Painting is vet's perfect way to switch off after a mare of a day at work
The long, dark winter evenings are a time when equine vet Paul Hallum swaps his stethoscope for a paintbrush, producing beautiful pieces of equestrian art.
Undoubtedly what makes his paintings unique is his insider knowledge – his visual understanding is informed by biological and physiological awareness of musculature as well as tendon and bone structure, and above all by a profound appreciation and delight in a horse's movement.
"Being a vet and an artist combine really well," says Paul, who works as an equine vet at Calweton Equine in Callington, Cornwall, and commutes from his picturesque farmhouse in Thorn Moor near Lifton, West Devon.
Surrounded by his paintings in his living room, you feel every inch a part of what is going on – be it the showjumper's forelegs in mid-flight or the head and neck shot of the black Andalusian working well at piaffe – and you quickly appreciate that all Paul's paintings are "bits" of a horse.
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"I like to capture a piece," he says. "I could be looking through Horse & Hound magazine, for instance, and see just a shoulder or feet or even part of a head and think I like that, that is what I want to paint." And after many hours working in his studio at the bottom of the garden they come to life.
"There are lots of people that can paint a horse and so I don't really go for that," he adds. "Mine tend to be a bit more bits and pieces. I guess if you paint for long enough you develop a style without even knowing it.
"I like to think of them being alive still rather than just a picture, and that is why it is good to capture a piece of them as they look like they are still moving."
His focus is mainly on competition horses (Hanoverians in particular) and, not surprisingly perhaps, he breeds from them – he has seven – and competes in dressage when time allows.
"It definitely helps being a vet as you can see when things don't look right or aren't in perspective."
And yes, he is a perfectionist. Every chosen frozen movement is scrutinised until he deems it right.
"Everyone can paint to some degree but I think you have to nurture people when they are small," says Paul, who picked up his paintbrush as a small boy. "You have to develop your skills, but I feel too many people are put off painting, particularly in adulthood, as they think they will be laughed at during their early attempts – but we all start like that."
He did art to GCSE level at school, but as he wanted to be a vet he was driven to do specific subjects.
"Anyway I didn't really like the structured kind of A-level art – I do it because I enjoy it, not because I want to get a grade in it. In fact it was the worse grade I got in my GCSEs!"
He adds: "As a boy, my father pointed out to me that there was no point in being a painter as a profession as you only made money when you were dead, so he always told me to do it because you enjoy it and that is true, I do."
While painting is his hobby, he admits it would be nice to have an income attached to it, "but that's not why I do it".
"If you did it as your day job you would lose some of the enjoyment. I tend to paint when I feel I want to, although I do try and commit to doing something every day."
When working on a commission, Paul admits that it can be a bit stressful, particularly if you are up against a deadline. "Getting rid of the stress is the very reason why I paint in the first place, so I can do without it."
Most of his commissions tend to be of classic headshots or the horse in full. "It's nice to do financially but it's not so exciting for me," adds Paul, who has since developed a website for selling prints of his own work. He points to a headshot of a black Andalusian stallion. "That one took me over 40 hours to do. When I finish my paintings, I feel I've looked at them for so long I'm usually glad to get rid of them, but I don't want to sell this one, hence I've started to do prints."
On his life as an equine vet, Paul admits he is constantly thinking of the next challenge or emergency that he will have to deal with.
"You don't switch off at all and when on you're on call it's the same. My painting allows me to go into a place I don't have to think about being a vet anymore. I think you need that kind of release valve as it is a very highly stressed job. It is very enjoyable too but it is difficult to leave it at work – we work long hours and are on call regularly – I think that's why the profession has a high suicide rate as people don't necessarily have that shut-off."
In the summer Paul says he can go out and spend two hours after work just watching and working the horses. "That's the equivalent really. In winter I leave in the dark and come home in the dark and you think all you do is work, sleep and eat, so that's why I push myself to paint.
"For me it's the perfect answer; you can shut yourself off, even if it means you end up spending half an hour with the brush in your mouth staring at the painting – that's all you need to do really if it takes your mind off things."
On his horses at home, Paul admits it is a pleasure to have them around.
"I enjoy the breeding side of it and do the artificial insemination myself so the mares don't have to go anywhere," he explains. "It's lovely to look out of the window and see the mares and foals – it's kind of why you go to work really."
Due to work commitments he only competes at unaffiliated dressage. "I don't think you can compete realistically unless you can devote a lot of time to it and my job means I can't," he says. "But I do love the sport – the high-level horses are just poetry in motion; that is why I like watching them and aspire to that."
So while we are still in the depths of winter, it's many happy hours of painting for Paul, but as soon as the nights draw out again he'll call it a day. "It's definitely my winter pursuit. If I can't work with horses all the time then what better to look at them and paint them."
For more examples of Paul's work you can visit his new website www.onthebridleequestrianart.co.uk