Horsing Around at the Medano-Zapata Ranch

In early May, I had the absolute pleasure and privilege to take the Horse Painting Workshop with Jill Soukup at the Zapata Ranch. Living in Northwest Colorado, horses are an integral part of both the culture and the landscape. I have included many horses in my work, but I felt it was time to bring it up a notch. Boy, did I choose well!

The Medano-Zapata Ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by Ranchlands in a partnership model that emphasizes environmental conservation practices. Located on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, the ranch borders the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Home to a conservation herd of bison that run in a single 50,000 acre pasture, the ranch also runs a herd of Angus mother cows.

My room was located near the main lodge, in the homestead that was built in the 1880’s. It was incredibly comfortable and the food was amazing. Ironically, we hardly spent any time in our lovely rooms. We rose at 6 am and didn’t get to bed until 9 pm. Jill kept us busy painting the horses by the stables, learning in the workshop space, and eating meals together. It was a happy-tired.

Besides the perfect accommodations and beautiful landscape, Jill created an incredible curriculum. She is a true professional with killer skills and deep intuition when it comes to painting and horses. Her communication was superb and her preparation must have taken months.  Each day, we focused on a different way to approach painting horses, building upon our skills from the previous lesson. At night, she lectured for almost two hours, gathering examples of paintings – both known and obscure, personal or old masters, to illustrate her concepts.

The second day started at first light. Each morning, the wranglers bring the herd into the corral from their large pastures on the alluvial plane. It was poetic to see 50+ horses moving in unison to start the day. Jill introduced the concept of form, using a Styrofoam model followed by clay. It was incredible how my drawings progressed throughout the exercises, clearly showing a deepening understanding of anatomy. 

The third day was finally approaching my favorite: color! Jill had an excellent lecture about color the night before. I woke early again to do a quick plein air sketch of the mountains and pastures. I hope you will be seeing a painting from that study someday soon! The weather was a little warmer with less wind, and we were able to set up our easels at the corral. Now, I think I need a horse and a high line. Ha!

The afternoon of the third day also included an in-depth study of a horse skull. Having the real thing in front of me helped a lot. I also had the instructive book, “Animal Painting and Anatomy” by W. Frank Calderon. Of course, I ordered it (and many more) after the workshop. There were many details that will help me in the future.

Besides the in-depth content that Jill provided, I have to say it was the people that really made this experience special. Isn’t that always the case? Here’s a group photo. Every artist in the group brought a unique set of gifts and goals that deepened our connections and made the week an absolute joy.

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