How to Paint a Realistic Horse Like an Artist

Painting horses is where it all started for me. I took on my first commission when I was sixteen which was of a dapple grey welsh pony that I drew in graphite. Throughout high school and college I refused to draw anything else! It was only after university that I started to branch out and focus more on my wildlife for non-commissioned work.

As a self-taught artist I have learnt through trial and error what helps make a successful horse portrait. Painting horses is much different to painting any other animal- especially the big cats that I’m used to that need a greater amount of texture.

When I paint horses, they’re usually on a small to medium scale that means a lot of the individual hair detail isn’t very visible. When you can’t fall back on an intricate level of detail to create a sense of realism, making sure you have matched the colours and tones of you subject becomes even more important.

In this blog I’ll be showing you step-by-step how I created a 8” x 10” acrylic painting on canvas of a chestnut horse. This was a commissioned piece but hopefully you will pick up a few ideas that will help you with your own work in the future.

Subscribe to the Studio Wildlife Youtube Channel to watch videos of our process. You can see the full process of creating this horse painting in this video below:

The Blocking-In Stage

Like a lot of my paintings I started off with the eye, first of all outlining the basic shape using carbon black. Being prey animals, horses have oval shaped pupils- unlike a lot of the wildlife subjects that I choose which have more of a round shape. I then used burnt umber for the rest of the eye and a grey mix for the reflections. I then used more of the same grey to map out the skin surrounding the eye.

Painting the Eye

When all of the darkest tones were in place I then added a few lighter grey highlights to pick out some areas near the tear ducts and also to give more dimension to the iris. Once the eye was in place I then started to block in the basic bone structure surrounding the eye using raw umber. I followed this with raw sienna for the mid tones and finally a raw sienna and white mix for the highlights. I’m keeping things very soft and blended at this stage as I’m just adding the foundations for the details to be build on top later.

I’m using a small angle brush for this stage and keeping the paint fairly thin so that it flows and blends easily. I’m also using an old frayed round brush for some of the larger areas. This is why I very rarely throw away brushes as there always seems to be a use for them even- if it’s what they weren’t initially intended for!

I then moved on to blocking in the ears, using pretty much the same process as when I was working on the area around the eye. I’ve also added some burnt sienna to these areas to bring some more richness to the chestnut colouring. I’m sticking mostly to the angle brush rather than the round brush to this as I can create sharper lines with this brush and give more definition to the shape of the ear. For the lighter areas of the mane I’m using raw sienna mixed with some white for the highlights and burnt sienna for the shadows.

Moving onto the head I am switching between using the old frayed round brush for the main areas of the forehead and then the angle brush for marking in the sharper outlines towards the outline of the horse. I’m still keeping the paint fairly thin at this stage as I’m just mapping out the basic tones to build the basic structure of the horse.

To begin the neck and the cheekbones I’m still aiming just to block in the basic areas of colour. The colour of the cheekbone on this horse was very rich, so I’ve swapped to the mars orange from Arteza for this section of the painting. This is a new favourite colour of mine that I’ve started incorporating into some of my most recent works- it’s also great for tigers especially! I’ve then overlaid this with burnt umber for the shadowed areas.

For the muzzle area I just used a very basic black and white mix, and adjusting the ratio according to the tone I want for a particular area. I then started introducing the mars orange and white mix and start to blend the greys into the chestnut colouring of the fur higher up.

As I block in the neck I used the same colour combinations and the same round brush. There weren’t really any sharply defined areas in this section like there were on the face, so I didn’t really need to use the angle brush. I work quite quickly in the blocking in stage so then I can still blend the different colours into each other for a blended base coat. I then just carried on with this process for the rest of the neck and the shoulder area.

The Details

Now that the basic block in is in place I moved on to a more detailed layer. This time I used a small detail brush to pick out some of the individual lighter hairs around the ears. For the forelock I used a raw sienna and white mix for the highlights and a burnt umber and black mix for the shadows.

I didn’t use pure black for the shadows as I still want these areas to tie in with the warm tones that make up this horse’s chestnut colouring. Next I used an angle brush and detail brush to define the top of the horse’s head. I wanted to keep the detail fairly soft looking so I occasionally glaze over the detail with the round brush to blend some of the individual hairs back.

For the neck and cheek areas I still used the same frayed round brush that I used for the block in, just with a little more care and trying to match the colours more closely. The main colours I used in this section were mars orange and yellow ochre, mixed with varying amounts of white to match the tones. For the veins I used a detail brush with some thinned out burnt umber to give a bit more definition to these areas, then adding a layer of small lighter hairs in-between.

For the details around the muzzle I added some additional darker and lighter tones following the folds of the skin using a detail brush. I also worked more on building a seamless blend between the chestnut fur higher up and the more grey tones of the skin around the muzzle. I wanted to keep this looking soft so again I just used the old round brush for this.

For the final details on the neck I used an angle brush and applied mostly yellow ochre mixed with white. To keep the details looking soft I’ve thinned the paint a little with water, as this allowed me to blend the paint work more easily into the dried layer of paint in the previous layer.

Final Thoughts – and Tips!

The Finished Painting!

Even though I have had the most experience painting horses, I still find that they are one of the most difficult animal subjects to get right. I think it is because they are both soft and angular at the same time. You’ve got the very defined shapes of the eye socket, cheek bone etc. combined with the very soft textures of the muzzle, and also the mane and tail.

Also, as horses tend to have short to medium length coats it can be quite difficult to strike the balance between incorporating detail into the fur whilst it also appearing short and not too streaked.

I think it’s very easy to over-detail horse fur so that it loses its sheen and looks a bit flat. So I tend to use quite worn out angle and round brushes to make very subtle marks in the direction in the fur.

The older brushes are a bit softer and a little frayed, and if you stroke them quite lightly on the canvas you can make marks that don’t end up to uniform or defined. Having said that, you’ll probably be better using more pointed detail brushes for longer hairs such as those found in the mane and tail.

The main thing to keep doing, as you would with any subject, is keep checking back to your reference and making sure you are using the right brushes for the textures in the section you are working on. Whilst it’s tempting to dive straight into the painting, it’s always pays off to spend longer observing your subject before you do!

Thank you for reading and I hope you find this useful for your next horse painting! If you have any questions please leave a comment below and we will get back to you.

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