Central Texas artist stays rooted in nature

Story by EMILY HILLEY-SIERZCHULA
Photos by JULIE NABOURS
and contributed by CRYSTAL ORLANDO

Wildlife artist Crystal Orlando

Many people have a common thread running throughout the quilt of their lives.

For one local artist, animals are the dominant motif. Crystal Orlando, of Moody, has nurtured a love of furry creatures her entire life, translating that affection into precise, realistic drawings.

Orlando’s renderings of animals like horses, longhorns and buffalo are inspired by her experiences and often rooted in true stories.

“I always have had strange encounters with animals,” Orlando said. As a young girl Orlando beckoned an entire flock of wild turkeys into her yard with a box caller, in the middle of the day, an occurrence astounding to any wild turkey hunter who has spent entire exhausting mornings trying to get one shy, wary tom to answer a call. “There’s a picture of me with my arms around a wild turkey.”

The unique experiences continued into adulthood.

She met Freddy Fox in an RV by the lake. “It startled me a little to see him sitting in the living room, watching me.

He was so curious and followed me around the rest of the day, returning to see me for about a year,” Orlando recalled. “One day he brought his girlfriend to meet me and I never saw him again.”

This rescued baby squirrel kept visiting Crystal Orlando for nearly a year.

Other animal encounters were more intense.

Orlando found a group of baby squirrels in a garage, their eyes barely open to the world. “I waited for their mother to return but it became clear they’d been abandoned. They climbed into my hands and later scarfed down kitten formula.”

No one wants baby squirrels running around the house, no matter how cute they are, so Orlando put them in a cage.

After being gone for a few hours, Orlando returned to find a huge rat snake in the cage. “It had already eaten the two brothers and was reared back ready to eat the sister,” Orlando said. “I grabbed her out of there and she climbed into my hoodie where she stayed. I had to wear it everywhere, and she was a good little friend for a long time. It didn’t occur to me until later that I didn’t even know what kind of snake it was before sticking my hand in there!”

One of the artist’s horse drawings.

First loves: art and horses

Orlando is a self-taught artist who started scribbling away when she was quite young.

“My mom was a commercial artist so she showed me the ropes and encouraged me,” Orlando said. “I had no formal drawing classes so I learned through experimentation. I always have felt experimentation through play was important.”

She admitted to being hardheaded, not entirely absorbing techniques her mom was trying to teach. All she knew is drawing made her happy so she kept doing it.

“It was challenging and I enjoyed having control over my work when nothing else was in control. Early on I learned sometimes you just have to give it up to God.”

As a home-schooled kid with a flexible schedule, Orlando had opportunities to draw horses as she was learning to ride, and they became a mainstay in her life.

A colorful image of an Indian chief.
A colorful image of an Indian chief.

The results of early art competitions increased her confidence as she racked up first place ribbons and Best of Show awards. Still, animals kept tugging away at her heart and led her to earn her associate degree in equine science and to become a horse trainer with a goal of continuing in veterinary medicine. “I would have been a good vet, but I wanted to travel, to see the world, and vets often are married to their offices,” Orlando said.

She draws and paints what she loves, what is inspirational, and what she admires, she said. A familiar subject for Orlando is the always-elegant horse.

As a horse trainer, Orlando learned to look into the deep dark brown of horses’ eyes, a mirror to their personalities just as in people. “I once had an Arabian mare who put her head in my lap and drank half my coke; from then on, she had to have it. She wanted to understand me as much as I wanted to understand her.”

Undefeated by Crystal Orlando

Another steady subject in her drawings are buffalo, which she became enamored with while visiting Wyoming and finding herself in the midst of a herd of thousands. Amazed, Orlando crawled out onto the hood of her Jeep, camera in hand, when one turned and looked her directly in the eye. “I froze like a hood ornament; but that moment inspired ‘Dance with Me.’ They have this enormous power, and a magical essence about them. Of course, I don’t recommend such close encounters because bison can kill you easily.”

Anyone who knows Orlando understands the role animals have in her life and artwork.

Kay Griffith, owner of Griffith Fine Art Gallery in Salado, has sold Orlando’s original graphite drawings for 12 years, seeing firsthand the reactions from art aficionados. “Customers always remark about the beauty of the drawing and the skill of the artist,” Griffith said. One of the attention-getters is Orlando’s knack for interpreting the emotions of wild animals.

“Crystal has a deep and abiding connection with nature and wildlife in particular,” Griffith said, adding that Orlando is known for observing and studying animals. “She’s passionate about excelling in art and giving the viewer glimpses into a particular animal’s mood.”

A unique technique

Artists sometimes keep irregular hours because creative juices can flow at any time, but this mom of two is generally a day artist. Orlando has a workspace in her Moody home, but she often works at her studio in Temple in the early morning hours before work. “I need to be able to work without my baby girl saying, ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy…’” she said, laughing.

Mothers are masters of multi-tasking, and Orlando is no different. “Daycare is a real blessing,” she said.

One reason she found ways to speed up her work was to be able to have those special times when it’s all about her kids. Another reason was to respond to demand.

A wall showcases Crystal Orlando’s work in her studio..

As a rookie artist, she said she took “way too long to complete a drawing.”

“Hundreds of hours sometimes, and you can’t make a good living that way,” she said.

With her toddler close by, Orlando experimented day and night to develop her signature technique of combining powdered graphite and charcoal, which enabled her to make more drawings. “It was a huge learning curve to figure it out,” she said. The charcoal adds depth to graphite, which tends to be shiny at the darkest tones. Blending the two media can be tricky but she thinks it leads to a more balanced composition.

Orlando has two totally different types of clients for her two disparate styles: black-and-white wildlife renderings in graphite and charcoal, and ultra-colorful, vivid paintings with Native American motifs like chiefs in profile with long headdresses.

“My paintings are pure play, pure imagination,” Orlando said. “I lie awake in bed thinking about color and design.”

Crystal Orlando, above, begins a sketch from a photograph submitted to her.

Her ink-and-acrylic paintings are more spontaneous than her drawings. “I like to work free and fast, but I have to be mentally ready. I often have already been dwelling on it for a few days before getting started. You can’t rush it or push it,” she said, adding that she can work on drawings in any mood, day or night.” Orlando often has multiple drawings in progress at once. “I’m always moving forward, even if it’s just by one stroke.”

For Orlando drawing is akin to breathing.

“I’m so comfortable with my skill that it’s like riding a bike. It comes without having to think about it now,” she said. “I have to be constantly creative or I feel stressed and unbalanced. I could be doing laundry while ideas are swirling around in my brain.”

What is the most challenging part of her life as an artist?

“Figuring out what to draw or paint next,” Orlando said. “I can never finish them all in a lifetime, but it’s exciting to be able to do what I love.”

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