Watercolor painter Misha Lenn, 44, who immigrated to the United States from St. Petersburg in 1990, admits he does not know how to ride a horse. He has been on horseback twice in his life: as an 8-year-old boy and, more recently, on a trip to Jamaica.
Still, his dreamy illustrations of horsemen and young women in elegant open-back gowns are the images this year on official Kentucky Derby accessories and souvenirs: posters, tickets, program covers, shot glasses, tote bags.
To be the artist for the Kentucky Derby, it helps to have been an artist for the Westminster Dog Show, as Lenn was in 2004 and 2005.
When Lenn arrived in America, first in Brighton, then Brookline, he earned about $6,000 a year painting. He supplemented his income playing piano in restaurants.
“They were tough years,” Lenn said. “People had to feed me. Everybody told me that I won’t survive and it was really hard to overcome that.”
But art pulled through in the end. Lenn’s paintings have been commissioned by the Boston Ballet and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and have appeared on Godiva chocolate boxes and the cover of John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl.” He has also worked as a fashion illustrator for Calvin Klein.
He created his Kentucky Derby images after studying horses in books, magazines, on television — and in real life.
Lenn maintains that it’s not always necessary for an artist to have first hand knowledge of a subject. Most important, he said, is what an artist sees in his mind.
“I once had an exhibition called ‘The city where I’ve never been,’ ” he said. “I drew Paris, I drew Rome. I drew something I heard of, that I dreamed of, that I was imagining. I went to different places only to confirm if it fit an image in my mind. Sometimes it’s not what I’m imagining.”
Clare Jett, president of Jett Stream Productions, which selects the annual Derby artist, said Lenn is the first Boston-area painter chosen since the tradition started in the late 1980s.
“His work is totally different. It is very stylish and decorative,” Jett said.
Lenn was off to his first Kentucky Derby last Tuesday. He said he was betting on horse No. 9 — the one that wins the race in one of his paintings.