By Lauren R. Giannini
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
Artwork by Sharon Lynn Campbell
One glimpse of the horses, family pets and people painted by Sharon Lynn Campbell is all it takes to understand why she’s renowned as one of today’s leading portrait artists. She established her reputation by painting what she knows best: hunters and jumpers. Her preference for huge canvases — her paintings are often life-sized and always lifelike with exquisitely rendered detail — began in 1999 with her first commission: a 36 x 48 inch oil painting of a foxhunting scene. Her reputation grew by leaps and bounds, alongside her evolving skills and technical mastery, and she still prefers to paint really big.
“Over the last few years, I’ve offered a 16 x 20 canvas and the size goes up from there — I just prefer more room for detail,” said Sharon. “I just did a dog that weighs about 3 pounds and she’s on a 10 x 12 canvas. To me, that’s a tiny canvas, but the dog fits into your hand, so she looks larger than life.”
Sharon’s work has adorned the covers of major horse show programs, including Capital Challenge, Middleburg Classic, Washington International, USEF Pony Finals, Upperville, the Winter Equestrian Festival and publications such as The Chronicle of the Horse.
In 2012, Sharon donated a life-sized custom oil portrait to the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation’s gala fundraiser for our Olympic and Paralympic equestrians going to London that year. This year, she contributed another signature custom oil portrait to the USET Foundation’s Rockin’ Rio fundraiser. Sharon’s art opened the live auction and the gavel fell at $22,000 — both times.
Horse Person First
Her equestrian background enhances every portrait from beloved family pets to national champions. “I’m truly a horse person before anything else,” said Sharon. “I grew up in my family’s horse business. My parents bought a farm in Indiana, about an hour from our house near Chicago. When I was 15, I was going to school and teaching about 60 students a week, training and showing on the weekends. The highlight of my school day was art. I wasn’t interested in anything but horses and art. After I graduated from high school, I married a horse trainer. I wanted to go to art school, but he said no, that I was a better rider than artist.”
Sharon rode until they divorced in 1992. She had three children to support, no real job skills, and a house in Madison, Virginia. She felt desolate, being so far from her family. Her father advised her to look for a job in sales as she was good at selling horses. For about 3 1/2 years, she sold ads for the Yellow Pages, but craved more fulfilling work. In December 1997, she met George Campbell at church and they married in June 1999. That September, inspired by faith and encouraged by George, she began painting.
When it comes to detail, Sharon has mastered every nuance from the highlights on a horse’s coat to facial expression, eyes, ears, braids, shine on bits, nail holes in hooves, tack and appointments. Her action paintings almost explode out of the frame. Hunters and jumpers might be posed with rider or in the air with smartly snapped knees, festooned with rosettes or tri-colors during awards or gazing over a stall’s half-door. Siblings or adults might pose with beloved pets. Formal or candid, whatever the setting, Sharon “gets” her subjects and also portrays them brilliantly.
“I’m essentially self-taught,” she said. “I think I’ve gotten better and can see things better because of the sheer number of portraits that I’m producing all the time. The biggest struggle I had at the beginning of my career was knowing my materials. I didn’t know about all the different brushes, different types of paint, canvas with different textures. Once I knew what tools I had available, I knew automatically what to look for in the horses. That knowledge was part of me, because I grew up showing hunters and jumpers. I knew each division, the appropriate tack. I can see a good shoeing job, because I went to farrier school and was shoeing my family’s horses at one point. A lot of clients don’t realize I know so much about horses and that I can ride. They’re usually very surprised.”
When asked if she had a bucket list of horses to paint, Sharon said, “I’ve painted the best horses already — like Ovation, the most winning junior hunter ever. I painted him life-sized with all his ribbons. A few years ago, I painted him wearing a cooler with Tori Colvin. I remember McLain Ward when he was going to his first Grand Prix as a little kid with his father — I ended up painting McLain and HH Carlos Z.”
Sharon has six to 10 paintings in the works at any given time. Grey horses, especially older ones whose coats are mostly white, take especially long to dry between layers. The average timeline to deliver a portrait is 10 to 12 months.
“I have so many clients, I paint every day — if I take two days off from painting, it messes up my whole schedule,” said Sharon. “I work on a section of one painting and go to another. It keeps my eye fresh and also keeps my palette from getting blah. By switching to other canvases, it brings new colors in and when I go back to a painting, it introduces new colors to that painting. I paint all night until 5 or 6 in the morning and I sleep maybe 5 to 6 hours. I play volleyball and spend time with my horses. I don’t ride because I’m the type that if I’m going to show, it has to be the best shows or not at all. So I have horses that turned into pets.”
Sharon runs an LLC business and her husband is an integral part of it. “George does everything so I can just paint,” she said. “He does all the bookkeeping and payroll, all the ordering, receiving and framing. He helps me stretch canvases, because most of my paintings are large and I can’t do it by myself. When I’m done with a painting, I hand it to him. When I see it again, it’s framed and ready to be photographed. Then George prepares the wooden crate for it and ships it. From paperwork to shipping, he does everything.”
“I just love painting good jumping pictures — big, up close, really detailed so you can see sparkles in their eyes and reflections in the bit,” said Sharon. “I paint non-stop and the paintings come and go, but there are some where I think, Wow, I really enjoyed painting this one. That’s how I feel about my painting of Emerald and Harrie Smolders. It’s going to be on the cover of the program for Washington International Horse Show. It’s really colorful. The horse’s knees are to his cheeks. I put flags in the background. I really love that painting.”
Sharon’s the first to admit she’s come a long way since those years between horses and art. Her children are grown. She has two grandchildren. Her father passed, but her mother, who took Sharon and her sister to shows and ran the barn, is a proud great-grandmother.
“It’s funny how life can change,” said Sharon. “When I was in the boonies, selling ads, I kept wondering Why the heck my life was with horses if this is all there is? but one day, the combination of knowing horses and painting just came together. My life has been incredibly blessed. I absolutely love to paint horses and, God willing, I will keep painting until the day I die.”