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.