If you’ve been to any big New Zealand horse shows in recent years, chances are you’ll have seen the distinctive work of South Kaipara artist Rosemary Parcell, even if you haven’t come across the painter herself. It’s easy to see why Rosemary’s gloriously large-scale equestrian paintings are so popular, and not just with riders. Unusually for a ‘horse painter’, Rosemary’s work has attracted mainstream attention and is stocked in galleries up and down the country, as well as overseas.
Many of Rosemary’s paintings depict dressage, which is her favourite discipline, although she also paints jumping and polo pictures. “I love dressage because it’s so controlled, powerful yet elegant, and it enhances the way a horse moves naturally. It’s the closest thing to dancing,” she explains.
Growing up in Central Otago on a sheep and cattle farm which is still owned by her family, Rosemary has always ridden and loved horses. She graduated from the University of Canterbury with a degree in fine arts, and went on to teach art and art history for many years, while raising her two sons. She moved to the Helensville district in 1995 to become head of faculty at Kaipara College, a position she held for several years before retiring to paint full-time.
Rosemary hasn’t always painted horses though, and she was originally more of a drawer than a painter, of people and landscapes. She says you can still see this in her work, as she uses a combination of drawing and painting, in a simplistic style. However, when a friend’s horse died, Rosemary was prompted to paint the combination competing in dressage.
“It was a terrible painting, but she kept it and wouldn’t let me change it. She’d always say it’s nice to know that’s where you started. Then I started selling paintings, one after another, and on the strength of that I gave up teaching. At that stage I was painting day and night. I paint a lot less now, just six or seven paintings a year. I try to paint less and think more. I work harder at it; I didn’t use to work as hard as I do now.
“I remember taking my paintings to a dressage day at Clevedon and putting them up along the shed. People just raved about them, which gave me huge impetus. I was so technically hopeless then and I’m still learning something every day.”
This sort of self-deprecation is fairly typical of Rosemary and she is rarely satisfied; she shows me one painting she has literally been working on for the past four years! However, it’s not a view shared by many, as her work is loved far and wide, and has even been exhibited in London’s prestigious Mall Galleries, as well as in Australia and Germany.
“Horses in mainstream art are not usually viable, but the brushwork is as important as the imagery,” she says. “It should be a composition before it’s a painting of a horse, and that’s why the people who are buying them often aren’t horse people. That’s huge in New Zealand.”
Rosemary doesn’t paint from photos, explaining that a photo is a two-dimensional image. She’s never even sat down and painted her own horse, instead only using him to figure out how a particular part of a leg or shoulder should be drawn, for example. Working from her memory, she builds up the skeleton and then the musculature on the canvas until her paintings appear three-dimensional. She describes herself as a gestural painter, with her brushwork helping to convey the movement of the horse. “I tend to paint something I’ve seen and I just want to capture that movement, above all else. I have disciplined myself not to use too many lines. One line should do the work of 20. The less you do, the more expressive it becomes. Then your line starts to really dance, if you control it.”
Rosemary draws a lot of her inspiration from watching lessons and was recently buzzing after she had her own first lesson with dressage rider Vanessa Way. She is clearly passionate about dressage, although she says she hates watching it when the horses are ‘jammed in’. She paints the horse as if it was being ridden by the viewer. “I realise I will never have the talent, skill or self-discipline to ride well enough to compete,” she says. “Instead I focus what I dream of being able to achieve on my horse in paint, and in my imagery. I always imagine myself to be riding the horses in my paintings and I think that is why so many riders respond and relate so readily to the paintings.”
Living at South Head on the Kaipara Harbour for the past 19 years, Rosemary balances her painting work with riding her own horse deep into the forest and along the beach. In the past she’s owned several beautiful thoroughbreds, but her current partner in crime is Johnny Cash, or ‘JC’, a handsome black stationbred. He’s a real character, but Rosemary says she finds him completely uninspiring to paint, with his big Clydie lower lip!
Her favourite dressage horse to watch was Nicky Pope’s elegant Fabarchie, who appears from time to time in her artwork. However, as a rule she doesn’t paint specific horses for people, saying she is not accurate enough – plus the owners want to take control and have input, which she doesn’t love.
Writing for dressage judges also gives Rosemary many ideas for her painting and she does a lot of volunteering as a writer at competitions. “I get to see the same movement many times and then I understand what I really like in a movement. The terrible thing is when the judge starts nudging me because I’m too busy watching and not writing. I get fixated.”
Rosemary also loves going to shows to receive constructive criticism from riders, which she is incredibly grateful for, and to meet the owners of her art – often they have bought her work through galleries, and it’s only through events like Horse of the Year Show that she learns about them. “It’s lovely getting feedback, because as an artist you live in a vacuum, and you don’t see people all that much.”
Rosemary’s work is distinguished both by its scale and the style. Her early works approached life-size, although she tends to work on smaller canvases these days so they fit in taxis when she is overseas! Typically, she crops the riders’ heads off and diminishes them; her horses appear monumental, the riders comparatively tiny and insignificant. The riders are generic, based on nobody in particular.
“I want the emphasis to be on the horse’s legs more than anything else, because their legs are the expression of the movement,” she explains. “Heads tend to be a focal point and if you have two focal points the painting falls apart, so I crop out the rider’s head. Riders’ faces are often distracting and I very rarely notice the rider.”
- This story was first published in the October 2015 issue of NZ Horse & Pony