Scotland Artist finds inspiration for her ‘happy horses’ in music

Source: Text by Katie Navarra • Photos by Shirley MacArthur

Sleep can be elusive. It can be fitful and rejuvenating. For Shirley MacArthur sleep is an incubator of ideas for her artwork. When her head hits the pillow and she closes her eyes, visions of horses, dogs and hairy highland cows dance in her head.

“I go to sleep with paintings in my head that I want to create,” she said. “And I wake up excited to create them.”

The 50-year-old, artist from North Berwick, Scotland drew and painted from the time she was old enough to hold a pencil and paintbrush. As a child, she never experienced the feeling of boredom because whenever she had free time, she was drawing something.

Music was always the muse that inspired her to paint. As a teenager, she wore headphones that played Van Halen and Motley Crue.

“Music is my partnership for my paintings,” she said. “They just wouldn’t be the same without it.”

Today, she continues to find inspiration in music, but has expanded her playlist to include Steve Earle, Bob Harris and modern country music.

Clients can hire MacArthur to paint a portrait of their horses and dogs, but in recent years her “happy horse” style has gained in popularity. In 2010, she made a conscious decision to focus on what she describes as a soft, happy, friendly expression in her work. “Happy Dave,” a brightly colored horse with an oversized nose, was the first of this new style that she created.

The bold playful colors and the animated expression portrayed in any one of her “happy style” pieces never fail to elicit a smile from viewers. Once the “happy” style paintings, were listed for sale, she said that sales have picked up and she’s never been busier.

From cheeky hairy highland cattle, to expressive animal portraits and a collection of brightly colored “happy” and “nosey” barnyard animals promise a lighter mood and content heart.

Early career

Attending art school after high school was out of the question. She didn’t believe it was a financially sustainable career. Instead, she accepted an office job working in insurance. Before long she realized it wasn’t a good fit. Even though her husband worked in construction and finances were tight, he encouraged her to leave her job and pursue her work as an artist.

“Whenever I was about to give up and look for a job with better money, he always encouraged me to keep going,” she said.

In 1992, she embarked on her career as an artist. She started exhibiting at craft fairs selling sketches, cards and knitted jumpers that she designed. Then in 2000, her daughter Bess began horseback riding and often rode on Seacliff Beach in East Lothian, Scotland.

“The movement of the horses was so beautiful. I took photos and started to paint them,” she said.

Her paintings capture the majesty and joy that horses bring to people, but her feet are firmly planted on the ground. She had never formally learned to ride until her daughter started riding at a friend’s stable. Sports came naturally to her and she expected riding would too. But for some reason she didn’t quite get the hang of it.

At the barn, she was matched with a horse named, Donovan, who was infamous for being paired with great riders. He supposedly had taught each one a valuable lesson. During one ride, she veered one way and Donovan the other as they were galloping in a field. She landed in the soft field and fortunately had no injuries.

“I’d been riding him for a while and knew him quite well,” she said. “He was teaching me my lesson – that I’m a horse artist, not a horse rider.”

She hung up her boots, except for a riding holiday at Robert Redford’s Sundance Mountain Resort in Sundance, Utah. The horseback vacation was the achievement of a lifetime goal. “It was beautiful, stunning and truly inspirational,” she said.

Although she no longer rides, she stays connected with horses through her family and friends and the clients that commission her work.

An artist’s evolution

A series of black Friesian horse paintings were her first foray into equine art. She started with black pastels and worked exclusively in that medium. A pastel is sort of a cross between a stick of chalk and a crayon. They are known for being used to create vibrant art.

“I learned everything from my pastels,” she said. “I now work in pastels, gouache, watercolor and acrylics depending on the size of the painting.”

Seven years ago she made a deliberate choice to change the tone of her artwork. From that change, “Happy Dave,” a brightly colored horse with an oversized nose, was born. “Happy Horses” spurred the subsequent “Nosey Dog,” “Nosey Cow,” and “Hairy Highland Cattle” that are distinctive in the use of bright colors and lifelike expressions that create an uplifting and energetic vibe.

“I just couldn’t resist creating soft, loving animals,” she said.

Even though the happy themed artwork is most popular among clients, she is still enraptured by one of Europe’s oldest horse breeds, the Friesian horse.

“I have so many more I want to do,” she said.

A fulfilling career

MacArthur said it was never part of her plan to be a full-time artist. Painting was something she chose to do on a day off from work. But once her work started selling online, she pursued her passion and never looked back.

“I got to work from home while my kids were at school so I was always there for them,” she said. “That was the best thing about it all.”

In part, she credits author Paulo Coelho and his novel, The Alchemist, for finding a new outlook on life. Through reading the Alchemist she realized that her own life was a journey and that she had to enjoy it. The novel tells the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreamt of exotic travel to find rich treasure. The treasures Santiago finds along the way teaches readers, about the essential wisdom of listening to one’s heart, learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and following dreams.

“I realized my own life had no awareness about me being on a journey and that book was a self-discovery on how to awaken to my own life as a journey and enjoy it,” she said. “I met people and places I probably wouldn’t have noticed before.”

For the first time in MacArthur’s career, she has a waiting list for commissioned work.

“I think that means I must be doing OK,” she said. “I am always so grateful that I have customers who want to buy my artwork.”

When a client commissions her work, she works directly from photographs submitted from around the world. And clients are moved by her work. Customer Dave Bowen hired MacArthur to paint a portrait of the family dog that had passed on. In an online review Bowen posted, “It is simply stunning, you have captured every aspect of our wonderful boy perfectly….and those eyes! It is him staring lovingly back at us as he always used to.”

“When customers give me feedback and say that their painting makes them smile every time they look at it, then I’ve achieved what I wanted to contribute to artwork – to make people smile,” she said.

Horses, highland cows and dogs are the main subjects for all her commissioned work. The most requested styles are the “happy horse” and “nosey dog.” She recently finished a large highland cow painting for a family of seven. The painting depicts seven highland cows in a row, each one depicting a member of the family.

When working on pieces born from her creativity, she works from photographs she has taken and other images she has seen. She chooses an expression, for example the softness of an eye, from one and the color from another and puts it all together to create a unique piece of art.

Artist Shirley MacArthur

“I now feel very blessed because I love my work and life,” she said. “I’m not hugely successful financially, but feel very wealthy nonetheless.”




Shirley MacArthur’s original paintings and prints can be found at, on EBay UK and Amazon UK. She recently started selling on offers print-on-demand as well and she sells prints through that site.


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