Painting Bespoke Portrait Commissions | Horse Portrait | Making of Horse & Owner Painting

The Idea

Helmut newton inspired horse painting

I would like to talk you through the process of creating this portrait painting of Elizabeth and Simpatica. The whole process in creating this painting from start to finish took me 6 months to complete. It started from an initial idea, which led into mood boards, drawings, a photo shoot and then months of painting.

Elizabeth originally saw this iconic Helmut Newton black and white photograph of a model with the black horse and she loved it. She was coming up to a milestone birthday and wanted to mark it by commissioning a portrait painting of her with her polo pony Simpatica. We decided to use this photo as an inspiration and a starting point.

If you look at the final painting next to the original Helmut Newton photo, you can see that the clothes that we picked for Elisabeth to wear were the same cut as the ones that the model was wearing in the photo. I copied the floor tiling to make it the exact same pattered and style as the one in the Helmut Newton photo too. The room that Elizabeth is painted in is her Mayfair office as this was a very sentimental place for her and I added the furniture and some of the artwork from her office too. Everything from the composition, style, right down to the clothes was carefully thought about and designed.

Helmut Newton inspired horse painting

The final finished painting was a huge oil on linen canvas painting size 36” x 48”. My style of painting is not quite photorealistic but realistic and I have a natural style which comes through. I love the quirkiness of this final composition and how the portrait feels so close to the original Helmut Newton photograph.

Helmut Newton | Horse

Once I had the initial consultation with Elizabeth and we talked through some ideas, I then went away and put together some mood boards. The mood boards are a series of images which I will spend time researching to create the style feel and look, which will help us into the direction which we wanted to go. I did research into fashion images as well as art ones featuring women and horses. There is a lot of intimate and cool photography featuring women and horses as subjects.

This whole direction of work is an area that as an artist I want to explore more. I am visually stimulated by the female form with a horse and I am obsessed with the relations between the two. I have been drawing woman and horses together since I was a young child and its the direction which I am deeply connected with. Elisabeth’s portrait is the start of a series which I will be painting women and horses together.

Caroline Towning Mood Board woman and horses

Caroline Towning Mood Board woman and horses

Caroline Towning Mood Board woman and horses

Caroline Towning Mood Board woman and horses

Caroline Towning Mood Board woman and horses

Caroline Towning Mood Board woman and horses

I also put together a mood board featuring some of my favorite horse painting artists and horse paintings. I even added some Hermes horse wallpaper designs in there. All these paintings are works which inspire me daily. Its realistic paintings which are not quite photorealistic but have a very strong style from the artist despite still being painted realistically. I love work with really strong colours, long shadows, and dramatic lighting effects. I also really like quirky background or compositions. I even really like the patterns and designs in some of the pieces. I was also looking at older portraits from other centuries of women with their horses as I am really interested in how these subjects have been depicted through history.

Painting Reference

Painting Reference

I brainstormed some words in which I wanted this portrait to be about. Elizabeth is a strong and powerful woman so the portrait had to reflect that. She is also elegant and female while being classically beautiful, so all of this had to be reflected in the painting, it had to be strong but show a softer female side.

Painting Bespoke Portrait Commissions | Horse Portrait | Making of Horse & Owner Painting

Painting Bespoke Portrait Commissions | Horse Portrait | Making of Horse & Owner Painting

The Styling

Referring back to the original photograph by Helmut Newton, I studied closely as to what the model was wearing. I sourced clothing which was very similar cuts to what was in the original photograph. We teamed up with fashion brand AQAQ and they kindly sent us some clothing in which we could help us replicate the styling in the image.

Painting Bespoke Portrait Commissions | Horse Portrait | Making of Horse & Owner Painting

Painting Bespoke Portrait Commissions | Horse Portrait | Making of Horse & Owner Painting

The Shoot

We picked a shoot date towards the end of summer 2018. We had had a hot summer and my favorite lighting is towards the end of the day during the golden hour. I put a team together which included a photographer (Ursula), videographer (Phil Miller) and makeup artist (Lady Martha Sitwell). We shot at Madams Polo Farm which was such a beautiful location to shoot, it is located in Surrey and has about 200 polo horses kept there.

Simpatica is a really beautiful horse and I was particularly enamored by her beautiful chestnut brown coat, I love shooting the horses in the summer when they have their shiny summer coats in, I think that they just look magnificent.

If you watch the video above it is a little film showing you the shoot at madams polo farm. We were a team of 5 including the horses' groom. It also shows makeup being done by talented makeup artist Lady Martha Sitwell. It also shows just how tricky it is trying to get the horse and the subject to perfectly posing together. I did not actually manage to get the perfect shot together but as this was a painting these are only reference shots anyway so I will use the images to draw out the composition which I want. The shoot was a really fun day and we had such a great team and I now had enough reference shots to go back to my studio and make a start on the drawing and designing the painting.

Creating The Painting

Once I was back in my studio I went through all the images with Elizabeth and she showed me which ones she liked of her and Simpatica. Using the chosen images I then went and took some photos of her office in which she wanted to feature in the painting. Her Mayfair office also featured a sofa which she bought from a castle in Scotland which was battered and had the pattern of a Union Jack on it. It was a really cool piece of furniture to paint so I was really excited about that. I then started to sketch out the first few composition ideas featuring all these elements together. We had originally shot Elizabeth sitting on a stool in the middle of a field so it was challenging getting all the angles and sizes correct in order to make the composition sit correctly. As we had shot Elizabeth and Simpatica together getting the correct scale between them was a lot easier but it was challenging getting Elizabeth to sit correctly on the sofa as the sofa was a lot lower to the ground than the stool was, I had to use a little bit of artistic license to get everything working together correctly.

Once I completed the initial composition sketches, I then presented them to Elizabeth to check that she was happy with everything. She signed off the composition and was happy so I then proceeded to sketch out the composition onto the canvas. I paint on Windsor and Newton artist quality linen canvass. They are already primed and are so smooth to paint on. As I paint using very thin layers of paint and using fine brushes it is really important for me that the surface in which I paint on is super smooth so that the oil and the brush glide over it and nothing affect the paint surface and texture. If I canvas is too bumpy or not smooth enough it really affects my painting. I carefully drew the composition onto the canvas and then got ready to make a start on the painting.

I decided to paint Simpatica the horse first. At the beginning stage, I need the painting to form as quickly as possible and I am most confident with painting horses so this is a good place for me to start. She appeared very quickly on the canvas and I managed to get a really good first layer down that covered most of her shading. I left out her tail as I was leaving that until last so that I could paint the background first and paint the tail over the top. How I paint is that I do lots and lots of thin layers, the first layer I always put a strong base colour or try and get as much shading down as possible. If I can nail it on the first layer then the other layers really flow afterward, sometimes things may be a bit trickier and could take a few layers before they really start to work. Some of the paint colours are quite transparent so depending on what I am painting some layers blend together to get the perfect result.

I took lots of reference shot of Elizabeth’s office to help me design the background. The top picture is a piece of art which is called The Infinity Mirror because it has a trail of mirrors and lights in it that make it look like it goes on forever. We wanted this mirror to feature in the painting above the fireplace. I knew that this would be challenging to paint but I was going to give it a go. There was also the Goodwood leather saddle chair which was just fabulously appropriate for this painting, I absolutely adore the design of this chair. There was also the Union Jack Chesterfield sofa which was the main feature. I carefully spent a lot of time studying this sofa to make sure that I understood how it was put together so that I can portray it properly in the painting.

I put a blue base layer of paint down for Elizabeth. This is just an undercoat and it helps me get the skin texture correct for her when I put all the warmer layers of paint over the top. I also did the same with her hair- I put a base layer of Burnt Sienna to give the hair some richness when I put the darker browns over the top. At the stage, I also start blocking out all the other colours for the rest of the painting and I can quickly see the painting take form. I especially enjoy seeing the Union Jack sofa take shape.

I start blocking out the shapes for the Infinity mirror. The infinity mirror was painted in stages. I put a dark background on there first. Then I painted in the reflection- the mirror was reflecting the far window across the office, and I tried to put in as much detail in as possible. Then I painted in the stream of lights over the top which was meant to look as though they were disappearing into Infinity.

As the office floor had a grey carpet which most likely would not look that great in paint, Elizabeth decided that she wanted to have the exact same floor as that which was in the Helmut Newton photograph. I carefully studied the pattern and I sketched out the exact same pattern onto out painting. This was quite a tricky process and to get the perspective and angle correct on the floor. Once I added this floor I felt that the whole painting just came together and even though it is a really surreal piece it just started to make sense to me.

The next few stages were just lots and lots of layers over layers building up tone and detail. Elizabeth had quite a few layers over the top to get her skin texture correct. The sofa had about 4-5 layers of detail putting in all the little cracks and dashes of light. I took a lot of time over Elizabeth's shoes and hands. I carefully painted in little veins on her feet to make her look alive.

I go through so many brushes when I paint as I paint with lots of fine detail using fine brushes and even with cleaning and conditioning them properly they still start to harden and splay quite quickly. I like it when the brushes are brand new because they are really soft and it is easier for me to paint with. I mix the paint into linseed oil to make it more transparent which allows to build up detail slowly but methodically.

Painting Bespoke Portrait Commissions | Horse Portrait | Making of Horse & Owner Painting

Painting Bespoke Portrait Commissions | Horse Portrait | Making of Horse & Owner Painting

Once the painting is finished I leave it for a few weeks to dry before I varnish it. The varnish is a personal preference but I personally absolutely love it when a painting is varnished. I think it makes everything look really expensive and glossy. Underneath is the final video of me varnishing the painting to music. If you like to watch really therapeutic things then I can not recommend watching this video enough.

I hope you enjoyed reading the process of making this painting, I really enjoyed creating it and it now proudly hangs in Elizabeths Mayfair office, if you have any questions or commission enquiries please feel free to drop me an email at carolinetowning@icloud.com