Claudia Coleman: An Equine Artist Goes to the Dogs
Courtesy of The Canine Chronicle
Jessica Jahiel, Ph.D, is an internationally-recognized clinician and lecturer, and a critically-acclaimed, award-winning author of books about horses, riding and training. Claudia Coleman illustrated Jahiel's highly-praised 2004 book, The Horse Behavior Problem Solver, and more of Coleman's illustrations will be featured in Jahiel's next book in the Problem Solver series. For more information on Jahiel's teaching and writing, please visit her web site at www.jessicajahiel.com.
When horse lovers and artists talk about painters of horses, Claudia Coleman's work is invariably highly praised. Over the years, her work has collected a large following not unlike the tail of a comet. Anyone who acquires one of her horse portraits will inevitably return to purchase another, and another. The reason is simple: her work is uniquely representational, capturing not only the horse's physical appearance, but also its true essence as an individual. Luckily for today's dog owners, Coleman is also employing her considerable talent creating equally stunning portraits of dogs.
Coleman's passion for horses and dogs, like her talent, her determination, and her work ethic, was bred in the bone. Born in North Carolina after WWII, Coleman grew up in the country surrounded by her grandparents’ Cocker Spaniels, a few stray cats and an extremely talented family. Riding and horses were her passion from her first introduction to a warm muzzle, and her persistent nagging resulted in days at a local stable and riding lessons. From the age of six, she has lived and dreamed about horses.
Coleman's family was multi-talented; her parents and grandparents played the piano and other instruments. Her father had a large woodworking shop where he made toys for his daughter, cabinets for the house, and lamps for friends. Her mother, who had studied at the Maryland Institute, then at Parsons in New York, Paris, and Rome, won national awards in both architecture and dress design. From birth, Coleman was surrounded by rich resources of imagination and implementation.
"My parents were totally cool," she says. "Dad was not only extremely well read and the source of all information, but he had a great workshop where I was assigned my own tools. I have all his tools today and use them constantly. Mom painted Longleaf pines better than any other landscape artist I have ever seen. I still use her palette for mixing sand colors. In the afternoon on dry fall days, she would park me in the sand to construct a fort or draw with sticks while she painted the Sandhills landscape around her. I loved to draw and paint from my earliest memories, and Mom gave me the right tools and encouragement."
Coleman's education was thorough, but not extraordinary. She attended public school in North Carolina until she was in the sixth grade, when her family moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia. Later, she graduated from Virginia's Norfolk Academy with a burning desire to become a marine biologist. The urge to draw and paint had never left her, however.
"My art skills helped me in all the science classes", says Coleman. "Planting a couple of humdinger illustrations in the term paper always moved my grade up a notch. I knew my material, but those precise little watercolors cemented the ‘A’."
Coleman's mother, who could clearly see her daughter's talent, and who felt that her own experiences with art training had "overtrained" her and caused her own scope to be limited, refused to allow Coleman to participate in practical art classes or receive personal instruction. She felt that the best way to begin teaching such an obviously talented youngster was to hand her the right tools and let her run without rules - and that's exactly what she did.
"I will never forget the first time Mom made me do a color wheel," says Coleman. "It was a rainy day, so I was drawing another horse – this was the era of those repetitive attempts at side views that resulted in horses appearing to float above the ground – and she suggested I learn how to mix colors."
Coleman promptly informed her mother that she already knew how to do that, but her mother insisted. "Mom hid a sly smile while she made me draw out the wheel and spaces to fill with paint," she says. Armed with the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue), young Coleman whipped into action. Ten minutes later, she announced to her mother that she had made a perfect color wheel. Ignorance is bliss - but not for long. "I can still remember how mad I was that I had to do it over," says Coleman, " – but since that day, I've never forgotten how to mix colors."
Just after graduating from high school, Coleman attended The American School in Switzerland for a year, learning, traveling, and becoming familiar with the art of previous centuries and civilizations. "This was the best part of my education," she says.
The year in Europe, and the in-depth exposure it gave Coleman to architecture, culture, and art, created a solid foundation for her career as an artist. During her first year at Elmira College, her plan to become a marine biologist gave way to her desire to create fine art. During the Christmas holidays, she discussed the dilemma with her mother. "Mom and I were talking about my future," says Coleman. "I still had visions of saving the planet aboard Jacques Cousteau’s ship, but the summer before, I had worked as an artist for an archeological project in Maine, and I loved it."
The choice wasn't easy. Coleman suggested that she might avoid the choice by following both passions at once. Her mother set her straight. "I thought I could do both, but she made me respect the talent I was given," says Coleman. "She pointed out that there were many fine scientists in the world, but far fewer fine artists. I went back to school, changed my major, and immediately became frustrated - so I left school, and have never looked back."
At first, like so many artists, Coleman had to use her talent in any way that would enable her to pay the rent. She took on a wide variety of jobs, including advertising, marine carvings for boats, house construction, sign and truck lettering, sculpture, and museum dioramas. But no matter what else she was doing, she continued to study the three things she loved the most: fine art, horses, and dogs.
Sometime in the early 1970s, during a Christmas at home, Coleman decided to visit old family friends in Southern Pines. "I wanted to see whether the Carolina life I remembered could possibly be as good as it was in my memories," she says. "It was. When I got back to New England, I called the movers to pack up my house, and I headed back to Southern Pines."
Southern Pines is a large horse community; its heart is the Moore County Hounds. A private pack founded in 1914, it showcases fine crossbred foxhounds whose pedigrees go back over 200 years.
Here, at last, Coleman was once again surrounded by fine dogs and fine horses like the ones she remembered from her childhood. She realized that if she wanted to become the painter she knew she could be, she would need models, and that Southern Pines could offer an infinite supply of classic horses and splendid dogs. Horses, dogs, and fine art: for the first time, Coleman could be deeply, professionally involved with all three.
"My childhood memory of Pappy and Ginnie Moss on their magnificent Thoroughbreds, scarlet coats in the morning sun, and 40 screaming hounds was up and running again. It was like re-starting the home movie just where you'd left off," says Coleman. "I was fortunate enough to be welcomed into the ‘holy grail’ of horses and hounds, and that started my real education. The day-to-day business of working with horses and hounds makes for a fine pen."
In the best tradition of animal portraitists, Coleman is constantly "up close and personal" with horses and dogs. Hands-on experience with the animals in her pastures, barns, and kennels isn't an indulgence, it's essential to her art. "Look at Cecil Aldin’s dogs – he had his own packs. Painting is not just about seeing what is there, it's about feeling it," says Coleman. "If I get 'stuck' when I'm painting a knee, I can close my eyes and remember what it felt like when I brushed my horse or handled my dog that morning."
There's a deep, strong connection between horses and dogs, both in life and in their portrayal in art. The horse-and-dog combination can be seen in art throughout the ages, and many artists have mastered both subjects to meet their own passionate interests or the demands of their clients. "Throughout the history of art," says Coleman, "the best horse painters have also been excellent dog portraitists."
Today, Coleman is a sought-after artist and an acknowledged contemporary master of animal portraiture. Her talents are increasingly in demand, and discerning owners of quality dogs are asking her to paint more and more of today's top show dogs. Recent dog paintings include Ch. Laststop Look Twice, Ch. Tri-d’s Grand Finale BROM, Ch. Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee, Ch. Vishnu Quijote del Cypres, Ch. Clussexx Crayola Crayon, Ch. Samabel Sir Oliver, and Ch. Gama Grass Kool Blackout.
Owners who see her talent on the canvas know they made the right choice. Her paintings not only capture the look and personality of the dogs, but show them in their actual, personal and working environments. "My goal in painting a dog is to tell something about him: what he does, what he likes, and where he lives", says Coleman. "I detest paintings that just plop the poor beast in the middle of the canvas, throw in a few token weeds, and call it a portrait."
Every horse or dog portrait by Claudia Coleman is a picture that tells a story. Her interest in biology and her passion for understanding "what makes life tick" have made her into something very special in the art world: a landscape painter who produces superb portraits of animals. "Dogs don't just happen," says Coleman. "All breeds of dogs were developed for specific jobs, whether it was to comfort the Queen from a velvet cushion, or run the sheep into the barn. Animals are individuals with jobs to do, and a good portrait of a horse or dog should show more than the uniqueness of each individual - it should show something about the work the animal does, and the environment in which that work is done."
Coleman knows that when it comes to animal portraiture, fine art can be created only if the artist truly understands conformation and movement. "You have to understand the structure under the shiny coat," says Coleman. "If you don’t know what the bones are doing, no amount of fat and hair on the animal, and no amount of artistic technique, can make a portrait authentic."
All four-footed animals share almost all the same bones for the same purposes - only the proportions and angles are different. However, some species are more challenging than others. "Painting horses is harder than dogs, because you can’t cover up anything with a fancy 'do'," says Coleman. "Horses are naked before us. I have seen dog artists attempt horses and the results are never right - but horse artists always paint dogs well. It all comes back to the structure - the muscles themselves, and underneath the muscles, the skeleton. When kids ask me to help them draw better horses, I tell them to do stick figures with bones only," says Coleman. "They are amazed to discover how much ‘horse’ you can create with just a few simple strokes."
A true professional, Coleman is not one to rest on her laurels. Dedicated to learning, she continually works to improve her understanding and her skills. She does not go to seminars or workshops, but prefers to study other masters and their techniques. "My favorite holiday destinations are museums of art," says Coleman.
A stickler for keeping the highest standards of quality, Coleman has been known to discard a nearly-completed painting because she discovered a problem with the canvas. "I once painted a portrait of a lady on her horse. Two days after she approved it, I discovered a small patch where the paint was not adhering to the canvas correctly." Coleman was outraged. She contacted the manufacturer of the canvas, dealt with the inevitable corporate runaround, and finally convinced them to send her an undamaged canvas immediately. Then she went back to work. "I started over and had an exact duplicate done before the client returned a week later," says Coleman. "She was thrilled with the portrait, and never knew that the painting she took home was not the one she had originally looked at."
Coleman could have fixed the damaged area of that canvas, but she would have known that the damage was there, and her conscience would not have allowed her to accept payment. "The incident was a fluke, but made me even fussier about my ingredients," says Coleman. "My Dad made a little plaque for me when I was very little that said, ‘the best is just barely good enough’ and that has been my mantra ever since."
Painting different breeds of dogs has expanded Coleman's learning process. She has discovered that she needs to use special shapes of brushes and blend her paints differently to achieve the richness she wants. Her palette has remained the same - she uses fewer than 20 colors, and employs only pigments of the highest permanence ratings - but her use of that palette is constantly evolving. Coleman doesn’t subscribe to fashions, fads, or trendy techniques, but adheres to the methods that have made paintings last for centuries.
As for the dogs in her life, Coleman and long-time friend Alexa Samarotto raise and show Australian Terriers (Samabel Australian Terriers). Coleman's farm provides ample space for puppies to grow, play, and thrive before they begin their show careers. Coleman and Samarotto have produced many successful show dogs, and continue to work diligently to breed quality dogs that are true to the standard.
Dog-owners are said to choose dogs that are most like themselves. In Coleman's case, this is obviously true - and she's the first to admit it. "I actually think I am part terrier," she says. "I know I am tenacious enough. My dogs are my family and my favorite companions." There are usually five to seven dogs running around her house - providing her with, as she puts it, her own pack. In addition to being family and companions, the dogs are also her best critics. "I'll go to the studio and here they come, right up the stairs. They will react to a dog on the canvas if the background hasn't been painted in yet. I painted a portrait of Wilma, a well-known Rottweiler bitch, several years ago. When my dogs saw her, they froze in their tracks and approached with great caution, backs bristling and tails high. I laughed all day."
So has Claudia Coleman gone to the dogs? The answer would have to be a resounding "Yes!" In the future, we can look forward to seeing many more canvases of the dogs we adore. Coleman's unique talent, accurate technique, and affectionate touch guarantee that each of her paintings will be a true-to-life portrait of a beloved individual, showing the dog as it truly is, recreating both its physical reality and its unique spirit and soul.