Painting Ponies

By SuzAnne Miller   Cover Photo by PamVoth.net 
Issue 1 Article 7: September 2016
Dunrovin Ranch Lifestyle Magazine

The Missoulian reporter dutifully noted Missoula artist Scott Miller's comments about how his canvass sometimes twitched as he painted. Scott wasn't prepared for the vastness of the canvass or for Lady Lonza's twitching as he applied his paints to her sometimes sensitive body. It was his first ever horse painting.

Scott is partnering with Dunrovin Ranch to experiment with painting ponies in anticipation of helping Dunrovin create a series of equine art contests for the first annual Big Sky Equine Art Fringe Festival to be held at Dunrovin during the third week of August 2017. He gathered his nontoxic paints, conjured a vision in his head, and spent a good four hours working with her. He learned a great deal and he crafted a beautiful work of art. While Scott worked up a sweat on that hot afternoon, the lovely Lady Lonza lazily munched hay from a nearby hay bag and enjoyed the attention.

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Kyla Two Bulls at Dunrovin Ranch. Photos by Tamar Kasberg

Dunrovin's fascination with painting ponies started when we had the great fortune of employing a young Lakota Sioux woman as a wrangler. Kyla Two Bulls brought to us a great deal of energy, horse skills, and knowledge of her people's traditions and art. She gladly shared them with us and with the many kids who attended our summer camps that year.   

One of the many wonderful results of having Kyla at Dunrovin is that she planted the seeds for our painting horses. She taught us to paint them in the tradition of the Plains Indians of North America. However, within no time, we were branching off on our own. Soon Martine, Cool Dude, Whiskey, Annie, and Mickey all were stepping up and standing still while kids of all ages, and from all over the world, expressed themselves through horse painting. 

Then in 2015, I decided to get serious. But frankly, I didn't really know how to do that. While I have a great appreciation for art, my own painting/decorating/artistic skills are nonexistent. So I turned to three young women who were working for me at the time: Nevaeh, Sarah, and Maggie. All of them showed artistic talents and seemed willing when I asked them to paint and decorate a horse. Then I asked two professional photographers, John Ashley and Laurie Childs, to come and capture their work. 

My long-term goal for painting ponies at Dunrovin is to establish online and onsite horse decorating contests to raise money to support equine assisted therapy and wellness program and for university level research into their effectiveness. I strongly believe in the ability of horses to heal people from all sorts of physical, emotional, and mental trauma and disabilities. I have personally experienced it and I have seen it in others. However, I also know that such programs are expensive and that insurance companies will not reimburse for many of these program without further evidence of their effectiveness. Equine assisted therapy programs across the country a constantly seeking funds to provide their services, and I want to help.

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Painted ponies at Dunrovin Ranch. Photos by Tamar Kasberg

So in order to hold online equine art contest, I would need to ascertain how interesting horse painting would be for online, rather than onsite, participants. Was my technology professional enough to really engage an audience and bring them right into the activity? I needed answers so I needed to experiment. Thus, I build this into my 2015 experiment.

Everything surpassed my expectations by a mile. The young women did an outstanding job of creating three very different artistic expressions. Photographers John Ashley and Laurie Childs went out of their way to pose the women and the horses in a variety of circumstances and natural light to capture some truly stunning photos. Furthermore, the online audience was most excited and engaged. They loved watching the art unfold and talking with us as it happened. Our web cameras captured it all in great detail and high definition.

The photos speak for themselves. The first set of photos were taken by John Ashley, the second set by Laurie Childs, and the third set came directly from my web cameras.

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Photo by John Ashley

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Photos by Laurie Childs

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Photos by Dunrovin Ranch web cameras

Some of the lessons we learned are obvious from the photographs:

  1. It is as much about the photo as it is about the art. Photography is an integral part of this art form.
  2. It involves both still art and art in motion. Running horses, horses walking through fields, horses splashing in the river, or horses being ridden all offer different artistic options.
  3. The web cameras are capable of capturing the art and the process. 
  4. Natural surroundings provide many photographic options.

Lessons that we learned which are not evident through the photos include:

  1. The horses tolerated it very well. They seemed to enjoy the attention and generally stood quietly throughout the decorating (well, the hay bags helped!).
  2. Our low quality paints were difficult to use and required several coats for each color. Quality, nontoxic paints with more pigments would work better.

Armed with these lessons, we organized another horse painting trial in July of 2016 which brought Scott Miller to Dunrovin along with photographer Pam Voth to try to take things to the next level. Pam suggested creating an outdoor "studio" and special lighting to try to capture a quality portrait of a painted horse. This became our goal. Again, the photos tell the story. 

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Artist Scott Miller paints on the lovely Lady Lonza. Photos by Pam Voth

As you can see, the higher quality paints really make a difference. Scott chose some a wide array of vivid colors that really pop out on Lonza's uniformly champagne coat.

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While the white backdrop proved too small for a horse portrait studio, Pam Voth's white lights evened out the bright sun on the colors on Lonza's body. Photos by Pam Voth

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At her studio, Pam Voth was able to use her computer to take Lonza's image and create this truly unique and striking composite photo as her portrait. This is a wonderful example of the collaboration between our Dunrovin horse, artist Scott Miller, and photographer Pam Voth. All three components were essential. 

I deem our 2016 experiment to be another success. We learned what didn't work to construct a real portrait studio and I have already taken some steps to correct the problems of size and stability (more on that in a later magazine article - my solution will surprise you!) and I am now confident that artists will now have the opportunity to not only paint a horse, but prepare/paint a special backdrop/studio in which to photograph their results. 

We are very excited for this rather new art form and we eagerly await our First Annual Dunrovin Equine Art Extravaganza from August 14 through 19, 2017. Our festivities will include a children's and adults' art and horseback riding camp, theater and dance performances involving equines (not just horses as our donkey Divas insist on being part of the action), and equine painting contests. 

We are forming a board of directors consisting of artists, gallery owners, and tourism businesses to ensure the quality and success of our festival. Calls for art will go out at the first of the New Year in 2017, with contest rules and applications.  Our hope is that you will join us onsite or online for a real art and equine extravaganza.