ears that aren’t pricked and remove whiskers and blemishes,” says Underhill, “but I can’t guess what a shaggy winter coat will look like in summer. It reflects light very differently.”
Like Rynes, Underhill prefers to shoot her own reference photos. She explains, “I’m looking for a bright expression and good lighting more than perfect grooming. If you’re commissioning a full body portrait, think about the setting. With artistic license, I can shoot a background separately.”
Contract Before Canvas
Paper trails aren’t as pleasantly uncomplicated as bridle trails, but a good contract can help both artist and patron avoid unexpected stumbles and surprises.
New York state-based painter and photographer Leland Neff is no stranger to horse-world high society, but he never expected the chutzpah of a client who invited him home to see where his large mural would be displayed, then never paid for the finished piece.
Neff says he had no choice but to take the owner to court, winning not once, but twice. After the first decision in his favor, he still went unpaid. “I think they were surprised that I took them to court again. I got paid, right after I won for the second time.”
“Contracts protect me and you,” says Canadian oil painter Liz Chomicki, who juried into the 2022 American Academy of Equine Art (AAEA) Fall Exhibition in Aiken, South Carolina, and who last year joined the board of directors of the American Academy of Equine Art. “It’s a fair way to protect a client if I am unable to fulfill the work.”
Among the stipulations Chomicki recommends that artists consider including in the contract: retention of copyright and no reproductions, a nonrefundable deposit up front; agreed-on due dates for both the completion of the work and sign-off approval by the client; and a deadline for payment of the balance due.
“I’ve learned to expect payment within 60 days or the artwork becomes eligible to keep for exhibition,” Chomicki says. That clause “relieves the client—and me—if I can show and sell it.”
Connecticut-based artist and wire sculptor Sandy Rabinowitz suggests introducing the contract while artist and client review the first rough draft of a portrait.
“I like to provide a simple sketch with a sample layout while emphasizing that they/we have the freedom to make changes,” she says.
The Value of Communication
“As a business owner, I learned the hard way about not talking numbers up front,” confesses Massachusetts-based artist Gretchen Almy.
“The client and I were so excited by the process that I got lost in it,” Almy says. After spending hours photographing the horse and discussing layouts and ideas, “When we finally discussed price, they disappeared. I lost a lot of valuable time and, in essence, money, and a potential order in the process.”
Almy points out that “art pricing can run the gamut and be confusing. There are many factors that contribute to the value of the artist you are hiring.” To avoid surprises and wasting both your time and the artist’s, she advises inquiring about costs up front. Also ask: How long has the artist been in business? Will the artist travel to meet your horse, and do they offer photography services? What media (oil, pastel, watercolor, pencil, acrylic, and so on) does the artist use, and do those offerings include the medium you want? Once the portrait is complete, does the artist offer custom framing or other services?
Communication is also important regarding the portrait-creation time frame, and clients may need to be flexible with their expectations.
Shantz once received a commission too late to complete the portrait in time for its hoped-for unveiling at an event. She and the client “were able to come to a compromise where they presented an image of the work in progress. Not all artists would be comfortable doing that, but it worked well in this case.”
A portrait of a beloved equine may make a treasured gift for the horse owner in your life, but some well-meaning givers find that they’ve started the process too late to receive the finished product in time for a desired occasion. Shantz suggests: “If you’ve settled on an artist you love but it’s too late for them to complete a portrait by a desired date, ask if they offer gift certificates; most do.” One potential benefit: Doing so “allows the recipient to be part of the process, which can be beneficial because they know the subject best.”
The Finishing Touch
Ideally, a commissioned portrait is both a celebration of art and the experience of “reflecting a soul you know and recognize” through pencil and paint, says sport-horse artist Joanna Zeller Quentin, a juried member of the American Academy of Equine Art and International Association of Scratchboard Artists and the owner of Moose Pants Studio in Texas.
“The best commissioned portraits,” she says, “stand as both works of art and deeply personal mementos of an individual animal.”
Quick Sketch: The Commissioning Process
- Like the art before you start. Choose an artist who resonates with you.
- Set a budget.
- Ask how pricing works.
- Sign a contract. Agree to a deposit up front, and establish due dates for installments or final payment.
- Set a deadline for delivery of the finished piece.
- Provide clear color images, or invest in a professional photo session to ensure that the artist works from the best references.
- Be clear about what you want and how you feel about ideas and progress.
- Trust the process. Artists, like horses, respond positively to a little free rein.