Artistic License: Tony O’Connor

Penny McCormick talks to artist TONY O’CONNOR about his inspirations, PAINTING FAMOUS HORSES and his exhibition at THE DOORWAY GALLERY


Anatomical precision, elegance and simplicity characterise Tony Connor’s work – as well as his unquenchable passion for painting horses. This fascination began at a young age working in a forge with his uncle and has since led to commissions to paint famous horses such as Olympian Greg Broderick’s MHS Going Global. HM The Queen as well Coolmore Stud are also some of his patrons. Of his new work O’Connor says, “Much of my work focuses on the balance between light and dark, about how much we hide, and how much we choose to reveal.”

Your love of horses is part of your family history I believe …

My grand uncle Mossie was the local blacksmith in our village and I have vivid memories of being in the forge with him when I was a child. It was so dark in there, the only light being a solitary dim bulb hanging from the rafters and the glow of the fire. My “job” was to turn the handle of the bellows and I took particular joy in seeing the red embers brighten and glow as sparks rose upwards to the darkness of the roof.

The smell of horse hair, the rasp of the file on their hooves, the thud of the hammer onto the malleable metal on the anvil are as fresh in my mind now as they were 30 years ago.

We closed the forge after Mossie passed away, but my love of horses only grew from then onwards. I think it must be a genetic memory that I work with horses, continuing the legacy of my ancestors, but in an entirely different field.


Tell us about the starting point for your latest exhibition at The Doorway Gallery.  

“Unbridled” started when I first met Galan – the gorgeous horse who inspired quite a number of paintings. When he moves, it just appears effortless and magical. To watch his mane flow and dance in his wake is a thing of beauty. I knew I wanted to capture some of his spirit on canvas.

The addition of the silks was a new venture for me. In my last show at The Doorway Gallery, a piece titled “Unconditional” featured a figure in a flowing dress and a sentinel horse. I really enjoyed the challenge of painting the material and felt I wanted to develop it more.

Do you paint horses from life or photography?

I work with a lot of very talented photographers, along with taking my own resource images and sketches. For the Galan images, I flew to Bremen to set up the photoshoot with Andrea Zachrau and Galan’s owner, Alexandra.

Drawing from life is essential, I think, if one wants to develop as an artist. I use photos once I’m back in the studio.


Your approach is a blend of anatomical detail as well as light and shade; how and where do you paint?

I have a tiny studio space in Cork city, but it’s warm, dry and most importantly, quiet. I get in there at 9am every morning and sketch or paint until 5.30pm.

I find having a disciplined routine is something I need. Sketches are started in the morning, paintings in the afternoon. I usually have four to six pieces on the go at any one time, in various states of progress.

I like doing “quick” pieces in acrylic, and keep the oils for the larger paintings. Twice the amount of brushes needed, and twice the risk of dipping a brush into a fresh cup of coffee instead of turps or water!

Do you own horses or ride yourself?

I ride, but not as often as I’d like. I’ve a pretty busy schedule. When I’m not in the studio I’m on dad duty and find a seven-year-old and ten-year-old do take up a lot of time.

We currently live in the city, but will be making the transition to the country this year (fingers crossed), when we do I plan on dusting down my riding boots and squeezing into the jodhpurs.


Have you painted any famous horses?

Yes, quite a few well known racehorses, Sea the Stars, Galileo, Moscow Flyer, for example. I do work for the ITBA (Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association) and for TRM Nutrition and they’ve commissioned many pieces for the likes of Coolmore Stud, Michael Owen and even HM Queen Elizabeth. I was also delighted to paint MHS Going Global for the Brodericks recently. However, for me, the horse is more than just a name. It can be a child’s pony or a world class champion, I see the beauty in all of them.

Need to Know: “Unbridled” opens tomorrow May 3 until May 24, at The Doorway Gallery, 24 South Frederick Street, Dublin 2;

Penny McCormick

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