Capturing a fleeting moment during a standardbred race, to painting a majestic scene featuring her Appaloosa mare, Crystal Fullerton is Art Of The Horse’s (our Facebook group of over 15,000 members!) Banner Winner for this month’s contest. Her paintings sing to the soul through every brush stroke, conveying her love of horses to the viewer. Read about Crystal in her own words and scroll to the bottom to read my interview with her.
Location: Nova Scotia, Canada
All artists, if they are smart, paint what they love. Since I was a child in Nova Scotia I have had a common obsession with the equine form. One Saturday afternoon during a long car adventure, my father was nearly driven to distraction with my discussion on the virtues of horses and announced in a none too gentle voice that I was banned from talking about horses anymore! While I may have become silent around him, that did not dampen my desire to draw, paint or doodle horses on every surface within arm’s length.
My Mother saw the first glimmers of talent and arranged for me to take art lessons. My teacher, also a family member, saw in me the same artistic drive he had and left me to my own explorations. He taught in oils, which I continue to use today, and would offer advice on composition, technique and best of all constructive criticism. Those Saturday afternoons were the highlight of my week and fueled the other 6 days with new ideas. I started formal lessons with him, in a room full of adults at age 9 and by 11 I had sold my first painting. I have been teaching myself and learning from others ever since. Museums, social media, magazines, workshops- all fair game for learning new techniques and improving on old ones.
Art was a calming influence in my life and like so many other artists in the world, a way to express my creativity during those joyous turbulent adolescent years. Sadly, like so many others, I was encouraged to focus on something more mainstream for my career. Art was not considered important or viable enough to sustain an adult lifestyle. I never abandoned it but I admit I spent many a day in my “chosen field” wishing I was back in the studio as new ideas formed in my artistic noggin.
When my children were small I started up again. I had a part time job in the Dairy industry and started painting Champion Holstein Cows. Rather like the writers adage of “Write what you know” I painted what I saw. Cows, lots and lots of cows! This was a great experience as that industry is very technical when they assess the conformation of an animal. If you are to paint their prized animal, you are expected to pay strict attention to detail and be very correct in your rendering. It was a good lesson and one I use now when painting horses.
A move to another community with a Racetrack in it fueled a new interest. Since I had owned an Equine Photography business before I had children, I loved the challenge of photographing fast horses. It did not take long to make friends at the track and before I knew it I had a multitude of willing models. If I had a new camera or interest in a new technique a quick call to a friend and I was soon surrounded with perfectly groomed, gorgeously conditioned horses with a bit of fire in their eye! It was not long before the pictures started inspiring me to paint the ponies once again. One particular trainer, who became a grand friend, was totally unstumpable. I would paint a picture, post it for him to see and he would know instantly who the horse was and before long, those owners would be friends as well. This was my way of checking if my technique was correct. It sounds odd, but I would paint a picture with an urge to see if I could stump him. Even my favorite piece “Lotsa Go” (a rather loose abstract type of painting) ended up with a name, owner and breeder! Artists are forever looking for inspiration!
I love photography and oils. I love portrait work and detail. Both of these pairings go well together but I have learned that allowing yourself to loosen up and play with the paint can be a very freeing activity. I started using small canvas’ such as 2”x2”, 3”x4” or 5”x7” to try new techniques or subject matter. These small sized paintings have been a godsend to me, allowing me to be adventurous but not consume alot of time or resources. I had found myself getting overwhelmed with the larger pieces especially if they were challenging and the tendency to let them vegetate and become part of the neglected group of works abandoned in the corner frustrated me. Now that I play with the smaller canvas’ the frustration level of a painters block seems much easier to overcome. I teach 4H members in a Fine Arts program and I use the same technique with them. I encourage them to not be scared of the paint or confined by a rigid idea. It is almost like have a scrap piece of paper to doodle on or stretching before you run; it loosens up the artistic brain and adds a wee bit of whimsy into the start of your day.
I love to work off my own photos and enjoy doing commissions. I know not everyone likes this but it is a challenge to create a piece that shows the beauty of that animal at that moment. We may live in an age where photographs seem to rule the world but I feel it really is the art that is cherished and hung on the wall. They survive long after the photograph fades and curls away in to something fit only for the trash can. For me, combining the two together with the challenge of the portrait is what makes me smile with joy.
A life change for my family and a career upset for me has me now reverting back to my creative roots and I am really looking forward to tackling all those racehorse photographs and pushing paint across a canvas until I can see a racehorse charging for the finish line. It’s going to be a fun future!
TFS: Were you around horses at a young age or were any other family members interested in horses?
CF: I was not fortunate enough to own a horse (I had hundreds of figurines) until I was 16 but I had neighbors and cousins who had them and I made a general nuisance of myself. I did not care if they were English, western or draft, just being around them was enough. That being said, anyone within a biking radius had the best groomed ponies in the county!
I spent my allowance money on riding lessons and babysat unpleasant children to pay for entry fees at local shows. I was a pretty typical horse obsessed kid. I still get whiplash driving down the highway if I see a new horse and I keep a running inventory of who has what equine critter in their paddock. I’ve been known to stop the car, pull out the camera and photograph someone’s horses from the side of the road.
TFS: What’s your process and what inspires you?
I love a great picture with light and life in it. If I find that, then I am a happy woman. Sometimes I combine photos but I generally work of my own photos. I do enjoy the traditional type of portrait but I find I am getting more inspired by “uniqueness” and “what if” type portraits. The AOTH(Art Of The Horse) banner painting was originally a photo of Chloe walking about in a small grassless paddock and avoiding me with a halter! We have fantastic foggy mornings here in Nova Scotia so I thought one such morning, Chloe would look cool walking about in a big foggy wild pasture. I guess I get inspired by what I see.
My process is what works for me. I start with a light sketch on canvas, I find I like Masonite board right now, and I usually do a quick background scrub-in that features the primary background colours I want to evoke a mood in the piece. Then I start with the eyes. I find if I miss the eye the whole piece is like shoveling tennis balls up hill; complete and utter frustration. I like to paint in layers, usually pretty bold and abstracty when I start and then I try to blend that first layer in to make it smooth. After that it is a layering of more light and dark. I find when I start a painting I like classical music and keep it pretty technical but when I am at the end of piece and just putting those quick little highlights in I might be listening to The Tragically Hip or AC/DC. The middle is full of old time Blues, rhythm and blues makes the paint go smooth!
I have been having a blast looking at other AOTH artists and seeing their process. I find it fascinating that there are so many different ways to start & proceed but when I see the finished piece, I do not really see a difference so I figure following what works for me is the best process.
TFS: How did you get involved in the racing industry?
CF: I am fortunate enough to live near the racetrack in Truro. There are a lot of Standardbred horses stabled there and it is a small community so it is easy to meet up with someone who has connections. I have several close friends who are always more than happy to let me photograph their animals but one fellow, Ben Hollingsworth was my favorite. He trained some nice horses and worked in the barn where Some beach Somewhere trained out of. I would have loved to get Beach but my timing was off. I have been able to get some of his offspring on film.
One Christmas, it was miserable and cold and windy and I had just gotten a new camera. I called a Ben up and asked if he had done his morning workout yet as I knew he was religious about it regardless of weather. Normally if the weather is bad, very few folks come out to train but word got out that I would be at the track with my camera and there were close to a dozen trainers at anyone time on the track for me to catch. Most of them know I like to photograph them and that I love painting them as well so it is a win win situation. Many secretly hope I will paint their horse! I am not as fast as the ponies, so it’s a long process but it is a great way to meet new people! lol
I have worn out one camera drive and my “new” one is in a very sad state. I am told it shouldn’t be “making those noises” but I still go back. There is always a gorgeous horse in prime condition to capture. In the studio right now I have 8 different Standardbred paintings in various stages of completion. I love doing them, so much colour, so much variety in gear and it’s a fun challenge to paint.
I am looking forward to the May start date so I can paparazzi the horses again!
TFS: Would you tell us more about your equine photography business?
CF: This is rather a fun one! I used to train and show Arabians when I lived in Alberta, Canada. I had a really nice National Show horse gelding that had done very well at the Regional level and I had decided to sell him. The show had hired a photographer to work the event and while his work was beautiful his customer service was not! He took our money and 7 months later we still had no photos and the deadline for the Canadian Arabian News was rapidly approaching. While sitting at the table with a bunch of breeders I said “How hard can it be?” Feet first into the fire on that one!
It was a steep learning curve but I was very lucky. A lot of trainers saw the need for a local show ring photographer and so I would go to their stables, take pictures and let them critic them. I learned very quickly that it was not the mom and pops who bought my pieces but the breeders and trainers who needed good quality photos for their advertisements. They taught me a lot that you can’t learn in a school and forever changed the way I look at equine advertisements.
I think my favorite shoot was of an Arabian gelding competing in English pleasure/park horse that they needed some good shots of for the Scottsdale Show. There was a hitch. It was January. In Alberta. And they wanted the pictures taken outside! As I drove down, the fog was rolling in and I thought “Holy smokes, this might go badly!”
Long story short, I had a grey horse, strutting his stuff in the snow with a red coated rider with a backdrop of leafless poplars and fog. It was one of the most amazing shoots ever. They sold the horse. I guess they figured any horse that could break level in the snow could win a few red ribbons!
TFS: Are there any mediums you would like to try?
CF: I am generally open to any medium at least once. I would love to do some wire sculpting. Actually any sculpting whether it is clay or twig or metal, I think it is all nice. I have a small vineyard and have been visualizing some sort of creation with the grape vines. Not sure if that will materialize into anything but it gives me something to ponder when I prune! I will always go back to oils but I would like to try everything before I die.
TFS: Any future exhibits/shows?
CF: No solo shows yet, but I am involved in a couple of upcoming group shows that have me very excited. One is a Canada 150 show where 15 artists gather to create 10 pieces each all themed on Canadian and local interest items. That one may have one or two racehorses in it! Lol
One is a Generations Show where people of all ages who have worked/taught together will enter. I am excited about this one as my daughter and I are going to enter a piece. She is a gifted artist in her own right so it should be interesting. We still have not determined what our piece will be as we have totally different styles (animals vs humans), mediums (I’m oil and she is watercolour & graphite) but we both love portrait work. I also teach 4H Fine Arts so I am hoping my 4H members will enter as well.
The last one is special to me. I went back to University in 2010 to get my BSc and while there I found there were many artists in both the staff and student populations. I was very fortunate that the head librarian liked my idea of hosting a Fine Art & Fine Craft show. It is now an annual event. We have had alumni as far away as Ireland and the Netherlands enter pieces and one gentleman makes handcrafted bagpipes- which he plays-INSIDE the library! It is a great show that highlights the creative scientific mind and I love this one.
TFS: Do you have any advice for other artists?
CF: I do. Two pieces for those folks who wonder if they should pursue art in any form.
The first one- Do not be scared of your paint! I have been through this and I see people, especially my 4H kids get too bogged down on an idea or an image that they pick pick pick at a piece. Some call it making mud but I see that rigidity preventing people from having fun. There is nothing wrong with putting a piece aside for a while. And there is nothing wrong with your final piece looking nothing like the photo or your minds image. I have made my 4Hers work on small pieces and try techniques like blending etc and when they finish, get them to cover it over with a layer of gesso or paint. This has worked wonderfully most of the time as a way to try something new so you are not scared when you are working on an important piece. Plus, if it is a disaster, you can hide under a new layer of paint!
The other piece of advice- Don’t measure your worth as an artist by your sales. I learned this one on a Studio Rally Tour. I was really into painting Holstein cows at the time and doing alright at it but hoping to branch out. I was curious what other local artists were doing and the Studio Rally Tour was a perfect chance to check out their latest works. There was one local artist with a National following who works in watercolours whose work I covet. I stink at these so I appreciate the effort it takes to be that good. Since I cannot afford an original I bought her calendar. In it was a painting that just blew me away and I thought “Wow! To be that good! Would have loved to see that one in person!”
I got to her open house and what did I see but the original!! I was floored. I could not believe it had not sold yet. I was talking with her and explained my thoughts and she very sagely said “It just hasn’t found its’ person yet.” She was not upset or insulted that this piece had not sold yet and did not base her value on that sale either. I learned that you can create great work. It might not sell but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good.
So now I paint what I like!
Thank you for sharing your story and letting me interview you, Crystal!