Texas cattle rancher Lonnie Shan depicts the animals he admires in stunning watercolors, taking great care to capture their personality and soul.
by Naomi Ekperigin
|Hard is the Journey
14 x 10. Collection the artist.
Viewing one of Lonnie Shan's watercolor portraits of cattle, it is surprising to hear that this artist began his career in advertising design. He paints his subjects as though he knows them, and conveys this intimacy with rich, saturated watercolors that focus one's attention on the details of the animal. “I guess my upbringing as a farmer's son had something to do with my fascination with cattle,” the artist recalls. “As a child, I was always drawing animals, especially racehorses.” While working at a newsprint company early in his career, he was able to combine his love of horses with art, working as a thoroughbred exercise rider in the evenings. “Artwork of animals has always been a part of me.”
2006, watercolor, 16 x 12.
The move to the country from the city in the early 1990s sparked Shan's appreciation for Texas longhorn cattle. “Since I wasn't able to afford racehorses, I figured the next best thing would be longhorn cattle.” Shan now lives on a ranch where he owns 17 cattle and is an active member of the local longhorn affiliate association. What attracted the artist to these animals are their strength and beauty. “Each animal is unique in color, personality, and horn shape… their grace, elegance, and intelligence is hard to ignore,” he adds.
|Dixie and Tonto
2004, watercolor, 13.5 x 10.
The biggest challenge Shan faces is keeping a steady focus while working with a subject that can be, at times, unruly. “Being on a ranch, the last thing that animal is going to do is stand still. They do not cooperate,” the artist explains, laughing. “You've got to have truckloads of patience. For instance, my bull on the ranch will make the most beautiful poses, but as soon as I have the camera in my hand, he will not pay attention. I think he knows I want him to do something, so he does the opposite.” Shan, who often carries his camera with him as he travels, will take three or four rolls of photographs of a single animal in preparation for a portrait. “This way I can make notes about their personality, color, and other identifying marks,” he explains. With photos in hand, the artist can work comfortably in his studio, though he does not aim to re-create pictures. Shan will often combine elements from different photos to create the best composition and most accurate portrayal of his subject.
Shan's excitement and appreciation for is subjects are matched by his love of the watercolor medium, which developed later in his artistic career. “Watercolor was the only medium I didn't work with as an art student, but I always wanted to try it,” he recalls. He enrolled in a couple of watercolor classes at a local college, where he was committed to learning as much as possible. “I didn't care whether I got an 'A' or an 'F' as long as I learned how to paint with watercolors,” the artist says. And he did indeed develop his skills quickly, and began painting portraits in watercolor shortly after taking classes.
16 x 12. Private collection.
|Gunsmoke 2006, watercolor,
16 x 12. Private collection.
“I begin with light washes of color,” Shan says as he describes his process. “These are usually done in yellow ochre or ultramarine blue, depending on whether or not I want the finished painting to look warm or cool.” Once the artist has established his subject area, he has a fairly detailed monochromatic painting on which he can begin layering the identifying color of the animal. Once he has completed the subject, he begins the background. “I used to paint the background first, but it just seemed rigid and left harsh lines around the body,” the artist says. Shan particularly enjoys painting white cows, because they allow for increased color play. “With shadows and reflected light, I am able to add an incredible amount of color to what originally seems to be a colorless animal.”
Shan typically completes 10 to 15 portraits a year and has had the good fortune to receive commissions based on word of mouth. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Texas Longhorn Journal and The Longhorn Roundup.
Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.