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A Style All Its Own

Kim in Studio, 1987

In 1986, during the spring break of my second year of art college, my mother and I drove down to Arroyo Grande, Calif. to visit our friend, Geska, and her daughter, Debbie. They lived with their three Arabian horses on a bluff overlooking the distant Pacific Ocean. As a child, I always loved to visit Geska and Debbie as they were the only people in my parent’s circle of friends who had horses. You can imagine where I went the minute I got out of the car – to the barn!

I had an assignment for drawing class to fill my sketchbook with drawings from life, so the horses were perfect models. At my request, Geska led Hala, a dapple grey gelding, and Dava, the bay mare, out of their stalls to the sand arena, which was still damp from the previous day’s rain. The horses were full of spirit, prancing and tossing their heads. I was awestruck. I had never seen horses move like this. They didn’t stand in their paddock like the horses I was familiar with from boarding and rental stables. They danced, and their wildness filled me with joy.

I scrambled to get my sketch pad ready, but my joy quickly turned to frustration when I discovered how difficult it was to draw moving horses. Attempt after attempt to sketch a pose would fail as the horses turned. I’d just get one ear on the pad and look up to find them on the opposite side of the arena.

I was about ready to throw down my sketchpad when I remembered a technique I had learned in life drawing class called “gesture drawing.” In this class we had done sketches of a model holding quick poses of 10 to 30 seconds each. Maybe I could apply that technique here to try and capture the essence of the horse in a quick sketch rather than realistic drawing.

I turned to a new page in my sketchbook and squinted at the horses, trying to capture their fleeting movements in my mind. I attempted to see them not as three dimensional images but as shadows on a wall and shapes that my brain could transfer onto paper. Then I looked down and sketched the barest outlines of what I had seen. Trying to let go of my critical mind, I penned sketches over sketches – parts of faces and sides of bodies and expressive ears and eyes, which were all that I could remember when I looked down at the pad.

“Curiosité”, 1986, 19×25 by Kim McElroy

My horse with a mane made of short rainbows. My horse with ears made of round corn. My horse with eyes made of big stars. My horse with a head made of mixed waters. My horse with teeth made of white shell… When my horse neighs many colored horses follow”

~ from Louis Watchman’s version of the Navajo “Horse~Story”

After several pages, the horses settled down, and I flipped back to review what had happened. My breath must have quickened for I distinctly remember thinking, “I’ve never done anything like this before!” I smiled and ran into the house to see what everyone else thought.

When I showed the sketches to Geska, a talented artist herself, she smiled and said in her gravelly voice, “These are really wonderful.” She pointed at one and asked, “Is that Hala?”

“Yes it is,” I replied, “how can you tell?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, “it just feels like him.”

I was thrilled that she responded so positively to my new discovery.

I spent the rest of our visit poring over Arabian Horse World magazines, drawing realistic horses from the photographs. None of these drawings had the life and energy of the earlier sketches. I realized they were something new in my artistic ability. Something had clicked.

“Willow Wind”, 1987, 19×25 by Kim McElroy

“The air of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.” – Arabian proverb

When I returned home from break, I spent all of my spare time at school trying to work the sketches into a full color work of art. I tried watercolor and sumi painting, airbrush and acrylic, but none of these captured the essence of the sketches in their original form.

On Fridays, we had an open day to work on class projects or experiment with our own ideas. The instructor was there to offer help or critique, but basically we were on our own. On one such day, my instructor, Craig Freeman, happened to have a box of pastels sitting on his desk. Since my school was mostly commercial art and illustration, I had never really worked with pastels. I had used charcoal and some colored chalk in drawing classes, but I had never really considered it as a medium. I asked Craig if I could try them. He said, “Help yourself.”

I selected a piece of beige pastel paper and projected one of my horse sketches onto it in order to enlarge the sketch exactly as it had been on the pad, with every wayward line and squiggle intact in order to preserve the spontaneity.

“Suspense”, 1991, 19×25 by Kim McElroy

“Through his mane and tail the high wind sings… fanning the hairs, which wave like feather’d wings.” – Shakespeare

I decided to try some of the chalks as a background color. Instinctively, I drew bold diagonal strokes onto the paper in several colors. Then I decided I didn’t like the texture so I ran my fingers across it to blend it. This was like finger painting! I used contrasting colors of chalk to outline the sketch in over the background. The whole process took me only about two hours, but it felt like I had just made a quantum leap.

My instructors were positive about my progress, so I kept working over the next few months. With each new piece, I started to become familiar with pastel – how the texture of the paper affected it, how to blend the colors and how to keep the lines sharp. I also felt the growing desire to share this excitement with others, I realized I had created something new, something different. A style that was uniquely my own.

“Duel”, 1990, 19×25 by Kim McElroy

“Be free all worthy spirits and stretch yourselves for greatness and for height” ~ George Chapman

I soon realized the ramifications of this discovery when I decided I wanted to become a fine artist rather than a commercial illustrator. I wanted to devote my time to creating and showing my own work rather than being required to create what other people hired me to do. I had gone as far as I could at the then non-accredited Northwest College of Art, so I took my A.A. Degree and applied at Cornish Institute in Seattle to pursue a B.F.A.

I quickly learned while attending Cornish that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately the faculties’ definition of “fine art” at Cornish wasn’t remotely beautiful to me. The school encouraged artists to challenge people’s reality, the more “challenging” the better. I decided that headless green people and abstract avant garde sculpture wasn’t my creative path.

During the summer of that third year of college, I was invited to show my work at a local horse show. There, a farm insurance broker suggested that I show my work at the regional Arabian horse show the following month. That show led to several others. Soon I realized that degree or no degree, I was a working artist. I decided to quit school, and my mother and I went into business together with the first sketch, Curiosité, as our logo.

“Midsummer Night”, 1990, 19×25 by Kim McElroy

“Baited like eagles having lately bathed, … as full of spirit as the month of May and Gorgeous as the sun at midsummer.” ~ Shakespeare

My work has now evolved to include many styles. However, I continue to do line drawings, whether as logo designs, warm-up sketches or fine art. Not all are drawn from life, for I learned I could also create this style from photographs, videos and my own imagination. But when I do have the opportunity to sketch horses from life, some of my best drawings emerge.

“Pharaoh”, 1987, 19×25 by Kim McElroy

“The horse is an archetypal symbol which will always find ways to stir up deep and moving ancestral memories in every human being” ~ Paul Mellon

People that see my work on display often observe how different my styles seem from each other. Though the line drawings seem like a style all their own, they are the essence of the technique I developed that influences all of my work. Like the quoted writer, Wille Sibert Cather, I learned what you leave out of a piece can be as important as what you put in. The line drawings are the extreme end of this spectrum. The viewer fills in detail and dimension with their own mind and are left with an overall impression of a feeling, a dynamic movement or a moment in time that extends beyond the image of the sketch.

As I write this, I recall the feeling that I had when I looked down at my sketchpad the moment when the purpose of all my experimenting, practicing, and learning started to become apparent. The line drawings were the blueprint for my dream of becoming an artist… a dream that became reality.

“Awakening”, 1989, 19×25 by Kim McElroy

“The sun it was, ye glittering gods, ye took to make a horse.” ~Dirga-Tamas c. 1000 BC

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