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All in the details

James Baldwin is a highly skilled graphite pencil artist passionate about capturing the essence of his equine subjects

Per Incanto, as drawn by James Baldwin

James Baldwin is best known for his striking drawings of aircraft, but the former Brit, now based in Auckland, is quickly gaining a following among equine lovers for his detailed monochromatic images of horses.  

Graphite pencil artist James Baldwin

James says he always had a pencil close at hand throughout his childhood, but due to a lack of encouragement, art wasn’t something he pursued at school. “When I was a kid, I would spend many, many hours just lying on the floor in the living room, happy doodling away. I don’t know if I was any good, but it’s something I always remember doing. As time went on, I became more serious about the drawings I was doing, and it became my passion.”

He graduated from the Cumbria College of Art with a fine art degree, majoring in conceptual sculpture, but left feeling disillusioned. 

“I enjoy conceptual art and sculpture, but sometimes it goes too far. I left arts college wondering why I had done it and what I could use it for. I was burnt out,” he explains.

James spent a couple of years driving buses before the urge to pick up a pad and a pencil finally returned. The first thing he drew was a motorbike, which by chance landed him work drawing for Britain’s superbike teams, including Yamaha, while exhibiting his work in London and Edinburgh. 

“It was a way of using my talent without falling back into this coldness I had felt after leaving arts college,” he says. 

From there, his career took flight, branching into the world of aviation with a commission of a Spitfire, which reignited a long-held passion for aircraft that had started as he was a child. 

Aviation made up the bulk of his work with commissions from the Royal Airforce, the Royal Australian Airforce, and the Joint Services Command, but after moving to New Zealand to be with his Kiwi partner, James broadened his focus to include horses, another subject that’s very close to his heart.

Equine inspiration

James’ grandfather filled his head as a young boy with horse stories, inspiring a heartfelt love affair that’s stayed with him throughout his life, despite never really getting the opportunity to learn to ride. 

James’ grandfather, Fred Male, was a member of the Nottingham Rough Riders, a yeomanry (cavalry) regiment of the British Army during the First World War. After the war, he worked as a groom and then a racehorse trainer, with an Epsom Derby winner during the late 1920s. 

“He was forever talking about his cavalry days. He only used to talk about the horses, never the war, and his passion for horses rubbed off on me. I started to draw horses because I love their energy. A horse’s musculature is so stark. It’s wonderful to be able to see that power, especially when they’re running. You can draw any type of animal, but because horses have very little hair on them, nothing is hidden. 

“When they are running you can see the motor running, the veins pumping and the nostrils flaring. I love all of that. The vitality of the movement and the rawness. I want to show the power, sweat, pain, agony, movement and excitement of it all.”

James gathers his inspiration and development by studying the works of others, including Sir Alfred James Munnings and arguably the most prominent equestrian artist of the 18th century, George Stubbs, who was known to dissect horses in order to better study and capture their anatomy. 

Looking at James’ work, you’d never know he was not intimately involved in the equestrian world, as the horse’s musculature and anatomy are incredibly precise.

Prior to immigrating to New Zealand, James had only done an handful of equine portraits, but it was an avenue he was keen to pursue on his move down under. “I enjoy drawing aeroplanes, but they’re not something that stretches me [as an artist]. Aeroplanes are easy to draw because they are inanimate objects; whereas with horses, no two are the same. Each one that I do is entirely unique. It’s a horse; it has four legs, two eyes and a tail, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s good to push yourself, and it’s a subject that I really enjoy. I so love doing them, it has to be the way forward,” he says.

Not long after his arrival his talents caught the eye of Sam and Catriona Williams of Little Avondale Stud in Masterton, who commissioned portraits of their two star stallions – Per Incanto and Towkay – on the strength of his stunning depiction of the Queen’s former stallion Carlton House. 

The horse as art

James specialises in finely detailed graphite work. Using only his trusty regular 2b mechanical pencil and paper, he creates phenomenally realistic rendered artworks, painstakingly drawing every detail with layer upon layer of pencil. His style is both convoluted and time-consuming, but the results speak for themselves. “Traditionally, equine art is done with paint, but high-quality pencil work can achieve so much more detail,” he says.

Before he starts drawing, James likes to have a photoshoot to ensure the quality and originality of his work, as well as to meet the horse in person. While it’s not always possible with photo-based commissions, this time allows him to get a feel for their true personality so he can accurately capture it on paper. 

“I like to take my own photos where possible. That way the client doesn’t know what they are going to get. You also need to know what the horse looks like from every angle. Although you are copying a photo, you try to inject their personality into it. Capturing that vitality is very important. Even though they are monochromatic, each drawing must have a certain life in it. We see plenty of pretty pictures of horses, but mine have and level of detail and life in them that is rarely seen in others.”

James normally uses several images before he settles on his final inspiration. “By using too many images there is a risk you could end up with a Picaso-type horse, so you have to be careful though.” 

In some cases, only one high quality image is needed, as was the case with Towkay. “I did meet Towkay and Per Incanto, but the image of Towkay, provided by Sam and Catriona, was just too good to ignore.”

The image of Towkay, a stallion from Little Avondale Stud…
… James’ rendition of Towkay

In James’ drawings, complete accuracy is paramount. The musculature and anatomy of the horse needs to be spot -n, but he acknowledges that there is still some room for artist’s interpretation. “Sometimes if you have an image in front of you it’s easy to treat it just like joining the dots, but I think if you are not trying to improve every time you do it, it’s pointless. You have to strive for better. Every time, there should be an improvement or at least an intent to improve.”

While James can get lost in a subject and crank a drawing out in a matter of hours, generally most take days, if not weeks, to complete. Towkay took more than 50 hours. 

“It took a long time because I wasn’t happy with it, and had to keeping coming back to it. Sam adores Towkay, so it was a big responsibility and huge privilege to be able to draw him. I put huge additional pressure on myself, because I wanted to get it right. He’s such a playful horse, and I know they do see him in it [the portrait].”

But ultimately, it’s the client’s reactions that make all the time and effort worthwhile, says James. “My ultimate goal is to be able to look back at my life and know that what I have created with my artwork has bought joy and happiness to many people, and that the artworks will continue to be enjoyed for years to come.”

Today, James’ work involves almost solely commissions. He is happy to draw almost anything that has personality. Aside from horses and aircraft, he also enjoys portraiture and other animals, especially dogs. When he’s not doing pencil work, James is also a competent painter. “I do paint abstract landscapes from time to time for myself. For me, that’s my release,” he says.

  • This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of NZ Horse & Pony
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