BRISTOL – A stunning winter day reveals itself outside Sarah Lynn Richards’ loft studio.

The mid-morning sun masks the biting cold and coats the white landscape in a sheet of light. Richards peers out across a snow-covered field that is smoothed into a slight arc by the wind but otherwise unblemished. A stand of trees frames her view on one side, and a well-proportioned horse barn anchors her view on the other.

It is a tranquil setting, and classically idyllic. It’s also the reason Richards gave up a career in psychotherapy — not so much for this view (although that certainly is part of it), but so she could stay home, tend to her horse and do what she feels called to do, which is create equestrian art in watercolors.

Richards, 42, painted the image on the poster for this year’s Derby Festival, which is part of the annual celebration of the Kentucky Derby.

Richards has experienced great success as an artist, and her work is sold in galleries across the country. But being named the official artist of the Kentucky Derby is something else. She hopes the exposure she receives will help her become as well-known in Maine as she is across horse country, where autograph seekers stand in line for her signature, journalists wait their turn for an interview and collectors compete to buy an original painting.

“It’s actually overwhelming,” Richards said last week as she prepared for a busy few months leading up to the Derby in May. “I’m hoping this brings some recognition. I expect that it will. My work is out there quite a bit, but not so much in Maine. I feel like now it’s starting to come home a little bit.”

Richards went to Kentucky in January for the official Derby Festival Poster Premiere, at which her artwork was unveiled. She signed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of posters. Makers Mark, a Kentucky bourbon distillery, even named a drink in her honor, the Richards Cherry Ale, which the artist described as “pretty boozy.”

Richards is the daughter of watercolorist Lyn Snow, who paints flowers and operates a successful gallery in Rockland. She has loved horses since she was a young girl, and loved painting nearly as long, thanks to the influence of her mom.

She remembers riding a horse at age 5, and began drawing them in fifth grade. “Fifth-grade math class was all about drawing horses,” Richards said. “Sorry, Mr. Allen.”

She went to school to help others, and earned a master’s degree in psychotherapy. She had a good counseling career going in the 1990s when her art career beckoned.

It was 1997, and Richards was chosen to paint the poster for Equitana, an equestrian trade show and fair, which happened to be in Kentucky that year. It was produced by the same folks who now produce the Derby Festival.

Richards entered and won a contest to create the show poster. “That was the start of a lot of things,” she said. “I got a lot of exposure, and things really started rolling.”

People attending the show not only bought the poster but Richards’ original paintings. She and her then-fiance, now-husband Todd sold every painting they brought from Maine to the show.

Stunned by the response, they came home to Maine and seriously re-evaluated their lives. Many things happened fast after that. They got married, for starters. Soon after, Richards quit her job as a counselor to concentrate on her painting.

It was a wrenching decision. “Do I stay home and push aside this career that I have worked hard at and earned a master’s degree in?” she asked.

After searching her soul, Richards answered that question in the affirmative. At first, she decided to put her counseling career on the back-burner. She would return to it if art did not work out.

But as we now know, her art worked out just fine — so well that Todd also quit his job and became his wife’s business partner and manager. She handles everything creative; he does most of the other work. An assistant, Carol Krajnik, also helps with framing.

Richards credits her husband for building her name and her art into a commercial brand. “Doing the painting is easy. What comes next is a lot of work, and Todd does it all.”

Their efforts culminated with her painting being chosen for the Derby Festival poster.

Richards actually created two images for the derby. One is the Derby Festival poster, a horizontal image that features three horses in her distinctive, soft style. The first is a thoroughbred race horse, running hard. The second is another thoroughbred with a bridle and saddle. The third is a vision of the winged horse Pegasus taking off; the pegasus is the symbol for the event.

Richards renders her paintings in a style that is loose and lively. She outlines her horses in thin lines of dark paint, and colors only portions of her animals, usually in purple, black and brown, with bits of gold paper here and there. She leaves most of her horses’ bodies uncolored, and concentrates on getting their proportions and positioning just right.

She can’t afford to have a leg out of place or a joint turned in an unnatural position. Horse lovers know the difference between right and wrong.

The Derby poster will be widely distributed and available on everything from T-shirts and tote bags to coffee mugs and julep glasses. A limited edition print of just the pegasus also is available.

Richards and her husband will return to Kentucky before the festival to participate in parades, parties, meet-and-greets and other events. Richards is training to participate in the Derby half-marathon as well.

She plans to immerse herself and do her best to soak up and enjoy everything. She will pinch herself when necessary.

“Everything is bigger down there. Everything is bigger,” she said. “I’ve signed stuff before, so I am used to that. But I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. This will be a whole other level for me.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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twitter.com/pphbkeyes