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Monday, July 16, 2012

Pimping The Duke's Ride


When I graduated from college and decided to become a professional artist I had to figure out what type of art I wanted to specialize in. I considered painting landscapes because I enjoyed depicting mountains and streams, but I settled on portrait painting because nothing gave me greater pleasure than smearing colors on a blank surface to create an image that looked like it could talk back to you. This, for me, was pure magic.


I placed samples of my work in a few art galleries but my phone didn’t ring off the hook. For weeks it didn’t ring at all. Finally, a retired rancher called to arrange a meeting to discuss a painting he wanted to commission. His ranch was in the foothills of San Jose. I wasn’t very interested in Western art, but his collection was impressive. I recognized names on some of the paintings: Russell, Remington, Hurd. This white-haired cowboy was a serious collector. We chatted for an hour and he finally commissioned me to paint a portrait of John Wayne for his collection. Painting John Wayne wouldn’t be difficult, but I was commissioned to paint him on horseback.


Although I’d never painted a horse before, I refused to be deterred. I was determined to paint a damn fine horse. After my meeting with the old fellow I stopped at the library for books with photographs of John Wayne, returned to my studio and began sketching. After a few days I stretched a large canvas to the agreed upon dimensions and started to paint. Before long, Duke was looking back at me with his trademark lopsided grin. Everything was going smoothly, more smoothly than I’d imagined. Then I tackled the horse.


I quickly ran into trouble. I’d grown up in the suburbs and had never been close to a real horse. But I’d been to a few parades and had seen enough photographs to know that I was depicting Duke riding something that looked like it sprung from the imagination of Dr. Seuss, a cross between a giant collie and a llama. After several days of painting, repainting and scraping away mistakes, I achieved something that resembled a horse.


When I delivered the canvas, the old rancher placed my canvas on an easel, poured two whiskies and invited me to sit down. My palms were damp and I struggled not to drop my glass. This was my first commission and I really wanted to please my client. I liked the old guy but foremost in my mind was the fact that he was wealthy and could help promote my fledgling career. Unfortunately, his response was not what I’d hoped for.


“It's a fine likeness of John Wayne,” he said, pausing to sip his whiskey. “But why did you paint him on a Mongolian war pony?”


I’d chosen a poor time to take a gulp of whiskey. His question caught me by surprise. I wasn’t accustomed to drinking whiskey and sprayed his Navaho rug. He dashed over to me and started slapping me on the back. I was humiliated and wished I could change places with the head of the stuffed elk on his wall.


Sometimes fate gives you a second chance. It turned out that the old cowboy was quite a gentleman. He said, “Don’t feel bad. Even great painters have weaknesses. Goya was one of the best painters ever, but the man couldn’t paint a horse to save his life. He painted the King and Queen of Spain riding giant pigs.”


He knew a lot about horses. He showed me around his ranch and introduced me to his horses. I even sat on one, my first and only time in a saddle. I took my painting home and reworked it until I was satisfied. When I returned it to him, his broad smile told me I’d succeeded.


I’ve painted many portraits since then, but that was my one and only horse. Unfortunately, I can’t watch a John Wayne western without picturing him astride my first attempt at an equine. But there was one role where he would have looked just fine sitting on a Mongolian war pony.



33 comments:

  1. Maybe you could have had him sitting on an ostrich and said it was "symbolic" or something. Damn those tricky horses.

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  2. :-)

    I have nothing, really, to add to that, although I'm diggin' PT's idea. :-)

    Pearl

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  3. Love this story! Have you ever heard more from the old cowboy?

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  4. Great story Stephen especially about your determination to get it right!

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  5. given the duke's size, I am thinking that Mongolian pony must have pretty big ;)

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  6. You could have a launched into a specialty of horse portraiture. ;-)

    Have you pimped any other rides or are those untold stories for another time?

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  7. Bwahahahahahahaha. You poor thing. That was a great story. Great I tell you.

    Have a terrific day. :)

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  8. At least a Mongolian pony is better than a pig...

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  9. So jealous. Not only can you paint...and portraits to boot! But you also write a great story. Turning greener by the minute.

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  10. Mongolian Pony almost sounds like a euphemism ...or a band name
    John Wayne and the Mongolian Pony is definitely a good name for a rock band (WBAGNFARB)

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  11. Finally able to catch up on your last three posts. As always, I LOVE the art lessons, the history lessons, and the life lessons! And I think I love that old rancher a little bit too.

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  12. I'm with Astrids Soaopbox... I'm turning greener too!

    What great talents you have. You should be proud. And we are lucky to have you share them with us.

    *smile*

    Great story.

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  13. Great story! The old cowboy sounds like terrific guy. The idea of Goya painting royalty on "pigs" is a classic.

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  14. Now you've really got our curiosity. So what did this first horse look like?
    Interesting account of your experience.

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  15. Ha! Snorting over the image of you spraying your whiskey...

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  16. I can paint stick figures and nothing else, so no matter how you paint a horse, you're way ahead of me.

    Love,
    Janie

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  17. It was tough that he really knew horses. But he made you a better painter. Great story.

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  18. He sounds like he was a great guy, not flying off the handle and refusing it. And yes, Wayne would have looked good on the pony in that movie, but it was a lousy movie.

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  19. First of all - it is good to find somebody that is familiar with John Wayne. So many people I run into that have never watched one of his movies...secondly, great post! "page turner".
    "Let's go, we're burnin daylight."

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  20. I would never think to notice these things in a painting...I am learning. thanks!

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  21. I actually like the image of The Duke on a Mongolian war horse.

    On another note, I found your site thanks to a comment you left on my blog. You also asked me to "join", but I'm not exactly sure what you mean by that. I went ahead and clicked the "boost" button on humorblogs.com, in case that's what you were talking about. If not, please let me know. I'm new to this blogging thing and I clearly still have some learning to do.

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  22. “Fill your canvas, you sons-of-bitches!” (True Grit, the painting)

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  23. OMG...what the hell is a mongolian war pony and why did you choose that LOL? That's so funny. I would have just gotten a picture of a real horse and gone off of that. Horses are easy to draw.

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  24. Funny. I just recently began a period of enjoying sitting down and watching old Wayne films. One of the most bizarre was his portrayal of Genghis Khan. Loads of fun to watch, though.

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  25. Did you get commissioned for more paintings from his wealthy friends?

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  26. What a great story. In hindsight, instead of repainting the horse, it probably would have been easier to simply paint that outfit and Fu Manchu on John Wayne.

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  27. My Grandpa loved John Wayne and horses, not necessarily in that order. It's a wonderful thing you had a gent who was willing to work with you, and not just shut you down when it wasn't what he expected. War pony... Heh.

    Cat

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  28. You have some of the most interesting stories in your past. Keep them coming.

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  29. Love the final picture! And a great story.

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  30. How sweet that he gave you a second chance. Looks great! Practice made perfect, I guess. ;)

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