Gena Lee Tharp looks for a moment of drama.
She might take 1,500 pictures of a horse and deem only five or six suitable to paint.
When combing her roll at the end of a “modeling” session, the Roseburg grandmother looks for the photos that capture a horse.
“I look for when he’s showing his soul and his spirit,” she said.
Tharp, 63, has spent her seven-year retirement immersed in painting, often painting animals, often through a method of exactingly copying photographs she takes. This pursuit has been rewarding and remunerative, she said.
Her horses have won contests and appeared on magazine covers, and her originals now sell for thousands of dollars.
Many of her buyers are the owners of the horses she captures with her lens and her brush. She said they recognize in her a fellow horse lover, one who understands their unique animal. When she asks to photograph a horse she has her eye on, “nine times out of ten” the owner ends up purchasing the resulting painting.
Growing up, Tharp and her four sisters lived on a ranch outside Sutherlin with a small family of horses. When her parents sold the property and moved into town, she took the news especially hard.
“I never got over it,” she said.
She loved to draw growing up, but as she became busier with work and life, she put aside artistic ambitions. She made art in her 40-year career as an advertising director in Roseburg, but it wasn’t until retirement in 2007 that she thought seriously about painting.
In developing her style, she said she was influenced by local instructor and realist painter Tom Browning, and the popular Western realist Howard Terpning.
Vividly copying photographs was something Tharp started doing for practice in the 1970s, but after retirement she bought a Nikon D-700 and began incorporating it into her artwork. She pointed it toward her first love, and began setting up modeling sessions with horse owners in the area.
These days she keeps a full art calendar, and paints daily, with multiple works going at once. She said each requires days, sometimes months, to develop.
“I get my fix this way” she said. “Even though I can’t have a horse, this is my way of loving them, and honoring them, and showing them to the world.”
After seeing Tharp’s work, Alexis Atchinson, of the Storybook Horse Farm in Yoncalla, invited Tharp to photograph her herds of Canadians and Warmbloods. Storybook bills its herd of Canadian horses as the largest in the U.S,, and Tharp is giddy to get to shoot it.
“She is an outstanding artist,” Atchinson said of Tharp. “You see she has a deep appreciation for horses. She features their emotions and their strength.”
One customer of Tharp’s took her time browsing one of Tharp’s displays, before selecting seven paintings for purchase.
“She said, ‘I’ll take this one, I’ll take this one, I’ll take this one ... ” Tharp said. “I almost died.”
Another woman flew from Cheyenne to Oregon to view Tharp’s work, which the artist had arranged around her yard for a private display, at the buyer’s request. That woman bought five paintings, Tharp said.
Her work has appeared on the covers of three editions of Flying Changes, a dressage publication. She recently sold her painting “Foggy Morning Workout” to Umpqua Community College for its permanent art collection.
In a big coup for Tharp, her 2011 painting “Percheron Power” — of a dapple gray Friesian stallion in full dressage regalia — was selected as the promotional image of the upcoming Draft Horse Classic in Grass Valley, Calif.
One of her muses, Rembrandt, is a grand prix champion owned by Don and Lisa Eckhardt of Snohomish, Wash.
Tharp has traveled three times to photograph Rembrandt, whom she considers a marvel.
Don Eckhardt said Tharp sees the array of colors in Rembrandt’s seemingly all-black hide. He said Tharp’s are the only paintings of the horse he and his wife own, though other artists have painted Rembrandt.
“She captures the spirit of that horse,” Eckhardt said. “She deeply respects him.”
Tharp said she loves her retired life and the challenges that accompany growing as an artist.
Her retired husband, Lonnie, restores a 1955 Bel Aire most days. He plans to debut it, after seven years of work, at Grafitti Weekend in July. Her son, Chas, lives in Portland and has a child of his own.
To stay loose, Tharp has been getting a little bit braver with her brushstrokes. After each demanding realist painting she completes, she likes to paint something abstract— a psychedelic calf, for instance — to keep herself sharp.
“Realism is work, but I tell you, I have more fun with it.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.