Samantha Jane Elmhurst – Horse Artist Interview

Samantha Jane Elmhurst BA Hons

Website & Places you can find my work online
Website: Veterinary Medical Illustration Article
Anatomy Book: The Horse in Motion
Vetcell: Horse Tendon Anatomy (PDF)
Allan and Page: Bringing Him From the Brink

You can see my work on BSAVA website and other publisher’s sites in the form of book covers, inner pages etc, (just Google my name to find them!)

Where I am
Norfolk, United Kingdom

Tell us a little about you, what is your background & where do you come from?
Originally a Londoner, I always loved art and always loved horses and I am sure that the first thing I ever drew was equine. My earliest introduction to horses, according to my mother, was my seeing a horse in a field over a gate, offering him some sort of treat and my hand got badly bitten; I really don’t remember too much about that but it does go against the old adage that sometimes, the earliest memory of a horse doing something like that to you can make you anti-horse for the rest of your life. Not me!

As a family, we used to go on holiday to beautiful Devon, to my Great Grandmother’s house. A far cry from suburban North London, and a blessed relief! I think it was when I was about 7 or 8 that we all went for a picnic in a field with two horses in it and Mum and I offered some treats up to the horses (ponies actually!). Then a lady farmer came over to us and we thought we were about to be told off but the complete opposite happened and that was where it all really began; in a field in Southleigh, East Devon, circa 1973.

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To very briefly summarise the rest of the holiday, after being asked if my sister and I would like to lead the ponies back to their stables at the farm, we were asked if we would like to come back another day and ride the ponies. This of course we did; the pony that I rode was called Smokey, a piebald, and my little sister rode Spice, a bay pony. My parents lead us on the lead rein down the lanes and one time my pony ran away with me – looking back, he was probably only trotting! Anyway, I screamed, Mum panicked too but no harm came to me and did not extinguish my love of horses.

Then I started to have riding lessons in London when we came back off our hols, and then, in 1977, I had a pony on a part-share basis. In 1979, my family moved to Norfolk and the promise of a pony all of my own one day materialised. In June 1979, my first pony arrived, a beautiful black pony called Midnight. Anyway, since Midnight, there have been quite a few horses in my life.

My last horse, who very sadly died very suddenly, was a beautiful Friesian and we were doing Elementary dressage together. I am now looking to buy another Friesian; that’s work in progress as I write… So that’s my equine history to date.

On the art front, I was always good at art at school but when it came to choose my ‘options’ for O Levels, I was dissuaded from taking art (because it wasn’t deemed as vocational) so I had to do music instead. When I went into the sixth form, I decided to take Art O Level and so had to cram 2 year’s worth of art training in one year and I failed my exam! But I kept my artwork up at home and still wanted more than ever to become an illustrator one day.

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I went to college to do a secretarial course and had a Saturday job in a very trendy café, the top floor of which was an artist’s studio. I was shown around the studio one day by the two illustrators who ran it and WOW! The whole set-up was exactly what I’d dreamed of…green plants stood in pots all around the studio, coffe-maker on the go, there was a record playing softly on a record player in the corner, it was light and there were books everywhere and two huge A0 art boards set up where the two artists were doing these really intricate illustrations for some text book or other.

That’s the life I WANT, I thought to myself, and so I worked like mad on my own at home trying to get a portfolio or artwork together, and to see whether I could just get an interview at the local Art School on the strength of my work and no formal school art exams. And so I went along to the Norwich School of Art later the same year with my portfolio and was offered a place on the Foundation Course. Thing is, I had already left home, and the grant that I would have been allocated from the Education Authority would not cover living expenses as I wasn’t living at home anymore…so I had to turn down the offer.

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In 1987 I moved back to London – to seek fame and fortune! – and got a job at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in the Animal Health Unit with Professor J E Cooper FRCVS, a very eminent vet in his field.

He encouraged me with my then ‘hobby’ of building up a portfolio of veterinary illustration and my work was published, including for some of his papers for the Veterinary Record, the ‘trade magazine’ for veterinarians.

My work with him gave me the opportunity to go to the ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and meet other vets there and was allowed to draw the animals who were in for treatment – from flamingoes to recovering tapirs!

Thus inspired by the whole ‘animals/art’ thing, I was accepted into University in London in 1990 to study an Honours Degree in Scientific Illustration on the strength of just my portfolio and obvious enthusiasm and dedication but this time I went straight into the First Year, which I was awarded a full grant for, so I didn’t have to do a Foundation Course first and I struggled for the first 2 years trying to catch up and learn everything that most other students already had a good grounding in. What made it even more difficult was that I was admitted whilst the new new term had already begun so everyone knew everyone all ready, had started making friends, etc and I really felt a bit of an outsider at first. During the holidays, to earn money to supplement my grant, I spent all my time ‘seeing practice’ with local vets and assisting with the more auxiliary duties alongside veterinary nurses.

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During my degree I spent some of my time at the ZSL Hospital ‘observing’ and sketching and in my final year did my internment at The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, at the University of Kent. In 1994 I graduated with an Honours Degree and in the last 16 years have built up a very successful freelance business, predominantly veterinary (which I totally adore!) and some medical.

I have illustrated all the BSAVA Manuals for the last 15 years or so, from domestic to exotic and zoological species, and am also published by all the national/international publishers including Elsevier, Blackwell Science, Dorling Kindersley, Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins (USA).

When did you first start drawing and was it horses?
My first professional commission in 1995 was actually for a Dog Encyclopedia BUT my first magazine commission – and the same magazine is still my client today – was for Horse and Rider Magazine.

Your art is unique in that you draw illustrations for science publications. How did you get involved with that?
See the above, but it was just my love of animals and at one time I did want to become a vet but I didn’t have the right exam passes for that… 

This gives you a pretty good idea what the equine animal looks like on the inside as well as the outside. Do you think your advance knowledge of physiology gives you an artistic edge when it comes to drawing them? 
Oh yes, most definitely, I cannot stress that enough. Especially horses, which most artists find quite challenging to draw.

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Is it only horses or do you draw other medical subjects?
All medical subjects really, including human medical but because of my love of animals in the first place, I am more veterinary based and because I am ‘horsy’, I get a lot of equine commissions because I all ready ‘speak the language’!

Do you have any art idols within your industry?
Yes, but they are the ‘Old Classics’, there is no one on the current scene that I particularly idolise as such. But the Greats, like Stubbs, Ruini, Gibson. Having said that, I’ve just recently discovered Jim Power’s artwork – he’s based at a Newmarket Stud and has some lovely pieces of work, one of my favorites is called Equine Surgery Through The Ages, and is a collage really of illustrations charting the process of Equine Surgery – one illustration shows a very primitive and rustic scene of surgery in a barn and follows through to a very high-tech modern Equine Hospital scene…it’s lovely, and although I’ve only seen this reproduced in a book, and quite small at that, it is very powerful. Its one of those pieces of work which I wish I had produced!!!

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Do you have any secret rituals you do to help you get in the zone for your work?
That’s a very interesting question…I’ve never really thought about it, but I suppose I do actually, almost by default really. When I start a new project – and I like to do this the following morning after I’ve finished the last project, (even if that means a free afternoon the day before, never a bad thing!), I’ve most likely just come from the early morning stable-round so am full of fresh air and horsiness!

So New Day, New Project…then I come into the studio – which is at home – and tune into a mellow radio station, most usually something like Classic FM (a classical music station). A cup of coffee beside me and usually one, two or all three of my cats are in the room somewhere with me.

What effect do you think the Internet will have on art?
It’s certainly helped me, been an absolute boon in fact, in the sense that in the beginning, I was not digitally artwork trained, everything was by hand – watercolours, pen and ink etchings, stipple, pencil, the whole lot, all done by hand and no margin for error! So back in 1995, sending artwork off was always risky. First, you had to trust that it didn’t get squished in the postal system. And, as the artwork was usually in watercolour, I was using CS board in those days and the poor printer had the responsibility of having to peel off the top layer of surface so that it could be wrapped around the printing rollers. What a nightmare that would have been! And it would only get to the printing stage if there were no corrections to have to put in place and trying to correct/revise a watercolour is not viable usually, in fact impossible sometimes.

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Phew! Just thinking about the old days makes me squirm! But yes, digital artwork is fantastic. Being self-taught to use digital art software has meant that the learning process has been a bit slower than others who will learn these things in college, but the upside is that I think that when you teach yourself something, you’re more likely to retain things. Plus, by making mistakes or doing things the long way round, this is often a blessing in disguise when it comes to knowing a package inside out – I can honestly say that I think I know how to get the best out of my software!

Has it had an effect on yours?
And so yes, it has affected the way I work. For instance, from the initial email enquiry for a commission and through to the final printing process is far more fluid.

I can send preliminary sketches to authors/editors and they will receive them within minutes and get back to me with comments within hours.

Any amends can be made easily in the majority of cases too and this would just not be possible with the old hand-drawn methods without having to start all over again from scratch. And then of course researching the subjects is made much easier because of the web, and information at your fingertips. It is a very long time indeed since I went to a library and even then, most of my work references would have to be special order as veterinary is not a big part of the UK libraries. And to meet deadlines, of course hanging about for references to come through was not brilliant!

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Which one is your personal favorite piece of your art?
Oh, I have lots! They all vary because of the stories behind the work, not just the quality. I mean, one of my favourites is the picture I produced as part of my final degree, for the Degree Show. It’s not particularly brilliant, my work is so much better now, but at the time I was so proud of it. It’s called The Supersenses of the Domestic Cat and shows how and why a cats senses work, ie. eyes, ears, whiskers etc. I can honestly say that I remember every single paintbrush stroke that I did on that artwork. It was at such a nerve-wracking time being the build up to the end of my course and culminating in being judged by the examiners and being on display at our Degree Show…but it was this piece of work especially that got me my first commission in the end by Dorling Kindersley!

There are other works I love, and as I say, it’s because they tell a particular story – it’s more on achievement than merit of quality, and it would take me days to write down every single one!

Suffice to say, I think the ones I love most all have another theme in common and that’s because of the technique I’ve used, in showing the outside and inside of a structure at the same time, that is ‘ghosting technique’ and was very tricky to do in the days of watercolour. It’s easier now of course with digital.

Would you ever sell it?
No, never! It symbolises the beginning of my professional career!


What else are you passionate about?
Anything really which brings the animal kingdom more closely in harmony with illustration

Working on anything new?
I’ve just finished a human medical project and there is an Equine Nursing book on the horizon. Just awaiting confirmation of timings and such the like.

More to Come

Thanks to Samantha for answering the interview and sharing more about her unique work. Be sure to check out her livingart site periodically for updates about her latest works.

Also stay tuned for more interviews with horse artists, photographers & authors. Are you a horse artist or do you know an equine artist you’d like to see featured? Add your name and website in the comments below or drop me a note to get involved.

4 Comments on “Samantha Jane Elmhurst – Horse Artist Interview

  1. Eddie Elmhirst

    Proud of my Daughter Samantha – I have only just seen this article – prowling through the net !

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