Sunday, February 05, 2006

What goes on in the mind of the artist

I "met" Bill Savage on the internet through a friend in Hong Kong. She sent me a link to Bill´s horse related website - all about gifts for horse lovers - and said perhaps they might put my website link there too. I looked at the site and liked what I saw as it was obvious Bill really loved horses. I wrote to him and we have been corresponding some months now and I have been reading his interesting newsletter Nose-to-the-ground once a month. In one of those newsletters Bill wondered what goes on in the mind of a horse-artist when s/he paints and added "any ideas, Leena?" there. So I sat down and wrote him an answer. To my surprise he wanted to publish my letter on his website. I thought I´d better save it on my blog as well.

"I got to wondering if there were some parallels between communicating with and handling a horse and drawing or painting one. To ride a horse well you want to "go with the horse". I wonder if in some abstract way the artist does the same in drawing the animal to achieve the desired result.

In a recent newsletter I was wishing our loud that I could get into the head of one of our contemporary equine artists to understand what goes through their mind as they are creating their art. My wish was granted in Leena Pekkalainen's response which I'd like to share with you.

I've not altered her words with the exception of deleting one small phrase which in no way changes the message. I've also underlined several phrases which "jumped out" at me as I read her reply. I believe you will enjoy what Leena has written and, if you are a horse lover, relate to it."

I Start With The Eyes ......

by Leena Pekkalainen

Hmmm... What goes through my mind when I paint a horse... Tough one.

If I have the opportunity, I go and take my reference photos of the horse myself. At the same time I try to get to know him a bit better. Interact with him. Watch him move, how he reacts with his environment and with other horses. Listen to the owner when s/he tells me about the horse. This way I already have a hunch what I am trying to show in the picture.

If photographing the horse myself is not possible, I work from the photos given by the owner.

In this case I try to ask as many questions as possible about the horse. (Thank goodness this is not difficult as the horse-owners seem to love to talk about their wonderful horses - and I never get tired of listening/reading about their horses).

I mean if the horse is a chili-pepper by character there is no point in painting a calm kind creature, now is there? Now I do know that each and every horse is the best one in the world, of course, so I try to convey that in my portraits too.

But the actual painting process... it starts with the outline. At this stage the painting doesn´t really "talk to me" yet. I start with the eyes usually. When I get the horse looking at me, I get the feeling he is alive. That´s when the "conversation" with the painting begins.

I then paint the shadows and lights and a light layer of basic color. The painting looks rather horrid at this stage. I call it the "oh-my-goodness-this-will-never-work-where´s-the-trash-can" -stage. (Or "blech"-stage for short). But then I look into those eyes and continue painting. At this stage many kinds of thoughts criss-cross my mind. Ordinary everyday stuff. What´s on TV tonight. Laundry. Shopping list. I feel often very tired and thinking about lying on the couch watching TV seems sooo lovely.

But no - the artist paints on. And after a while the odd thing arrives. Inspiration. It comes when I have painted a while. Really - I can´t wait for inspiration first to start painting. That way I´d be painting one painting per year. But I do know the magic is there and this knowledge keeps me going through the difficult first stage. Because after this my subconscious realizes I mean business. And it literally feels like cold shivers and a wonderful sense of eagerness in my solar plexus.
And this is where answering your question gets difficult because it is the stage where the thoughts actually disappear.

What is left is actually a much deeper discussion conveyed on the canvas - that of the feelings, emotions. At this stage I almost feel like I am in the mind of the horse I am painting. I get fleeting horsey emotions, the horse feels like a presence in my mind. I get glimpses through his eyes. I enter a timeless place. I literally forget there is such a thing as time. It feels like something paints through me and I observe it with awe. "Wow - how did the brush/pastel do THAT?"

I really am amazed because I never had any artists training. I learned on my own by trial and error and with the help of art technique books, in the evenings and weekends after my day job. But when I paint using the information I have picked up from an outside source, it seems to extend and I get these moments I know how to paint something, how to use a technique no one has ever taught me. It really is strange. I have had dreams where I was taught a technique I never heard of. Like this dream where an old man came to teach me a method I learned years later was called the "grisaille" technique. Before this stage the painting process feels so clumsy. Like going to excercise after a long pause. And then suddenly the doors of magic open and the essence of the horse flows through.

Nothing is more important than getting that noble creature out into the canvas. The tiniest little brushstroke is more important than a year´s wage for me. I keep my breath so the movements of my body wouldn´t disturb the brushstroke. The color hues in a horse´s body are more fascinating than those of an exotic flower. The glint in his eyes - well... that is everything. That is where the soul of the horse talks to the viewer. And I paint until my muscles cramp, but I don´t notice.

And then suddenly it is over. Like a door closing. I breath in deeply and wonder where I am, realize how my neck and shoulders are aching, how tired my eyes are - and how content I feel. That is the moment I know I cannot add a single stroke anymore. And I am happy, so happy. Nothing compares to this "high". Watching the result, knowing something much bigger than my small ego did the work. I breath in deeply and say "thank you " in my mind and really mean it. So what could I say... What moves in an artists mind... Some stream of loving, noble energy, a mixture of creative energy and the soul of the horse I am painting. The feeling is the same yet always different with every portrait.

I think the difference comes from intuitively contacting the horse I am painting, and the sameness is the pouring through of the creative energy which simply waits to be let out. But first I need to get over the mundane everyday thoughts, to quiet my mind, and then when I am in a relaxed stage of mind, it can really come through. Other people meditate. I paint. That is my meditation. I really respect every horse I paint and don´t see them as simply "animals". I do not know why I was born this way but the magic of the horse has been with me always. Thank God for that.

With respect and love I try to put them on canvas so when the time has come for them to cross the Rainbow Bridge, there would be a reminder left of them for their humans to look at with a smile and positive remembrance when the time of tears has passed. And the lovely thing is that even if I am painting a horse that is no longer here, I still get that connection. But then again - I am certain all souls continue their existence eternally, so having that connection is possible. I think every horse can teach their humans how to be honest, loving and proud and happy of our existence. They teach us caring and trust - and yes: a lot of humor too.

The relationship between a human and a horse is the relationship of kindred spirits. A horse teaches us connection to our own emotions. And when we are connected to our own emotions we are connected to the source of all life. We enter that loving, joyful place of the soul that tells us we are all worthy of all the good things in this universe. The difference between us and the horse is that the horse lives in the knowledge of this, but we humans are trying to learn to believe in it. But what wonderful teachers we have in our horses. One day we too shall move from learning to believe into full knowledge. And if my paintings can remind the horse´s human even of a slight glimpse of this sacred connection, I have done my job well. It is kinda hard to try to put into words something that cannot really be described with words. But at least I tried.


Leena Pekkalainen is from Turku, the oldest city in Finland. She has been painting horses for most of her life. She recently ventured into the world of art shows where her paintings have received international recognition. Like many equine artists she loves horses and enjoys meeting with their owners. For commissioned works she will work from photographs although her preference is to see the horse "in person".
You can view Leena's fine work at her website - - or visit her blog at - she would love to have your comments.