Star of Ava; photo courtesy Elizabeth Dryden
By Lisa Kemp
The colorful pageantry of the Kentucky Derby, and horse racing in general, are favorite subjects of equestrian artist Elizabeth Dryden, but she approaches them from a clearly contemporary perspective. We caught up with Elizabeth during Derby Week to talk about her paintings, and life in Lexington.
EC: How did you get started in art?
Dryden: Growing up, I used to draw and doodle all the time. I often drew horses, because even as a little kid there was something about them that I loved. I’d see them while out driving with my parents, and would get really excited! I eventually took riding lessons and competed in jumping and dressage, but because I grew up in Dallas, it was hard to keep taking the time to drive out to where the stables were. Then, as I got older, horses got back-burnered in favor of other interests, like boys.
EC: When did you pick up art again?
Dryden: That was in college. I wanted to become a veterinarian, and I started at University of Arizona, but after my first pre-vet classes I realized I’m not math or science-brained, so I cancelled that idea. However, that’s where I met my husband, Vern. He was a year ahead of me, and went on to finish his veterinary schooling, but I switched to a different major.
EC: What major did you change to?
Dryden: I ended up majoring in art education and moving back to Denton, Texas, to attend Texas Women’s University. In addition to my degree, I have a teaching certificate, and it enables me to teach art in grades K-12 if I want to. But I’m focused full-time on painting right now. Vern and I moved to Lexington about three years ago, and we’re surrounded by rolling green hills with horses and miles of both white and black fencing. It looks like a storybook.
EC: Tell us a little bit about the subjects you paint.
Dryden: Being here in Kentucky has really changed the direction of my art. I love all the sporthorses and all the colorful gear they have. The racing is really something to watch, too, with the colorful silks the jockeys wear. I love the bright colors, and the patterns, especially when everything is in motion. Sometimes I’ll work from photos I’ve taken at the races, or I’ll flip through a racing catalog to see what inspires me. I do try to look at a specific image of a horse while I paint. And, many artists in the area use a traditional approach, but I like a contemporary look. I try to portray the horses through a stylized, mixed media approach. People have told me that it’s refreshing to see some contemporary works, and to have a different option for racing images.
EC: What types of media do you use?
Dryden: I use acrylic paints, but I layer things onto my canvas as I paint. Sometimes, you can see through the layers and it adds a lot of interest. I’ll also incorporate things like parts of the programs I get from Keeneland and Churchill Downs, cutting out the racing stats or funny horse names and working them into the painting. I try to bring attention to things that others might overlook; maybe because I’m new to the area they’re more unique to me, so I notice them more than others might. I’ll also do things to add texture, such as scratching into the paint, or using drip techniques, and add highlights using a lot of iridescent paint in gold and silver. It’s hard to pick up in a flat photograph, but that adds a lot of depth and dimension when light hits the painting.
EC: Do you work from a studio?
Dryden: Yes, I have a studio downtown at Victorian Square. The whole fourth floor is called the Artist’s Attic, and it’s a bunch of artist studios. It’s nice to have other artists around, you can bounce ideas off each other. I try and paint there every day. Many of the other painters there focus on plein air (i.e., painting in the fresh air) landscapes, still-lifes, and a variety of non-horse subjects, using a more traditional approach than mine. One lady does eventing and racing paintings, but she works in watercolors; we’re both doing horses for Horse Mania 2010.
EC: What’s Horse Mania?
Dryden: It was a big event in 2000, with life-sized horse models decorated by artists. They’re on display over the summer and fall, and then are auctioned off in December at a special event at Keeneland racetrack; the money raised goes to charity. They’re repeating it for 2010 due to the World Equestrian Games, and I was recently accepted to decorate a horse. My horse’s sponsor is Mt. Brilliant Farm, it’s a gorgeous horse farm here in the area, and the owners are very supportive of the arts.
EC: Have you planned what you’re going to do with your horse model?
Dryden: I’m going to use shiny found objects and cover the entire horse with them. My grandma’s been hoarding shiny pieces for me, and she just sent me a box of things. I’ll also have to go to estate and rummage sales to get enough to cover a horse!
EC: Where else can people view your paintings?
Dryden: Last year my paintings were on display at the Kentucky Derby. This year, I’m excited that one of my paintings will be at the capitol building in Frankfort during a special Kentucky Derby brunch; the painting is titled ‘Foto Fini’ and is of a woman in a red dress and her red Derby hat, holding the winning horse’s reins after the race. I used lots of reds, golds, black, and silver, to capture the excitement and drama of the moment. I went to the Derby for the first time last year, it was so exciting, and I’m hoping we can go again this week!
Elizabeth Dryden’s currently available work can be viewed at her Web site and in select galleries in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas. Her Horse Mania 2010 horse will be completed and on public display from July through December. Elizabeth’s works are also owned nationally by private collectors, and she is available for private commissions.