Sunday, November 23, 2008

Learning to see

I started taking riding lessons when I was ten and a half years old, and horses of the real, live, breathing variety have been a part of my life ever since. There have been periods in my life when I rode upwards of eight hours a day, six days a week. Of course there were other years when my horse time was a lot less frequent. Still, no matter how you look at it, I've spent almost thirty years around horses.

And yet, in some ways I feel that I'm just now learning to really see horses. For example, if you had asked my ten year old self to define the color bay, I would have said that bay refers to a brown horse with black points. That answer is still correct of course, but it's not complete. Even the plainest non-dappled, non-sooty, non-anything bay has so much more going on than simple brown and black.

This is one of the horses I ride pretty regularly. His name is Punky and he's a Quarter Horse gelding who belongs to my friend Fran. He's the definition of a plain bay. In fact, there was a time not so long ago when I would have described his color as a plain, boring bay.
Not so today!

This new perspective started a couple years ago when I made my first serious attempts at painting models. I tried a bay first because that seemed like such an easy and basic color. I was fine on the base coat, but as the paintwork progressed, I started to realize the limits of my knowledge. There was an astonishing amount of things I couldn't quite remember--stuff like how high above the knees do the black markings extend and exactly how much dark skin shows through around the horses eyes? Is the belly lighter or darker than the rest of the horse? I know the flanks are lighter, but what about the chest? Are the insides of a horse's ears really black? And on and on. I started making a concerted effort to notice these details every time I look at a horse. Pictures are great for in studio reference, but nothing compares to actually studying the real thing.

So now when I look at Punky, I don't see a boring bay. He may be a brown horse with black legs, but look at how beautifully those legs are shaded! I love the soft transitions from black to brown to black again. I also love the subtle color variations on his face. He has just a little bit of mealy-ness around his eyes, yet even in his winter fuzzies the black skin is clearly visible on his lower eyelid. Check out the eyelashes--they're two tone!And who would not love his adorable little nose! There's so much going on here--reddish brown, tan, white, grey, black and even a little pink.Sadly, this new found awareness of color nuances hasn't magically transformed me into a world class model horse painter. However, it has helped me to both improve my own finishwork and recognize excellence in others' . I don't think I would have ever noticed these kind of details had I not become involved with model horses. The little plastic horses have given me a whole new appreciation for the big, breathing ones. Isn't it funny how that's worked out!

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