Painter Lindsey Bittner Graham evokes the spirit of equine beauty and strength
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the December 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art December 2013 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Back in the days before clip art or computer-generated illustration, back before cell-phone cameras or even the Internet, Lindsey Bittner Graham did fashion illustration the old-fashioned way. For many years she worked in advertising illustration for the Denver-based regional headquarters of several department-store chains. Every day, Graham and her fellow artists would receive a stack of garments that the company wanted featured in ads. The artists modeled the clothes, often pinned in the back to make them fit, and used a Polaroid instant camera to take photos of each other. Then they drew, creating pen-and-ink illustrations for the ad layouts they had been assigned that day.
It was fast-paced, deadline-driven work. For an artist who had been sketching from life since childhood, it was a challenging, satisfying opportunity to continue refining fundamental drawing skills. The illustrators also took turns producing full-color acrylic or watercolor paintings for color ads. “I’m telling you, fashion illustrations in those days were works of art, with full backgrounds and figures interacting. Nothing was on a computer. I tell my grandkids that, and they ask me how I could ever function like that,” says the 59-year-old, Denver-based painter, smiling. “But that’s where I really learned how to draw quickly and train my eye. It was a lot of fun.”
The department-store art directors appreciated Graham’s loose, expressive approach, even when drawing conservative skirts and suits. Today that spirited style, and the emotion and feeling of life it conveys, continues to characterize her art. Her paintings of powerful workhorses, sleek racehorses, fiery rodeo broncs, and sweet-faced, long-eared spaniels have earned awards and gained collectors nationwide. Works such as CRIOLLO HORSES: MANUEL ANTONIO, COSTA RICA, which received the William J. Schultz Award in Oils at the American Impressionist Society’s 2011 Annual National Exhibition, reflect Graham’s well-honed ability to accurately capture distinctive traits of different horse breeds while working quickly and keeping the energy fresh. Criollo horses, for example, are a compact, strong, and surefooted South American breed, and they are surprisingly swift. “We went riding [while we were] on a trip to Costa Rica,” the artist recalls. “The guide yelled ‘Ándale! Ándale! (Let’s go!)’ and the horses took off at a gallop up a mountain. I quickly realized I couldn’t ride one-handed, so I put my camera in my backpack!” Along with the animals’ scruffy, muscular appearance, Graham was captivated by their presence next to the ocean—a setting so unlike the places where she has hung around with horses all her life.
The first of those places was Louisville, KY, where the Bittner family lived until Lindsey was 17. As often as she could after school and on Saturdays, she spent time at one of the city’s many riding stables, grooming horses and cleaning stalls in exchange for riding lessons. Her sketchbook and Polaroid camera were always with her: at the stables and riding ring, close to steeplechase jumps as horses soared over them at nearby Churchill Downs, or capturing the beauty and grace of show horses at a neighbor’s farm. The equine form became embedded in her mind, heart, and hands.
Along with horses and drawing, music was always an integral part of Graham’s life. A bluegrass and country-music lover, she played guitar and sang in high school choral groups and later took part in award-winning vocal quartets and a championship women’s barbershop chorus. Her father, a salesman by trade, also loved music and art. He played big band jazz on tenor saxophone and clarinet, even sitting in with such greats as Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman when they came to Louisville. Graham’s mother was a weekend painter as well, and both parents supported their daughter’s love of music and art. “I had a lot of encouragement for whatever my talents led me to,” she observes.
The family moved to the Denver area when Lindsey was a teen. Drawn to Colorado State University in Fort Collins for its art department and the horsemanship option in its physical education program, she earned a bachelor of arts there in illustration and graphic design. “If I had a science brain, I think I would have gone into the veterinary school, but I had the creative side. Fine-art schools at the time were mostly focused on abstract art, and I wanted more figurative drawing. I wanted to continue along that path, and it seemed the way to do that was with illustration and graphic design.”
For almost 18 years following graduation, Graham worked in the fashion-illustration field, first for Denver-based companies including Fashion Bar and The Denver Dry Goods, and later on a freelance basis for two national chains, Goldwater’s and Nordstrom. When the fashion-illustration field turned to computer-aided art, she left the industry and found herself in a job that provided valuable art-related business skills. In sales and customer service at a Denver print and imaging firm, she was assigned to work with fine artists needing photos of their work. “Those were the days of great big cameras for photos of fine art—there were no digital cameras then,” she notes. “I would see beautiful artwork coming in, and the company would shoot it and do the color separation. I learned that end of the industry.”
All along, Graham drew and painted on the side. With her husband, Don, a professional wildlife and rodeo photographer, she traveled to rodeos and ranches to spend time with her favorite subject. Then about six years ago, Don encouraged her to pursue painting full time. She signed up for classes at the Art Students League of Denver and attended workshops with acclaimed painters, including Quang Ho, Jill Soukup, and Robert Spooner. “In illustration you see things in linear outline, so I needed to learn to think in terms of shapes and values,” she explains. “There was a small class that met in Robert’s studio weekly for nine or 10 months. I learned so much. It really opened my eyes.” Spooner also came from a design and illustration background and was especially helpful in Graham’s transition to oils, which she had previously avoided because of sensitivity to solvents. With user-friendly, solvent-free materials available, oils quickly became her medium of choice. She continues to learn and evolve artistically, painting from life as much as possible and taking part in at least one high-quality painting workshop each year.
In the former den that serves as a studio in Graham’s home just north of Denver, her two dogs, a papillon and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, wander in and out of the doggy door and nap beside her easel. In the past the artist was involved with a breed club for Cavalier King Charles spaniels, and she occasionally paints them. But her main artistic passion continues to be the horse. Attending such events as the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, she finds inspiration in the countless forms of equine activity, breed, bearing, and attitude she finds there.
At the rodeo’s opening ceremony last summer, Graham was able to take her camera into the arena, where a team of enormous Paint draft horses pulling a covered wagon caught her eye. The animals became the subject of the head-and-shoulders portrait, PAINT TEAM THUNDER. “I love the big draft breeds, particularly this unusual team of Paints, with interesting shapes and large areas of contrasting values,” she relates. “I focused on the muscles, shoulder structure, and tack to try to portray that power and energy, the bold shapes, the light reflected on the flaring nostrils. I had a lot of fun painting this, pushing the complementary color scheme, keeping the background abstract to focus attention on the working horses.”
Graham’s painting approach accentuates that sense of vitality and strength. Although the underlying drawing must be accurate—and she has deep respect for highly realistic painters—her own application of paint is lively and impressionistic, guided by spontaneous decisions using a multitude of tools. As she puts it, smiling: “I don’t like to stay within the lines. I think the process of being totally focused on realism would absolutely give me brain damage!” Instead, her studio develops a friendly, worked-in messiness as she grabs a brush, palette knife, credit card, rag, or scrap of paper—whatever it takes to move paint. Music keeps her moving as well. Bluegrass, flat pickers, country, or gospel—“I can’t seem to paint without music,” she declares. Sometimes, to keep from working too long on one area with too much tight detail, she puts a CD in the player and challenges herself to finish a certain section of the painting by the time the album ends.
Graham not only enjoys the process of painting, she intentionally leaves evidence of the process for viewers to vicariously enjoy—things that can really only be seen in person: texture, brush strokes, daubs of paint, small areas where color was scraped and the initial sketch or undercoat shows through. “I love these things that happen, spontaneous things,” she says. “They create an energy and excitement in a body of work that’s yours and nobody else’s. To me there’s a beauty in that, where the artist’s individuality comes out.”
Featured in the December 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art December 2013 print issue or digital download
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