By Shya Beth
What sets dressage rider and artist Vanessa Whittell apart from the crowd is her ability to paint not just the image she sees, but the feeling of the piece through the paint. It’s one thing to be skilled at sketching the design and composition, choosing the right paints, mixing and blending to get that perfect shade before finally putting the brush to the canvas. It’s a whole other thing to bring the horse alive through the paint, while infusing her intentions into the canvas. Vanessa does both.
Living and working in Canada, Vanessa knows that sometimes the most unexpected things work out for the best. After graduating from Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s visual communication program, Vanessa originally worked as an illustrator. As the digital age took over, she moved more into design and then art direction. Some years later, the company she worked for downsized, and then she had an unfortunate riding accident that left her house-bound for a few months. Away from work and her horses, with a sudden abundance of free time, Vanessa picked up her paint brushes and started painting. “I just got going painting horses,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that time off, I might have waited another 10 years to get started.”
Born in the UK, Vanessa’s love of horses was formed at the age of 3 when she started riding. Then having moved to Canada with her family a few years later, she continued taking lessons. “I think it might have been my love of horses that made me an artist,” she said. “Drawing and dreaming of horses so much when I was little definitely helped develop my drawing skills and my interest in art.”
When Vanessa was 9 years old, her mom got the family’s first horse that they shared. Since then, she’s always had a horse. She’s done it all, from Pony Club to hunter-jumper and upper-level eventing. “To this day, I am still full of riding hopes and dreams,” Vanessa said. “I find the art of riding completely fascinating, and there are so many aspects to it. Horses are so amazing about putting up with our learning curves, so I feel like we owe it to them to keep getting better every time we ride.”
Experiencing the Artistic Journey
Vanessa’s paintings are an interesting combination of both realism and abstract concepts, used in a way that allows you to feel the emotion and see the beauty of her subject. She’s honed her painting process to a point where, although she works from images provided by her clients, she can take a seemingly ordinary image and turn it into a visual masterpiece. The detailed sketching and composition process before starting to paint allows her to focus more on the feeling of the piece through the paint and painting effects.
During this process, Vanessa works closely with her client so they can be a part of the artistic journey. “My process starts with going through client photos to find out what they like and don’t like,” Vanessa explained. “We discuss where the painting will hang, determine the colors, size and shape, and then afterwards I take the photo or photos we select and edit or redraw it so that the client can visualize what the painting will look like once completed.”
Once the client confirms the edited image, it’s time to get painting. Providing photos and video updates of the progress along the way, Vanessa really wants the client to enjoy the experience as much as they enjoy the final product. So far, she is focused completely on painting horses. “I’m still just scratching the surface of exploring the concept of the horse and rider,” she said. “I try to balance commission and non-commission work so that I’m able to offer a line of large prints as well.”
One of Vanessa’s greatest moments was hosting an equine art show in her hometown of Langley, B.C., at the Thunderbird Show Park during Carl Hester’s Masterclass event in 2018. She had the opportunity to invite several of her equine artist friends, and together they were able to share their equine art with the attendees of the clinic. “We all got a full weekend to talk art and horses with a lot of people,” she said. “It was really the best!”
With big goals in motion, Vanessa’s love of dressage is pushing her to get to the Grand Prix level. Currently training with her horse Vancouver, aka Nemo, while starting with another green horse is a challenge that is proving to be quite rewarding. For her art, the dream is to continue to do work that she is really proud of. “This is a moving target because as you progress, the bar keeps getting raised,” she said. “I believe that staying with one subject forces you to be more creative, which is where more interesting art starts.”