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Watson, Jenny - 1996.12

Jenny Watson

Brown horse with yellow/green headband 1973
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
182.5 x 250 cm
Purchased 1996

The title Brown horse with yellow/green headband is plainly descriptive, not quite factual, and it belies the bold presence of this life-size painting of a horse.

True, a little brown paint has been applied. But coursing across this canvas is a palette of bruised reds, grey-greens and dull gold. The effect is variously of lustrous molten metal; fruit, juicy and bit; and the bathroom basin smeared with blusher, eye shadow and henna dye. More specifically, the yellow/green headband of the title is technically known as a browband. But perhaps for Brisbane artist Jenny Watson the word ‘headband’ is befitting for a girl – with a horse. Mutual grooming. Innocent abandon.

Watson’s horse is a male show pony, probably for dressage with tail banged square, devoid of background and barely fitting the length of the picture plane. A rein extending out of the left side of the frame suggests he has been led into our view, paraded before us in our real space to admire. Not free to buck his next engagement, he is bridled with history and domestic training, though unsaddled in this painted moment for our pleasure, to romanticise.

Painted from a photograph, in which light makes sleek a sweaty coat and rivulets of shadow run across hindquarters and pool under neck and belly, our horse has pulled up in front of us. His proximity urges us to further squiz his powerful torso and handsome short-cropped mane, the dandy tail boxed tight to the frame. His legs do not quite fit into the canvas viewfinder. Well, no matter. When the painting is hung at conventional gallery height, we will complete the picture, our eye following his legs out of the frame, to the floor. In contrast to the lopped lower limbs, Watson has cannily applied canvas-coloured paint to leave ‘bare’ the ample space above the horse’s back where the rider, the artist in her dreams, would sit.

Watson eschews the conventional use of oil paint that equine artists apply for intense permanent colour and for reworking while wet. She prefers an affordable synthetic polymer – a fast applied, fast drying acrylic paint that does not allow for lengthy experimentation for accuracy – a testament to Watson’s drafting confidence and cavalier approach to picturing her ‘brown’ horse with immediate energy. She liberally under-paints her horse with the handy canvas-coloured paint, touching up wherever necessary – his ears, mane and rump receiving particular attention.

In 1974, the year Brown horse with yellow/green headband was made, Watson painted many horses: greys, bays, chestnuts, typically without background detail, ribbons around their necks and often glamorously rugged in silk. But here, in this painting, the outline of a rug has been painted out. Watson changed her mind: her horse will be unrugged, ready for action.

Watson, 23 years old and not long out of art school in 1974, heralds her ambition to ride bareback into the arena of art. Four decades on, the horse remains in her illustrious showground, along with other narrative fragments of her life – nostalgic, imaginative, feminist and political, yet always personal.[1]

Lou Hubbard is a Melbourne artist and Head of Photography at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.

[1] Denise M. Taylor, ‘The art of Jenny Watson: putting herself in the picture’, 2014,, accessed 7 November 2016.