Horses have been cavorting through the margins of Jaimie Whitbread’s notes since kindergarten. A dweller of suburbia, Whitbread’s parents would cart her out forty minutes each way for a lesson on the back of a horse. From 8 to 18, she fell in love with three different horses: Miss Pig, Black Jack, and Rowdy, all stubborn, sassy, and affectionate to a fault. To Whitbread, it was well worth the long car rides to reach her most exciting pastime and beloved horses.
Now twenty-six years old, living in Texas, Whitbread has two major passions: creativity and nature. “And I couldn’t wish to have been given two better gifts in life,” she says. An illustrator and plein air artist, nature has proven itself to be an inspiration to her. “Nature is the broadest and most astounding example of creativity there could be. I love clouds, sunrises, sunsets, animals of every kind (but especially the kind who will stand still long enough to have their portrait drawn), and trees…anything that lets me use my hands and imagination in tandem.”
Like many artists before her, Whitbread has always had a knack for drawing but was very quiet and inconspicuous as a child. Drawing became the “thing” she did, scribbling away in her notes and papers as she made her way through school, at long last finding herself with that age old question horse-lovers ask themselves: to be a vet or something else? The decision was made and she went to study art in a tiny private school, Hardin Simmons University. The art department was small – only three professors – but they had an equestrian team and that sealed the deal for Whitbread. She spent a year on the western riding team, performing in rodeos and parades. “I was in way over my head, being the only suburbian on a team full of ranch girls but I learned more about horses in that one year than I did in 10 years of lessons – and got sweatier, dirtier, and sorer in places I didn’t even know I had!”
Whitbread graduated college with a BFA focused on graphic design and works with acrylic, oil, watercolor, pen and ink, and even digital painting. “Whatever works best for what I’m doing at the time,” she laughs. Horses in art are still very much on her mind as she explores a career as an illustrator.
“You can’t really look back in art – it’s too high a climb, you’ll scare the life out of yourself.” She explains. Now she works on plein art painting, in addition to her illustration work. En plein air is French for “in the open air” and refers to the practice of taking the process of making art outdoors. Made popular by impressionists, it’s all about capturing the moods of light and color as seen directly from the source. “You sweat and shiver a lot, get bitten by a lot of bugs, but for me it’s one of the most exciting ways to enjoy being outdoors – it really forces you to observe, and opens your eyes to details that you never would have seen otherwise.”
The horse was the first big challenge for Whitbread in art. Desperate to draw them well, she was frustrated when they turned out inaccurate, with stubby legs and bubbly heads. “They say that the human face is the hardest thing to draw because our minds are so ingrained with it that any mistake sticks out like a sore thumb. I think it’s the same with horses. So as a young artist, I studied them pretty fiercely to figure out how to master them – I’m still at it!” Now her horses are beautiful and almost lifelike, despite the obvious painted quality.
But the figure of the horse is not the only thing that fascinates Whitbread. Folklore and fairy tales, stories in general, play a huge role in her work. As an illustrator, she is often asked to tell a story with her work, and being just as interested in stories as she is with horses makes her ready for the challenge. She recounted a time when she was younger, playing with forks, knives, and spoons. She would create personalities and background stories, intricate dreams and history, explaining their positions on a table. “As an adult, I don’t do quite so much of that,” she explains. “But I do love taking existing folktales and building more intricate worlds around them.”
Folktales hold her imagination like no other. To her, they were the first fantasy worlds. Questions always plagued her. How did people of ancient cultures make up such fantastical creatures? And how did so many, across cultures and seas, come up with the same stories about the same monsters and morals? “It makes me wonder if there wasn’t some deeper truth in them that artists and story-makers in their times were sensing and spinning into story without even realizing what it was,” she muses. The truths Whitbread is most interested in exploring are those that deal with the human experience. Stories that deal with anger, loneliness, death, disappearance, and the complications of love and marriage. “Reading stories like that reminds me that these ancient people were fully equipped to deal with life – they had storytellers and artists…people who did their best to give insight and comfort to their listeners – and they did it with stories of dragons, unicorns, and mysterious, magical strangers.”
For Whitbread, folklore and horses unite in stories. Horses and humans have been tied together for so long, almost from the beginning, and we have relied upon them, worked with them, and risk injury and life alongside each other. Present and vital, they were necessary to the people who told these stories long ago. “They were an object of beauty and power – bringers of life and sometimes death. Those are the kinds of things that inspire poets, artists, and story-makers.”
Folklore gives her a sense of connectedness to the people of the past. Images of communities gathered round campfires, telling tales of fantastical creatures and creating a mythology that we use to spin our own tales today. Whitbread doesn’t spin too many tales of her own but she loves to play with the question: what if it was real? “I love bringing mythical creatures ‘down-to-earth,’ so to speak. Re-imaging them in a naturalist world, thinking what kind of animal would have given birth to these myths? What if there really were unicorns – why would they have horns and what would they use them for? What if kelpies were a real species, living and breeding in the waters…once my imagination gets going, I’ve got to get a pencil in my hand and start drawing!”