With its drama, color, motion and form, it’s no wonder Joan Porter Jannaman considers eventing among her favorite muses. We met the Hendersonville, Tennessee based artist, whose paintings have been featured on multiple covers of The Chronicle of the Horse and can be found in public and private collections in the U.S. and abroad, at Rolex last month, where she was taking in the sights and sounds of the weekend.
Joan took a moment to speak with us about her most recent work, a portrait of William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero, her inspiration, and her background as both an equestrian and an artist.
Tell us about the painting you’ve just completed of William Fox-Pitt.
The painting of Bay My Hero with William Fox-Pitt was done because I’m such a fan of him as one of the great representatives of the sport. I started out planning to do a painting of Bay My Hero alone because a few years ago I had done one of Parklane Hawke, another great horse owned by Catherine Witt.
I changed my mind to include Mr. Fox-Pitt after he had that serious fall last year and was on the mend. Of course his reputation as an athlete is known by all, but watching him at Rolex being so calm and kind and such a gentleman with young people running up to him for an autograph, it just leaves a great impression of his character as a person and not just an eventing “celebrity.”
As far as the painting itself is concerned, I used a photo as reference that I shot at the Head of the Lake in 2014. Of course I used artistic license for the background, wanting it to reflect a general feel of the spring in Kentucky at the Horse Park. I wanted the painting to have the feel of a portrait of them both rather than a painting about the activity of the event itself.
The sport of eventing has clearly captured your interest in terms of inspiration. Why is that?
My background with horses was between the ages of eight through 18. Lessons spanned continuously over those 10 years at Highland Stables, a local farm in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, a 100-acre slice of horse heaven for many riders who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to live a childhood full of ponies and horses. I had many wonderful teachers over those years, but during my later high school years my teacher was Maria Holcomb, who had graduated from the riding instructor’s program at Morven Park in Virginia.
She was the one that turned our attention toward combined training in the early ’70s. Until then we were showing at local junior hunter shows in southeastern Pennsylvania. So my eventing experience had just started when I went off to college and my serious riding days ended.
My infatuation with the sport continued through reading The Chronicle of the Horse, etc. through the years. So I am a long-time fan of the sport and am in awe of the range of skills it takes to compete.
Which came first in your life: horses or art?
Art came first since my father was an artist and that was always an influence in our household. However, when I discovered that horses existed in this world, there was no thinking of anything else from that moment forward! I think back on my childhood with horses and riding and I’m so very thankful for all the life lessons they taught me and the joy it created.
Do you have horses in your life now?
No, I don’t have any horses of my own at this time. I live vicariously through my horse owning friends and clients!
It’s so neat that you get to combine your two passions. How do the two complement each other?
Any horse lover out there understands the inherent beauty in the equine subject and the combining of art and horses is as old as human efforts drawing on cave walls. My best advice to any artist is to be inspired by what you love and what you know and it’ll show through your work when you truly love your subject.
What’s your favorite type of equine art to do: portraits? action shots?
I always seem drawn toward the “behind the scenes” kind of ideas, gravitating towards those moments before or after the big race or competition. The times when a horse may just lift his head and look toward the late afternoon sun and it takes your breath away. I am drawn toward the quiet moments with horses when I’m thinking of ideas.
It must be difficult to get all of the little details right: the look in a horse’s eye, or the animation of its movement captured in freeze-frame. What does your process look like?
My process is rooted in many years of drawing and just observing. I’ve always loved the details. A stint as an archaeological illustrator reinforced this, as it was important to get the details right. Life drawing is an important part of this but the reality of working with animals is greatly helped with photography for obvious reasons. I try to work from my own photo references whenever possible because having been there and seen the idea start in my mind’s eye helps with the personality of the outcome.
Photography is an art in and of itself. I have never professed to be a great photographer but I use photography to gather information for my paintings. I may combine multiple references to sketch out the idea in a small drawing on paper.
With small paintings I will just start blocking in with paint and continue to refine and develop as it goes along. For larger paintings I will start by drawing the main equine subject on a large sheet of paper.
I do not trace from the photo in any way. I’m not sure that people care about that, but it matters a lot to me that I have not tried to shortcut the eye, brain, hand connection. Does that take longer? Yes it does, but it gives me much personal satisfaction knowing that this is the process that I used. Drawing is definitely a “use it or lose it” kind of skill. I feel that an artist’s style is developed through their physical action of seeing, processing and drawing. That way each artist develops their own style.
After the drawing and transferring it to the canvas, I approach the painting in a very classical way. I work on a few paintings at a time because I use layers of paint and wait for it to dry a bit in between. I work with my values of light and dark mostly until toward the end, adjusting the colors at that time and adding subtle changes with glazing.
I do have a degree in Art Education; however, the years of workshops with artists that I admire has been the most help to me as I continue to strive to improve my painting. That process is a lifelong pursuit.
Have you done any equine pieces that have special meaning for you?
I seem to fall in love with every horse I paint. I think that I mentally adopt all of my subjects. Each commission is really a labor of love.
However, a few years ago I worked on a project with Elizabeth Letts (the author of The 80 Dollar Champion: Snowman, The Horse That Inspired the Nation) and her main real life character in the book, Harry de Leyer. We wanted to develop a painting that was out of our imaginations of an image of Snowman, who had passed many years ago.
The three of us gathered lots of photos and I put together an idea for a painting that was not really based on a photo but of a memory. In the painting I included Harry as a young man looking into Snowman’s stall. Harry described him in a way that photos couldn’t really capture. I still choke up thinking of the inspiration from this story.
The painting is now in the collection at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park. We presented it to them in a ceremony honoring Harry and Elizabeth at the Hats Off Day celebration at the Horse Park. Tom Riddle of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital made it all happen when he created the opportunity for their Grand Prix show Jumping Charity event. My husband and I still talk of the wonderful weekend spent with Harry and Elizabeth as a truly special memory.
View more of Joan’s work at her website, LakehillStudio.com.