Follow equine artist Jim Rey through his process of painting a horse study.

Artist Jim Rey of Durango, Colorado, has spent more than 50 years as a Western artist working in oils and pen and ink. His specialty is painting horses, whether they are in portraits or scenes from ranches he’s visited. Influenced by Western author and illustrator Will James and classic illustrators in the Saturday Evening Post, Rey paints whimsical horses with personality and stories of their own. Although he uses photographs for reference sometimes, most of the horses he paints are from memory and small studies he creates.

“I realize my horses are caricatures in a way; they’re my own style of drawing horses,” he says, blending paint on a palette propped on an adjustable music stand.

All of his paintings start with studies, many of which he illustrates on a digital tablet. Some of those studies are printed on metal for contemporary, original pieces of affordable artwork. For some paintings he starts with studies he creates the traditional way with paint and a brush.

“When I start a study of a horse, I’ll mix some transparent red oxide and ultramarine blue [to form a base color], and then decide where to position the horse [on the canvas],” he explains.

A horse study painted by Jim Rey.
Rey’s loose, illustrator style creates caricature-like horses with personality.

Once he’s chosen his composition, Rey begins to roughly the outline the gesture of the horse, starting with its barrel and girth area and then moving down to the knees, fetlocks and hooves, and then to the head and across the back and croup.

“I’m just searching right now, not making any hard and fast commitments,” he says.

Once he gets the basic proportions plotted, he mixes a bay-like color and adds details to the muzzle, ears, eyes, mane and tail, and loosely fills in shadows.

Jim Rey sits in his art studio.
Jim Rey paints in his studio in Durango, Colorado, surrounded by his collection of gear and a couple of horses.

“I establish the dark areas as a point of reference for when I start applying the paint,” he explains. “I want to know I’m in the boundaries of acceptability that this is going to be a horse and not a hippo.”

Once he has a loosely painted gesture of a horse, he uses his fingers and brush to smudge paint and add texture and other details like a “soft, swimming eye” and hooves.

Horses have been Rey’s muses since he was a young boy riding on his grandparents’ ranch in northern California. As an adult, he spent time working as an illustrator and on ranches in California, Colorado and Nebraska, which also influence his style and subject matter.  Now 80 years old, Rey continues to experiment and evolve as an artist. He spends most evenings in his studio creating digital or painted studies, and finds them enjoyable.

“Horses get into your blood and you can’t help it, whether it’s painting or working with them,” he says.

Rey’s work is represented by Claggett/Rey Gallery in Vail, Colorado; Keating Fine Art in Aspen, Colorado; and Sorrel Sky Gallery in Durango, Colorado.

Rey’s painting Santa’s Gift appears on the December 2019 issue of Western Horseman, and you can read more about him in the article “Traditions with Technology.