By Shya Beth
Renay Shaffer’s sharpened skills and even sharper pencils delicately bring equine and animal forms to life, and she uses these works of art to help save the very same subjects she features in her work. Horrified and inspired to help the animal victims of the massive bushfires raging in Australia in 2020, where an estimated one billion animals perished, Renay decided to draw some of their native animals. The drawings were auctioned off on Instagram, with 100% proceeds donated to various wildlife rescue organizations.
The fundraisers were a great success, and from there, Renay started to get requests for horse and pet portraits. Even though she had predominantly drawn and painted seascapes up until 2019, she soon discovered she loved the challenge of drawing “fur-kids,” as well as wildlife. “I found out more about the systematic removal of wild horses going on from public lands here in the USA and decided to create a series of wild horse portraits to help draw attention to their plight,” Renay said. “I believe that we need to better prioritize co-existence with our natural world, from wolves to wild horses to migrating birds.”
Renay has spent most of her life living close to the Pacific Ocean, and was born and raised in a seaside town in Canada before moving to the U.S. in 2013. With an encouraging mother and an artist and a horse breeder for aunts, Renay’s impressionable years were spent around art and ponies. “My mother, who was a musician, saw my daydreaming and storytelling as part of who I am,” Renay explained. “Most summers involved a family train trip or drive to Edmonton from our home on the coast in British Columbia, to trail ride and spend time with our wild cousins on the farm.”
Renay fell head over heels for a black pony named Midnight, whom she rode exclusively until both were older, with Midnight passing away at age 41. “In my teens I rode Amourette, a gray dappled mare, and dreamed about bringing her back home with me at the end of each summer,” she said. “I felt like we had such a deep connection, and she would let me ride her bareback with just a rope halter or on trails and crossing water with complete trust and intuitive communication.”
Her Journey Back to Art
Majoring in psychology at Trinity Western University in 2002 when she was 30 years old, Renay credits elective/optional art classes for awakening her desire to bring a higher level of art into her life. “When I chose a couple of drawing and painting courses, I didn’t know that I would suddenly reawaken my artistic side, but it was swift and definite. I finished that school year and spent the next decade painting commissions and murals, and building up some wonderful collector relationships.”
In 2007, Renay entered one of her earliest large paintings into her first international art show, unaware at the time of the scope of entries or the caliber of accepted work created by well-established career artists. “My painting was not only accepted, but sold before the show opened at a price higher than I had dreamed was possible,” she said. “It went on to receive the Honorable Mention award and, most importantly, the buyer contacted me and we’ve shared a wonderful relationship ever since, leading to a special network of collectors and support.”
Renay works in pastel, colored pencil, acrylic, oil and watercolor—she doesn’t have a favorite. Each medium has its advantages, and Renay chooses the one to best suit the vision she has for each piece. Animal portraits are usually colored pencil and include a meditative process of layering pencil strokes for every individual strand of fur or hair, and she’s been developing her own technique in watercolor that involves many thin layers of nearly-dry pigment applied with a finely splayed brush that is just as pleasing to render.
“Apart from having my own realism style, I feel more like I’m part of something larger, rather than feeling like I’m on my own or different from other artists,” Renay shared. “There is a growing collective of artists who love domestic and wild animals and the natural world, who are each in their own way creating beautiful art and a special energy in paintings, bringing light to causes or simply a closer look.”
Several of the wild mustang charities Renay has donated to are the American Wild Horse Campaign, Skydog Ranch and Wyoming Mustang Institute. One of Renay’s recent paintings, “Past Present and Future,” features two wild Wyoming horses and is being released as a limited edition of prints, with 50% of the proceeds going to help the cause of the Wyoming Mustang Institute and the American Wild Horse Campaign.
Renay lives and works at home in Bellingham, Washington, a half hour from the Canadian border with her husband and two Siamese cats. “Both of us working at home has felt like an especially lucky gift during the last couple of years. We live a 10 minute drive from the ocean and often find ourselves there or walking on local trails,” she said. “I need to have time in nature, and I can feel the healing effect of the ocean and trees within five minutes of being in their presence. In my art, I want to share that energy with other people who might not be able to experience it firsthand, whether it’s a connection with an animal or with a 100-year-old tree.”
For a look to the future, Renay plans on traveling across the United States to visit centers dedicated to wild horses, and getting back into the saddle herself. “I miss riding! I would love to ride again and have always harbored a dream to have a space for a couple of rescued horses and maybe a donkey, too, as they are also being removed from public lands here in the U.S. and are often misunderstood and undervalued.”
Along with a waitlist of pet portraits and a new body of work underway, Renay hopes to add more equine portraits to her portfolio. “I think it’s awesome that animal portraiture has grown so popular in recent years,” she said, “and that we are commemorating the ‘other’ loves in our lives that go on forever.”
For more information, visit renayshaffer.com