Jet-setting fashion photographer Leland Neff rode to the highest peaks in a career that carried him around the world, and filled his days and nights with dazzling imagery and beautiful people. And yet at his core remained a rock-solid passion for what he found to be the most beautiful inspiration of all.
Since Neff was 3 years old and growing up in Texas, he has immersed himself in the sheer joy of being next to them, riding them, and even becoming a talented rodeo rider in his youth.
By age 6, Neff also discovered his natural talent for draftsmanship and went on to create a 200-piece exhibit of horse drawings for his first show.
“My mother had bought me the Walter T. Foster series How to Draw a Horse,” Neff says, crediting his award-winning fine art and photography career, in part, to those first tentative beginnings.
Neff’s works have been shown in the finest fashion magazines, publishing houses and in catalogues for high-end retail establishments.
In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Neff talks about his career as the often praised “finest equestrian artist practicing today,” and his ongoing effort to help raise funds for horse charity through donated horse portraits.
Q: You recently had to decide between dipping your paintbrushes in bay-brown or near-black paint to render a portrait for Old Friends Equine to auction for a fundraiser. How did you decide which famous race mare to paint?
I felt bold enough to ask Barbara Livingston (famous racehorse photographer) for a photo of Zenyatta and of Rachel Alexandra.
I decided to paint Rachel Alexandra because I liked Barbara’s image. It had a very clean background and a good light, a direct golden light, which is very similar to my favorite way to paint, with a shadow over my shoulder.
I almost never paint from other people’s images, but I really liked the shadow and the direct light she used.
The portrait received the top bid at this year’s Old Friends fundraiser at Oheka Castle, and earned $7,500 for Old Friends.
Q: You made another painting to help the Retired Racehorse Training Project, which seeks to re-train and re-home racehorses. How did you get involved with the nonprofit started by trainer Steuart Pittman?
I’ve been following Steuart Pittman’s work for about 15 years. I would read his essays on how to ride and have balance. He has a stallion Salute the Truth (JC Name: Boy Done Good) … and I actually got one of my mares from Steuart.
So he asked me one day if I’d donate a painting to be used as one of the grand prizes for the winner of the Retired Racehorse Training Project a year and a half ago, and I think he didn’t expect me to say yes, but I did.
I painted Eric Dierk riding his favorite Thoroughbred from a 4 by 5 picture. Eric is a great rider, and he won the first training project, and the 30 by 40 inch painting was his grand prize.
Q: Even before you had a herd on your New York Farm, horses have been central in your life.
I got involved with horses when I was 3. They were my first big love. Growing up in Texas I rode in rodeos, and did barrel racing, western pleasure, and was interviewed on a television talk show for having won so many rodeos. My father, a naval aviator, took us on horse adventures every weekend.
Q: When you became a top fashion photographer by your mid 20s, you still never quite forgot your first big love.
At one point I was working the famous model Sara Kapp, and she wasn’t an equestrian, but she loved horses. And she actually accepted assignments based on which horse events they were near, and we really bonded over that.
I started making my own photography decisions based on where the horses were, too. I left Paris because of the horse thing and went to Argentina to photograph the Argentinean gauchos and polo players.
I have always been passionate about native people, and non-suburban land … and my artwork reflects my appreciation of lifestyles that are connected with the land. I believe people, no matter what, should do a little manual labor every day, for their own state of mind.
Q: After a stellar photography career that went from 1985 to 2011, you created a unique equestrian portrait niche for yourself, which is informed by your years of training and your daily life with your own horses and Thoroughbreds.
In my work, I apply color theory and try to incorporate some of my biggest artistic influences, including the vision of Mary Buckley, who was the main color teacher at Pratt Institute. And I also very much admired Dutch landscape painters and the works of Andrew Wyeth and George Inness.
Q: Color theory and imagery married perfectly in one of your favorite paintings, of a gray racehorse, which you did for Juddmonte Farms.
This work is about the relationship between primary colors, yellow, red and blue, and all the colors that come from those three, to create light and shadow of the opposite color.
The Gray Horse is about color and form and mood, but it all appears as happenstance.
Visual beauty stimulates me on every level. My work isn’t so much about the subject, as it is about light and color.
Q: You are bringing all of your experiences, with horses and with art, full circle with the creation of the Leland Neff Fine Art Gallery and School.
I’m planning on the opening of The Leland Neff Fine Art Gallery and School at my farm as well as a series of online classes in drawing, painting and photography. There are a couple lessons now almost ready to post to the Internet, starting with “How to paint a Horse/ Rachel Alexandra.”